By, Trish Horstman
Getting a tattoo is supposed to be a fun, memorable experience. So being prepared when you go in for your first will certainly reduce the amount of anxiety you’re feeling. A little nervousness is expected but for the most part, a tattoo should be a fairly comfortable time.
The first step is deciding what you’d like to get. As someone who is heavily covered, and has been doing tattoos for nearly 10 years now, I recommend having a good idea of what concept you’d like to get, and the general area of your body you want it on and then working with your artist to design the piece to best fit your body. You want to consider the fact that tattoos are permanent. It sounds silly to remind people of that, but after doing a lot of meaningless tattoos and doing an awful lot of cover ups on pieces that folks wished they’d never have gotten – I feel that it’s not something we remind ourselves of enough! So choose something that you won’t mind seeing when you’re older, or have children, and choose a place that you won’t someday regret. When you’re 65, do you think you’ll still want your knuckles to read “EYE CANDY” or will you like Tweety Bird on your ankle still, and will those “juicy” cherries still be as sexy on your lower back?
Something else to consider is your job’s leniency about tattoos. Ask about their policies. I am the last person to change who I am for a job, but I’m also lucky: I work in the motorcycle industry and I do tattoos. I can have them where ever I want. But if your chosen career is a preschool teacher, you may want to avoid that facial tattoo you’ve always wanted. Society shouldn’t judge us based on the way we look: but they do; and that’s not going to ever fully change. So we deal with it. So choose wisely!
Let’s say for example, that you want a memorial tattoo of your Grandmother. Her name is Helen, you want a portrait and her favorite flower is a violet. You decide you’d like this tattoo on your ribs/side. Now that you’ve settled on the basic what and where, you can take the next step.
Take your time choosing an artist. Ask around of friends or people who have nice tattoos. Most people if they work with a good, friendly artist will be more than happy to refer more business their way! It’s also  a good way to get opinions on them; but ask more than one person. For example, if you ask someone and they say “I went to Joe and the place on 5th avenue, and he took too long and it hurt really bad” that may not be the most accurate encounter. Perhaps the tattoo client had a different pain tolerance, and if you meet another of Joe’s clients they may tell you that he’s speedy and light handed! So it’s all a matter of opinion. Ask around is the first part, the second is to go to their studio and do your own research.
There are three parts to me being okay getting tattooed somewhere:
• Is it clean? Is the studio tidy, clean, and feels “sterile”?  It should feel like when you’re at your doctor’s office, but probably more colorful and artistic. If you worry about touching things, or you see ink smudges on surfaces, or workers touching ANYTHING in their work stations without gloves, I wouldn’t get work done there. I openly will give any client a tour of my sterilizing room to show them that my autoclave is up to date on spore testing, that I use pre-sterile disposable items, and that every surface is clean. I openly display that I am trained and certified in Blood Borne Pathogens Cross Contamination Prevention, my studio is licensed and inspected by the local and State Health Departments and I participate in correct Biohazard removal programs. Don’t be afraid to ask these kinds of questions. It is public information and your health is on the line.
• Are you comfortable there? Are the artists kind to you and you feel like you could spend a few hours in their company without being too put off? I try hard to make everyone feel welcome in my studio. Making the experience comfortable is partially linked to how anxious the client is. If someone is worked up, they are more likely to move in the chair, sweat or feel ill and that kind of anxiety can even lead to fainting or nausea.
• Look at portfolios!!!! Make sure that you LIKE the artist’s style that you choose. Every artist has a different style. Going back to our example of the portrait of your Grandmother; you want to be sure to choose someone who has a lot of examples of portraits they have done that look like the picture of the person. This is again a position where word of mouth comes in handy. If you see someone with a tattoo you love the style of: ask where they got it and the artist’s name.
