Preparing to get a tattoo—whether it’s your first or your fiftieth—is an exciting experience, especially if, like me, ink isn’t something you grew up around but have long been interested in. Choosing to get my first tattoo was simultaneously freeing and terrifying—it was an act of defiance (I knew my parents weren’t fans of ink) and a way of confirming I was in control of my own body. Since then, tattoos have become a constant in my life; I get at least a couple of new pieces each year. I’ve had my fair share of bad tattoo experiences (a few of which I’ll regale you with below) over the past six years and 14 tattoos, but I’ve also had lovely experiences which have taught me many a lesson about the process, dos and don’ts, and how it feels both physically and emotionally. I understand the anxiousness that exists alongside the excitement of getting tattooed—it’s totally normal—but hopefully, these takeaways will lessen the anxiousness and amplify the excitement for anyone planning their next (or their first!) piece of ink.
1. Deeper meaning doesn’t always matter
I initially became interested in tattoos when I was 17 years old. In my second last year of high school, I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, a book littered with fun little doodles drawn by the author to complement his text, and one in particular stood out to me: an asshole. Pardon my language—it’s actually Vonnegut’s language taken directly from the book, so sorry, not sorry—but I mean asshole in the most literal sense. The drawing was a janky asterisk that represented a butthole and I can’t explain why, but I became fixated on the idea of getting it as my first tattoo. The more I thought about it though, the easier it was to psych myself out. Was it inappropriate? How would I explain it to my parents? How would I explain it to my future boss?
Two years later, when I finally got my first piece of ink, I settled on something less controversial: a map of the world. But I wasn’t satisfied. That asshole was still calling my name, begging to be tattooed. Now, six years later, I don’t worry at all about having to explain the meaning behind my tattoos to people and instead just get whatever makes me feel good. A tattoo is really no one’s business but your own so all that matters is that you feel good about what you’re getting tatted, regardless of whether or not it’s meaningful.
(P.S. I got the Vonnegut tattoo and I love it).
2. Pain is subjective, but some places tend to hurt more than others
Ask any tattoo artist or dermatologist and they’ll tell you that pain is highly subjective. We all have different pain tolerances, so what hurts for one person may not hurt at all for another. The pain associated with getting a tattoo is a bit of a mystery for people who have never felt it before, and the reality is that it varies not only from person to person, but also from place to place on the body.
My first tattoo was on my upper back and the discomfort was so minimal that I found the process relaxing. I thought all tattoos would be just as easy and painless, but I was so very wrong. My next tattoo was on my ribs and the pain felt near-torturous which is when I learned that some tattoos—particularly on areas with thin skin or a higher concentration of sensory nerves—tend to hurt a lot more than others.
3. Put time into finding an artist/shop that cares about you and makes you feel comfortable
Gone are the days when tattoos were rocked exclusively by criminals and sailors, and tattoo shops felt like exclusive clubs reflective of those crowds. In the United States, an estimated 47% of millennials have at least one tattoo, and that figure is growing. As the industry has become more mainstream, it has also slowly started to become more inclusive, with a number of female-run, LGBTQ+ friendly, and POC-focused shops popping up across the country. Traditional shops still exist to cater to a specific crowd, but if that crowd isn’t you (it sure isn’t me), I urge you to spend time finding a shop and artist that does cater to you and makes you feel welcome. Getting tattooed can be scary and uncomfortable, but being in a place that feels welcoming with an artist who cares about you makes the experience vastly more enjoyable.
4. It’s OK to take a break during your appointment for any reason
When I was getting that torturously painful rib tattoo, I refused to ask for a break because I didn’t want to seem weak—I was in a very traditional, intense shop full of heavily inked, bodybuilder-looking men and I felt out of place and like I needed to prove my strength. In retrospect, that wasn’t the smartest decision. My ribs were so sensitive about an hour and a half into getting the tattoo that I was having a hard time sitting still. The pain was leading me to flinch and the flinching resulted in a flawed design (a particularly intense flinch moved my artist’s machine and her needle hit me outside of the design leaving one random line on my side).
Your energy depletes while you’re getting tattooed, and can make you feel weak, tired, and increasingly sensitive to pain. If you need a break, take one. If you need a glass of water or a snack or a bathroom break, don’t be afraid to let your artist know. Taking a break will help you sit through the process more easily and might save you from ending up with a flawed tattoo like my own.
5. Healing can also be uncomfortable—sometimes even more than getting the tattoo itself
I remember being shocked and a bit concerned when the day after getting my first tattoo the discomfort not only persisted, it got worse. Sitting in my lecture the next day, I felt like my back was burning. I’ve since learned that healing new ink, like healing any other wound, is a process, and the discomfort takes time to fade. Your tattoo will likely remain sensitive for a few days so if you’re feeling uncomfortable, don’t worry, you’re doing fine.
