Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Do You Want a Tattoo? Things to Consider Before Getting Your First Tattoo.

 Getting a tattoo should not be a spur-of-the-moment decision, although it often is.  The tattoo you got that night out partying with your friends might be a momento of  a wonderful evening when you let your hair down, but more often than not it is a reminder of why you should not drink in excess.  Getting a tattoo should be a carefully thought out decision, not just what and where but if you should even get one.  Here are some questions to consider before getting your first tattoo.

 1) Are you comfortable with a "permanent" marking in your skin?

 Tattoos are "permanent".  While they may fade and distort in time, your tattoo will more than likely be in your skin well after you have vacated your body.  A tattoo is a permanent "wound" in your skin.  The ink is inserted into your dermis, or your second layer of skin, where your immune system seals what it cannot carry away.  Barring laser-removal treatment (which is far more expensive than the tattoo itself and not 100% successful), your tattoo will be around for your grandchildren to ask you about.  Are you willing to make that kind of commitment to having a design on your body, any design, and are you willing to live with the potential fall-out from friends, family, and employers for having ink?   If so, then a tattoo may be worth getting.

 2) Are you getting a tattoo for you, or because someone else wants you to?

 Your tattoo is your tattoo.  It should be a reflection of who you are, what is important to you, or a way for your to enhance your image.  You will have your tattoo for life, and no one else can live your life but you.  Getting a tattoo because someone wants you to is just a bad idea, especially when it comes to getting the name of your significant other.  Doing so is often the "kiss of death" in a relationship, done as a show of commitment or fidelity while not being willing to take actual steps toward officiating that relationship.  The WORST thing I've seen is when one person in the relationship is getting the other's name, but the other person is not getting their name.  Ask yourself, if the only reason your getting the tattoo is because person X is in your life, would you still want it if they were not?  If the answer is no, you would not get this tattoo without person X being around to appreciate it, then do not get the tattoo.

 3) Do you handle pain well? 

 In case you have not heard, tattoos hurt.  While it is no where near an unbearable amount of pain, it is a sensation that must be endured if you want a tattoo, often for several hours.  The more ticklish or sensitive the spot on the body, the more it will hurt.  I liken the pain to a cat-scratch across a sunburn.  It will get your attention.  Your tattoo may require multiple sessions as well as a "touch-up" session.  Touching up the wounded area will hurt even more.  On average, a tattoo takes about 6 months to heal, although most tattoos can be touched-up after 2 weeks.
 The pain of the tattoo needle is not the only part that may hurt.  To give you your tattoo, you may need to sit or lay in an awkward position for long periods of time.  You may feel nauseous or light-headed during your tattoo.  Days after the tattoo, you may experience stiffness in the area that was tattooed.  The phrase "short is the pain, long is the ornament" expresses how most tattooed people feel about the pain aspect of their work, but while getting a tattoo the pain will not seem "short".  Numbing creams and pain killers have little effect, and can actually make the pain more difficult to endure.
 So, if you get a tattoo, be prepared to deal with some irritation.

4) Are you aware of the health risks involved?

 Even under the best of conditions, there are health risks involved in getting a tattoo.  Your skin will have a large area abraded and a foreign substance inserted into it.  The abrasion will take several weeks or even months to heal, and will be open to potential infection during that healing process.  The substances used to create the pigments and the carrier for your ink may cause an allergic reaction in some, further complicating the healing process and increasing the risk of infection.

 Furthermore, not all conditions are ideal.  When even the best shops can have health problems arise from the nature of tattooing, the high demand for tattoos means that many disreputable persons and establishments are offering tattoos while not adhering to the strictest standards.  In addition, most shops require you to sign a waiver absolving them of any responsibility for the inherent risks involved in your tattoo.  If something does happen, your not likely to be able to sue the shop involved.
 Poor aftercare is the biggest contributor to health issues.  The shop you got your tattoo in is probably cleaner than your home and where you work.  The instructions your artist gives you to care for your tattoo only decrease the likelihood of problems and ONLY IF YOU FOLLOW THEM.  Tattoo clients are loathe to admit it, but the majority of issues while healing are the result of poor aftercare.
 Finally, if you have special health concerns like a compromised immune system, hemophilia, diabetes, or you are prone to seizures, you should consult a physician before getting a tattoo.  While tattoo artists are generally knowledgeable and experienced with such issues, only your health provider can provide any real assurance that you are healthy enough to be tattooed.  

