Monday, May 27, 2013

What to Expect When Getting a Tattoo

Just remember, short is the pain, long is the ornament.

 If you have a tattoo, what is the most common question you are asked by people who do not have a tattoo?  For me, it has been "does it hurt?".  It is a tattoo... of course it hurts!  Those who have never been tattooed either over-estimate or under-estimate the pain.  There are few experiences like getting a tattoo, and most people have no idea what to expect, especially when getting their first.  While the pain is the foremost item on most peoples' minds, there are other things you should expect when getting a tattoo.

 Tattooing is a unique business, but it is a business.  By this, I mean that when you walk into a tattoo studio, you are still a customer.  Tattoo artists can be a little rough around the edges... it just comes with the industry.  Tattoo artists tend to be down-to-earth, no nonsense, free-spirited types that don't necessarily follow standard conventions.  Tattoo Artists can be a little uncouth and intimidating at first glance.  This is actually rarely the case, but tattoo artists do tend to be "different".  Regardless, you are a customer patronizing a business.  You should expect some common courtesies.

 When you walk into a studio, you should expect to be greeted by at least one of the artists or an employee hired to handle the public-area and the register.  They should engage you in a conversation about the reason for your visit (not every person who walks into a tattoo studio is looking for a tattoo), and should provide some guidance to facilitate your visit. 

 If you are ignored, simply leave.  Your business is most certainly wanted elsewhere.

 If you know what you want, they will talk to you about your tattoo, discuss with you your idea or the design you want, invite you to look at artist-portfolios, and suggest an initial price.  If you indicate that you are just looking for the moment, they will invite to look at the art on their walls, their portfolios, and let you know that they are available to answer any questions.

 Then, they will leave you alone.

 This is a little different than what you might expect in other sales-environments.  There is no pressure in the typical tattoo studio.  This is because while the artist does want your business, he also knows that getting a tattoo should not be an impulse purchase (though this happens frequently).  When you are ready or have additional questions, the artist or person attending you will be nearby.  After you have had time to browse, the artist may strike-up a conversation, but their should be little pressure to get you to make a decision and certainly no pressure for you to leave.  If anything, the tattoo artist asking you questions is meant to help solidify both what it is you might want and what the artist is capable of doing.

 You should expect the tattoo studio to be clean, inviting, and the artists and employees to be friendly in a no-nonsense manner.  You should not expect to feel like you are unwelcome, a common experience some customers feel when the lifestyle of being a tattoo artist has gone to the heads of the artists in a shop and its employees.  Again, tattooing is a non-standard industry, and there is a kind of cultural romanticism involved in the image of the tattoo artist.  The adoration and awe that is expressed by some customers can over-inflate the egos of those in the shop, leading the artist to think that you are there for their convenience, not the other way around.  If you get this feeling and it seems persistent (not just the initial feeling of entering, for some, what is an alien environment), you will probably be better served seeking another shop, especially if later on you might want to trouble your artist for advice about your tattoo while it heals.

 Professionals are available for their customers and respect the relationship between the artist and client.  "Rock-stars" only have time to be paid or to receive the adoration of their "fans".  

 The tattoo studio is its own little world in many ways.  The artists and employees may be in the studio 12 hours a day or more, and often at least 5 days a week.  Unlike other work environments, however, much of that is "down-time", waiting on customers, maintaining equipment, and simply socializing with your co-workers.  Given that this is where they are the majority of their time and that there is little other opportunity for social-interaction, the tattoo studio can seem a little like a club-house.  This can be positive or negative.  If the employees and artists are attentive to the customers and freely include them in their conversations and occasional shenanigans, then this can make the tattoo experience more positive.  If conversations and the goings-on of the studio make the employees and artists inattentive to their customers or make their customers uncomfortable, then obviously this leads to a bad customer experience.  

 Tattoo studios should be populated by tattoo artists, employees of the studio, and customers.  Friends and family should only be visiting occasionally, and their stay should be short.  A tattoo studio is not a club, it is not a hang-out, and it is not a day-care.  Studio-based tattoo artists often and loudly criticize those artists who work out of their homes.  The studio should not be transformed into their home-away-from-home.  It should be a place of business.

Doing this takes practice.
 You should expect your tattoo artist to be knowledgeable about tattooing and the tattoo process.  A tattoo artist should freely, honestly, and openly discuss what safety protocols are being followed, cleaning and sterilization techniques, common risks related to getting a tattoo, and how they recommend caring for the tattoo during the healing process.  Tattoo artists will generally not discuss everything about how to do a tattoo.  There is some information that is reserved for those paying to learn to be a tattoo artist (although, honestly, most of this information is freely available on the 'net).