With those things out of the way, you can work with the artist you choose to design the tattoo to correctly fit your body. Using our example again, we want to be sure that the portrait is large enough to see detail in the face, and that we can incorporate her name and the flowers but still have it curve correctly with the natural shape of your side. A good artist will be sure to help you design one that you both are happy with – and the best advice I can give is to trust your artist! A tattoo artist who is good will produce work that you can be proud of if they aren’t too constricted. If you did your homework, then you should know what they are capable of! At this time you will also discuss the estimated length of time the tattoo will take, and the estimated cost of the piece. Remember: good tattoos aren’t cheap and cheap tattoos aren’t good. This is a famous old saying from Sailor Jerry and it’s so true. I am often confronted by customers who say they can get something done from a guy up the street in his kitchen for $20… well to them I answer that his tattoo can likely also come with Hepatitis – a deadly and incurable, and very commonly spread disease! I pay good money and have educated myself to keep a studio that is safe and artistic and friendly. I can prove that every element there is sterile for my customers. This is my opinion, but guys working illegally out of their homes or at “parties” in other’s homes are endangering their clients, creating more work for me with cover-ups, and giving our art form and way of life a bad rap. So be prepared to pay properly for a well done piece in a decent studio. Cutting corners on cost means something is lacking somewhere, and I certainly hope it’s not in cleanliness!
You will likely need to set up an appointment, and pay a deposit. It is how most professional studios work (but not all). Tattoos are sometimes impulsive things for some people. But I really recommend doing the research and setting up an appointment. And if you do want an impulsive piece, don’t be angry if you enter a studio and they are booked up. We cannot always accept walk ins – but it depends on the place, of course. If you cannot keep your appointment, be kind and reschedule with good advance notice! This is our livelihood and many artists aren’t paid by the hour. Their time is valuable and when they have blocked off a chunk of it for you, and you don’t show up, you cost them their time.
When you go for your tattoo: 24 hours before hand make sure you are well-rested, have eaten healthy meals and that you feel your best. HYDRATE! Going for a tattoo after a night of drinking can lead to excessive bleeding and with the blood: out comes your ink too. A large percentage of how your tattoo looks in the long run depends heavily on how you prepare for it before hand, and how you take care of it afterward! Remember, your body is going to be healing a wound, essentially. So help yourself along by having a healthy immune system! If you feel like you have a cold, be courteous to the artist and to yourself, and reschedule!
It is nice to come with clean skin (arriving dirty from a construction job or something like that is just rude in my opinion). Remember your artist has to hover over you for hours. Also, everyone has Staph and other bacteria on their skin – so cleaning beforehand reduces risk of infection and will help your artist in preparing your skin for tattooing. Take a bottle of water with you. Caffeine is not recommended before and during a tattoo. Arriving calm is important. It’s not a bad idea to bring an activity such as a book to read, as long as it doesn’t conflict with what your artist needs to do. Some people feel comfortable bringing a friend for support. The policies on this vary shop to shop, but I don’t mind a person coming along to hold hands. It can sometimes be distracting when there are 6 people with you and they all want to take pictures with their camera phones and everyone is moving around. So be courteous of the artist and their space!
Before you begin you will likely sign a waiver or release. This is a contract stating that you trust your artist to tattoo you, and that you are not under any influences, or pregnant, etc. You will need your photo ID usually for this process. Some states allow minors to get tattooed with a parent and a birth certificate. Research that for your state if you are under 18.
When you go into the tattooing area, you will notice a good artist shows you that they are removing needles from sterile packaging and sets up their machines in front of you. The artist will likely use a stencil on your skin. This shows you exactly where the tattoo will be on you FOREVER. So speak up if you want it moved over, or changed in size! This part is moveable and it is your one chance to determine where it will be on your body for good.
Another thing to expect is discomfort. Tattoos are done with needles. There is no way around this. So be prepared for some discomfort that can sometimes be mild or even extreme depending on the place you are getting tattooed, and your personal pain tolerance. It is important that you hold still even when it hurts, and if you need a few moments to stretch or breathe calmly, most artists have no issues with that to help you get through more painful spots.
As a tattoo artist, it is often stressful to work on clients who shout out, wiggle or move or complain during a tattoo. While this is a natural way of enduring the feeling, I recommend being cautious to not let it prevent your artist from doing a good job. There is nothing more disheartening than hearing someone with little experience telling you that they are sure you’re tattooing their bones, or that something is too painful. I assure you a good artist has their needle set to the correct depth and with that it cannot “go too deep”. You just have to be prepared for the pain, tattoos hurt!
Getting a tattoo should be a pretty cool experience. I hate hearing “horror stories” of people’s tattoos.  If you can do all of the correct preparations, and care for your tattoo after it is finished, there is a sure chance that you will have a portrait Grandma Helen would be proud of!