6. Your parents will eventually forgive you. You don’t need to hide it from them—and it might be worse if you do
When I got my first tattoo I was terrified of telling my parents, so for months—four months, to be exact—I didn’t. I’m pretty open with my family and not telling them about my ink, even though I was scared, was extremely difficult for me despite knowing they’d probably be upset. Rather than hiding it entirely, I told my brothers because I was sure they wouldn’t be shocked and telling them helped it feel less like a big, devious secret. Then a few months later, three days before Christmas, I showed the tattoo to my parents. My mom freaked. She worried I would never get a job, was angry that I’d hidden it from her, and gave me the silent treatment for what felt like days (it was really just a couple of hours).
As I’ve slowly amassed a much larger collection of tattoos, I’ve adopted an ‘honesty is the best policy’ approach with my parents. They still don’t like ink, but now, because I tell them almost immediately when I get a new piece, they aren’t as surprised or upset and finally understand that tattoos are an important part of my life. Six years after freaking out about my first tattoo my mom is actually considering getting one of her own.
7. Contrary to popular belief, your ink probably won’t affect your chances of getting a job
There are doctors with tattoos. There are lawyers with tattoos. Heck, there are elementary school teachers with tattoos. Having a tattoo is not going to stop you from getting a job. In fact, a recent study from professors at the University of Miami and the University of Western Australia found that people with tattoos are just as likely to be employed as their uninked counterparts. And while sure, something on your face or neck might bar you from certain jobs, tattoos aren’t the chokehold they were in the past.
8. Most artists charge minimums, so you can expect to pay upwards of $100 for even the smallest tattoo.
A few years ago, on a whim, my boyfriend, one of our mutual friends and I decided to get matching tattoos. I already had a couple of tattoos at this point, but this was going to be the first piece of ink for my two companions so we decided to get something small and simple—the three of us got tiny (one centimeter in diameter) solid blue circles; an ode to Karl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. Because the design was so small, we assumed we wouldn’t be charged more than $40-50, but we ended up paying $120 each and learned an important lesson: artists charge minimums.
PRO TIP: minimums are typically listed on the FAQ page of an artist or studio’s website so you can check them out in advance of booking an appointment.
9. Tip your artists—they probably aren’t making as much money as you think
Yes, getting a tattoo is decently expensive, but your artists aren’t taking all that money home and in many cases, they’re probably not pocketing anything close to the full amount. The money you spend when you get tattooed helps cover hard costs associated with the process including ink, needles, tubes and cleaning supplies, and if your artist works out of a larger studio, their studio owners will likely take a chunk of your payment to help pay for things like rent and hydro. At the end of the day, the percentage your cash the artist takes home is cut drastically which is part of the reason tipping is very strongly encouraged. I generally tip my artists around 30 percent of the cost of the tattoo, but industry standard is 15 to 20 percent at least.
10. Getting tattooed makes you feel good because during the process your body releases endorphins
Your body responds to being pierced by your tattooist’s needle, the same way it responds to any other pain—by releasing endorphins to naturally combat the discomfort you’re experiencing. And just as endorphins lighten your mood after exercise, they lighten your mood during a tattoo session so getting inked can actually make you feel good, both physically and mentally.
11. Consider your artist’s advice about placement and design
Your tattoo artist is just that, an artist. With an eye for design, an understanding of pain sensitivities and the added benefit of experience, artist input is, in my opinion, extremely important when you’re getting a tattoo. On several occasions, I’ve decided to change the placement and size of new ink based on feedback from my artists, without feeling like I was comprising my vision of what the design would look like on my body.
A great artist wants your tattoo to look good and make you feel good, just like you do. Trust their feedback and take it into careful consideration as you prepare to get inked—it can’t hurt since before starting the tattoo they’ll apply a stencil of the design to your skin so you can see exactly what the placement will look like, giving you time to change your mind.
12. Some people just don’t like tattoos and you won’t be able to change everyone’s mind
Last summer I got into a very heated discussion with an Uber driver about tattoos. I have a bunch of visible ink and he didn’t like that and wanted to make sure I understood his point of view. About 10 minutes into this unwinnable debate I realized I was wasting my breath—some people just aren’t going to like that you have tattoos, and that’s okay (plus the number of people who feel this way will decrease as tattoos become increasingly mainstream). My tattoos didn’t stop my driver from getting me to my final destination, just like they don’t stop my parents and grandparents from loving me. Not everyone will like your tattoos, but they’ll accept them.
13. Asking for slight revisions to your design won’t offend your artist
When you’re having a custom tattoo designed by an artist they’ll do their best to draw out your vision, but sometimes the design won’t look exactly as you’d hoped. When this happens, you should absolutely let them know, lest you be stuck with a piece of lifelong body art you’re unhappy with. Artists can make slight revisions to custom tattoos easily and they’re used to doing this for clients.
14. Your taste might change, but that’s part of the beauty of tattoos—they tell your ongoing story
Part of the blessing of being human is that we’re constantly evolving. Our beliefs change, our values change, and our tastes change as our life progresses. One of the results of constantly changing though is that your tattoos might not always reflect your current style or values. Of my 14 tattoos, there are a handful I wouldn’t get again if given the chance, but I’m not a person prone to regret so I’m not upset about bearing designs that don’t reflect who I am now. As far as I’m concerned that’s the beauty of tattoos; they reflect fleeting moments in your life and tell your ongoing story.