 The tattoo artist may be willing to negotiate the price of a tattoo, but do not assume that the artist can be talked down to whatever price you wish to pay.  On average, an artist in a shop is only earning half the price charged for a tattoo (the rest goes to the shop).  Also, be mindful when negotiating your tattoo price or otherwise discussing your tattoo with your artist that in many ways this is not a typical business.  The customer is not always right.  In fact, more often than not the customer is wrong, and needs to be educated by the tattoo artist.  If you become disrespectful or belligerent, even to a slight degree, you risk being escorted out of the studio.  Being the kind of people they are, a tattoo artist will often pass on doing a tattoo if it means having to deal with someone they perceive as belligerent or disrespectful.

 You will be expected to provide proof that you are of legal age in your state to receive a tattoo.  The requirement for this documentation is usually a photo ID which the studio may photocopy for their records along with your information and information about your tattoo (what, where, and who performed it).  You will also be required to sign a document absolving the tattoo studio and the artist of any responsibility for you or your tattoo.

 Let me state that again.

 You will be required to sign a document absolving the tattoo studio and the artist of any responsibility for you or your tattoo.  This document will explain, briefly, what a tattoo is, that a tattoo is painful, that a tattoo is a voluntary procedure, that getting a tattoo can have many short-term and long-term risks, and that YOU are fully aware of those risks and accept all responsibility for them.

 If you get sick, or get an infection, you are responsible.

 If you do not like your tattoo, whether because you changed your mind or because your artist did not do a good job, you are responsible.

 A tattoo studio and tattoo artist are required only to meet the minimum safety standards regarding the process of applying a tattoo to the skin, including maintaining a clean environment and using sterile tools.  Everything else; the talent of the tattoo artist, your potential allergic reaction to the ink, the risk of infection with a tattoo even if it is well cared for, is all on you.  Complaining to the state about these issues will at most result in a health and safety inspection of the tattoo studio, something that, while not always welcome, most tattoo studios are well-prepared for.  The greater concern for a tattoo studio is having their reputation sullied by a customer unsatisfied with the tattoo, and while a studio may go to great lengths to help make an unsatisfied customer happy, those lengths rarely involve a refund.

 After all, you signed a document stating you understood and accepted all the risks involved with getting a tattoo.

 Expect to pay for the tattoo in advance, even if paying an hourly rate.  Prices are generally $50-$100 an hour, with most studios having a minimum fee of $25-$50.  Contrary to what is suggested by the uniformed, a tattoo is not achieved by simply "drawing on the skin".  This is a common argument offered by someone while negotiating a price who balks at paying hundreds of dollars for the art.  First of all, even if it were just a drawing "on" the skin, your price is buying not only the tattoo, but the skills, talents, and experience of the artist providing the tattoo.  Thousands of hours have gone into his or her training.  If it really is just a drawing "on" the skin, get yourself a tattoo machine and do it yourself... or have that kid down the street do it.

 You will get what you pay for.

 Second, you are also getting professional quality inks and the use of professional equipment.  You are getting access to an environment and processes that meet at least the minimum stringent safety and cleanliness standards set by your state.  You are also getting access to professional advice and guidance.

 Finally, this will be something that will be IN your skin potentially for the rest of your life.  If you want to invest your spare-change in something of that nature, I reiterate: you get what you pay for.

 You are most often welcome, even encouraged, to bring someone with you while you get your tattoo.  Usually though, space constraints and safety concerns limit the number of observers during the tattoo to no more than 2 additional people.  Having a crowd hang-out in the foyer or the studio's backroom is also generally frowned upon.  Bring your bff, but don't bring everyone from your knitting circle.

 The tattoo artist will try to make you as comfortable as possible when arranging you in the chair or on the table, but his or her concern is primarily putting you in a position that makes doing the tattoo as easy as possible.  The more difficulty the artist has in getting to where you want the tattoo, the more mistakes that can happen.  Be prepared to have arms and legs go numb, to experience muscle-cramps, and to have painful stiffness in places no where near the tattoo simply from having to be in an awkward position for several hours.

 For intimate tattoos, or if your concerned about the noises you might make while getting a tattoo, most studios have stations that afford greater privacy.

 It is helpful to have eaten something about an hour or 2 prior to getting your tattoo.  The adrenaline rush from the anticipation of getting a tattoo and the endorphins produced during the process burn through blood-sugars, resulting in light-headiness and sometimes fainting.  Having eaten a light meal prior to getting a tattoo helps bolster your blood-sugar levels.  Tattoo artists often keep candy on-hand, and will ask you to tell them if you feel light-headed or need a break.  If you are feeling dizzy, take the candy when offered, drink some soda or fruit juice, and take a short break.

Be prepared.
 During the tattoo, your tattoo artist may talk to you.  This is not just because tattoo artists are generally friendly and sociable people (which they are).  This is considered "good bedside manner".  They are trying to distract you from your discomfort by engaging you in conversation and keeping tabs on how you are feeling throughout the process.  If you prefer not to speak as a way of managing the discomfort, it is not impolite to say so.  If the tattoo artist seems distracted while he is engaging you in conversation, well, it is because he is doing your tattoo.