 5) Will you be tolerant of any social backlash for being tattooed?

 Yes, we have come a long way as an industry since the days when tattoos were considered exclusively for sailors, criminals, and harlots.  Still, some people maintain a grudge against tattoos.  Many look upon getting a tattoo as taking an unnecessary risk, both with your health and your social-status.  Having a tattoo to some suggests that you are irresponsible. Some employers frown on tattoos (a recent study suggested that more than half of the hiring managers who have tattoos THEMSELVES would not hire a tattooed applicant), and many religions and religious organizations take a dim view of tattoos. While you intend for your ink to be a personal expression, you cannot predict how people will receive it, and you may give an impression you did not intend.

 6) Are you willing to do some research before getting a tattoo?

 Far too often, a client will walk into a tattoo studio and ask to see some designs.  They have no idea what they want.  All they know is that they want a tattoo.  Often, it is their first tattoo, and they want it for whatever rewards they think being tattooed will bring them.  Getting a tattoo is a process, and the more you understand about that process, the happier you will be with your ink.  Take your time to decide on a design or at least a concept, including placement on the body, that you really want.  Visit several shops and discuss your idea with different artists, getting their feedback about your design.  Look at portfolios and check out the studio's reputation.  When you settle on a studio and an artist, negotiate price and be prepared to pay what the artist is asking for.  Going for less tattoo because you cannot afford it in one session leaves you with a tattoo you may regret, and trying to "low-ball" your artist just frustrates the guy who may be sticking you with a needle for several hours.

 7) Are you prepared to be responsible for how your tattoo turns out?

 A tattoo is an elective process.  The function of the artist and the studio is to facilitate the process of giving you a tattoo.  You pick the design.  You select the shop and the artist.  You determine the location on your body for the tattoo.  Others may have some suggestions, but ultimately the decisions are yours to make.  Most studios will require that you sign a waiver stating that you understand that a tattoo is a permanent marking, that the process is painful, that their are risks, and that you assume full responsibility for those risks. This includes issues with the tattoo that arise during and after the procedure.  Once you sign that document, you are absolving your artist and your studio of any responsibilities for your tattoo.  Most studios and artists want to maintain a good reputation and relationship with their clients and will work with you if problems arise, but it is ultimately on you.

 8) Is there an alternative to getting a tattoo that you would be happier with?

 A number of options exist for those who think they might want a tattoo but aren't certain.  T-shirts and "tattooed sleeves" are available to give anyone the look of having tattoos without having ever been touched by a tattoo needle.  Adult temporary tattoos can be purchased pre-made or printed from your home computer.  Latex paint, cosmetic airbrushing, and body-markers can all provide a temporary alternative to being tattooed.  Henna tattoos stain the skin for as much as three weeks.  Any of these options provide a sense of what having a tattoo is like without the pain or the commitment.

 9) Are you prepared for your tattoo to change as you age and your body changes?

 Tattoos are in the skin.  The grow, stretch, shrink, and wrinkle as the skin changes.  Your body will never stop trying to remove the ink from your skin, thus the tattoo will blur and fade.  Exposure to sunlight or abrasive materials and procedures may also damage your tattoo.  While different products exist to help preserve your tattoo, these can only limit the effects of time.  The tattoo is a "permanent" mark, but its appearance can change drastically as your body changes.  

 With these things in mind, you may be ready for your first tattoo.  Take your time making your decision.  A tattoo is an investment in your personal expression and identity, and should not be gotten hastily. 

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

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