Most first tattoos have some sort of personal story behind them. On Inside Out alone, we’ve seen how they’ve been tributes to one’s parents, symbols of what will never change, dedications to friends lost too soon or, in my case, an impulsive grab at peace during a time of uncertainty. After hearing some of these first-time stories, we decided to ask artists for their practical advice on what makes the best tattoos for first timers. They talked about placement, size, pain, and, ultimately, choice.
Nickhole Arcade owns and operates Waterproof Black Tattooing in Olympia, Washington, and has been as a working tattoo artist for nearly 20 years. When asked for their take on what makes the best tattoos for first timers, they said, “first tattoos should be small and on a standard part of the body. I would stay away from the neck, face, ribs, stomach, and feet. [Instead], the back of the shoulder, top of the arm, wrist, and calf are all great places.” Arcade’s recommendation makes sense. Many artists will tell you that tattoos on fleshier areas of the body hurt less than your ribs or feet, where skin is thinner and there’s less fat and tissue to cushion against the tattoo needle.
But in terms of pain from a tattoo, Troll, a tattoo artist in Helena, Montana, says it’s “relative to what you have personally experienced.” Like pain, design and placement are also relative. “Personally, I feel that if it is something you really want, the pain is only a momentary thing,” he says. “10 to 20 minutes of pain for something you really want.” For clients whose nerves get the best of them, he advises to “just focus on your breathing and try to relax.”
At Haven Tattoo Studio in Brooklyn, NY, Jes Valentine considers pain and placement when advising clients on their first tattoo but keeps her advice broad. “I don’t think there is a specific tattoo for a first timer to get but I would suggest you opt for a place on the body that is on the ‘easier’ side,” she says. “Typically, I would also suggest getting something smaller as opposed to a big two hour sitting, so you can get a feel for how your body tolerates pain.” The studio she owns and tattoos at alongside Sophie Bee showcases small and more manageable tattoos that draw a lot of first timers.
According to Instagram, the inner lip is also a popular choice for a first time tattoo, perhaps because they’re known to fade in a few months so mistakes and regrets can be rectified (though mine has lasted 11 years so far). It’s also a small enough canvas that your options are limited to small letters or symbols, which means there’s less pain.
Though black and grey tattoos are the strong first choice for many, don’t be afraid of a little color. This watercolor hummingbird done by Erica Floyd uses color in a subtle, yet memorable way — perfect for a first tattoo.
Tiny tattoos are a popular first choice as well. Whether it’s hearts, stars, or zodiac symbols, fine line techniques are ideal for a first tattoo because of their delicate design and barely-there size.
Another memorable first tattoo choice is a word or mantra that defines who you are. Since tattoos are permanent (well, not all), a word or phrase serves as a daily reminder of an intention you set for yourself or something you want to put out into the world.