 The tattoo will be uncomfortable.  The resulting wound is more like a friction burn.  It feels like a hot cat-scratch, but is constant.  Certain places are more sensitive than others, with people generally experiencing the most pain anywhere they are ticklish.  Not everyone experiences pain when getting a tattoo, and the experience varies depending on where the tattoo is placed.  In my experience, there have been women who had the opposite reaction, having to stop not due to the pain, but because of an orgasm.

 Being a tattoo artist has many interesting perks.

 Most tattoo artists will allow you to take as many breaks as needed.  Just keep in mind that if the tattoo is being paid for at an hourly rate, this could increase your price.  If, for any reason, you choose to leave without completing the tattoo, and have not made arrangements to complete the tattoo in a number of sessions, no refund will be offered.  More than likely, if you do return to complete the tattoo, you can expect there to be an increase in price.  This is due to the artist having to set up his work station and machines for a second tattoo when he is still working on just one.  More materials being used means a greater cost.

 It is not recommended that you drink alcohol before your tattoo.  There is a myth that drinking immediately prior to a tattoo increases blood-flow, causing you to bleed more.  Alcohol does thin the blood, but generally takes several hours to a full day to really have that effect.  The main reason a tattoo studio does not want to tattoo someone who has recently been drinking (like coming in just from the bar) is because they do not want that customer to claim that they were clearly drunk and that the studio took advantage of that state and gave him a tattoo he did not want.  Alcohol will cause the blood to thin and result in excess bleeding if you drink heavily the day prior to getting your tattoo (or the night after).  Thin blood and excessive bleeding means that more ink will be carried out of the body during the initial healing process, fading the tattoo. 

 Pain-killers are also not recommended for the same reason; the studio wants the customer to be making a clear, informed, and conscious decision when they are getting the tattoo.  Pain-killers taken during the tattoo can also have a more immediate blood-thinning effect (such as aspirin), and can also make the pain more difficult to tolerate if you are less able to concentrate.  Topical anesthetics can be used, but the numbing effect generally does not last the duration of the tattoo.

 Most artists will tell you that the pain is simply part of the experience.

 During the tattoo process, you will be expected to hold still, even though your instinct is to pull away from the needle.  An experienced tattoo artist expects this and compensates.  This means that if a tattoo artist has to ask you to try not to move during the tattoo, your movement is more than he or she can be expected to compensate for and is affecting your tattoo.  The better you are at remaining motionless, the better your tattoo will be.

 Expect the tattoo to take several hours.  A safe estimate of time would be to take whatever the tattoo artist says will be the length of time for the tattoo, and double it.  This will allow you to account for unforeseen breaks needed by you or your artist or other complications.  It is never a good idea to have somewhere you need to be after getting a tattoo.  Your urge will be to rush your artist.  If your artist feels rushed, it could affect the quality of your tattoo.

 Once the tattoo is completed, expect the artist to give you a thorough explanation of his recommended after-care guidelines.  Tattoos take on average 2 weeks to heal sufficiently, and during that time you will be expected to clean and treat the tattoo on a regular basis while keeping it out of the sun and out of still bodies of water as much as possible.  For this reason, the best time to get a tattoo is during the winter months when meeting these requirements is easier.  Most tattoo artists will not touch-up a tattoo until the skin has stopped peeling and the scabbing is healed.

 It is customary to tip your tattoo artist, though the artist is not as dependent on tips as a waitress.  Tipping your tattoo artist may also help you get a better price on future tattoos with that artist.  Artists appreciate return-customers, especially those that tip well.

 Your artist may wish to photograph the tattoo for his portfolio.  The portfolio is not just a means for the artist to display his talents, it also acts as a means for the artist to gauge his own improvement from one tattoo to the next.

 Your tattoo artist and studio should remain available and open to any questions you have about your tattoo during the healing process.  Most studios and artists offer free touch-ups within 90 days of getting a tattoo.  A touch-up is fixing line-work or refilling areas of shading or color that have "fallen out" during the healing process.  A touch-up does not include major changes or additions to the tattoo, and does not provide for issues that are a result of the client not following the recommended after-care guidelines.  If an artist can establish that your tattoo is faded because you went to the beach and have been swimming everyday in the sun for 2 weeks, expect to have to pay for your tattoo again.

 During the healing process, your tattoo will itch.  It will scab-up in places, and may peel several times.  Some redness and swelling is common, especially during the first few days, and the area will feel fevered.  Bright-redness lasting for days, red "veins", oozing, puss, extreme swelling, and pain more significant than a sunburn are all abnormal.  Do not ignore these issues or try to treat them on your own.  Contact your tattoo artist or physician.

 With the proper expectations, the tattoo process can be interesting, entertaining, maybe even fun.

 Or, at least a little less painful.

 Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

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