Although the stigma is quickly diminishing, tattoos still carry with them an aura of taboo. Over the past 10 years or so, tattoos have become less fop ah, and more mainstream and popular. Young and old are taking an interest in body modifications, and opening up to the idea of having a piece of art permanently etched into their bodies. The once dark, seedy looking tattoo parlors are taking on the visage of a modern, sleek design similar to a popular clothing store or salon. The artists themselves appear cleaner and more put together as well. With its growing popularity and volume of business, a lot of artists have had to become business people in addition to being creative. Competition is enormous, and shops are showing up on every street corner.
I’ve compiled a list of tips for the tattoo virgin to help you learn what to expect, and what you will need to know before you commit to a lifetime of carrying a piece of art on your body. It is not a decision most take lightly, and rightfully slow. The art changes as your body changes, and of course, our tastes change as well.
The first thing I would tell you is to decide what you want, before you decide you want something. It may sound confusing, but there is some wisdom in that statement. I have seen entirely too many people make a spontaneous decision about some work that will be with them forever. The perfect scenario to illustrate this point is a group of friends going out one night. After dinner and drinks, they decide to stop in to the tattoo shop next door. After looking through the artwork on the walls of the shop for about 10 minutes, someone picks a piece that woos them in their drunken stupor and has it done. A week later, they can’t believe they had it done, and end up regretting it forever.
If you think you might want a tattoo, forget about it. Instead, try to think of an image that defines either you, or what you’re going through at this point in your life. Keep in mind that whatever you decide on needs to be important to you today, and that its relevance may decrease over time. As your life circumstances change, so will the images that represent you. For instance: when I was in high school, I was dubbed “Joker” by my circle of friends. I don’t even remember why, since I don’t consider myself a comedian, but it stuck with me for awhile. When I turned 18, I went to a tattoo shop and saw a picture of a rather demonic looking court jester on the wall, and had it put on my upper arm. No one I keep in contact with regularly calls me Joker anymore, and I’m not even the same person I was back then, but here I am, a grown man, with a picture of a court jester on my arm. Do I regret it? Not exactly. I’m not in love with the art itself anymore, but it does represent a period of my life that I look back on fondly, so it’s not a complete loss.
A tattoo could just be a picture that you like, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just make sure it’s something that you will still like in 10 or even 20 years.
The second thing you should consider is who is going to do the work for you? This is perhaps even more important than the first point. There is nothing worse that bad artwork. I have one artist, and one artist only. Unfortunately, it took me 2 or 3 tattoos before I found her, but now that I have, I won’t use anyone else. If you’ve never had a tattoo, you should look for an artist with the same diligence as you would a babysitter or employee. Most artists will have a portfolio of their work somewhere in the shop. If they don’t, find someone else. If they do, you should carefully examine each piece in the book, whether the art is similar to what you want or not. Look at every detail. The problem with portfolios is that the artist will always put their best work in the book, and leave out the things that aren’t as impressive. If they have been doing tattoos for a long period of time, it’s impossible to know what you are NOT seeing. To remedy that problem, ask. Yes, I am recommending that you interview the artist. It may seem strange, and it probably will to the artist too, but if they have any pride in what they do, they won’t have a problem with it. If they refuse to talk to you, find someone else. Ask them how long they’ve been tattooing. Ask how long they worked for an established artist before they started tattooing themselves. Ask for referrals. Most artists will have people working for or with them that they have done work on. Ask to see that work. What ever you do, don’t plan on meeting your artist for the first time, and sitting in his or her chair the very same day. Do not diminish how important it is to have good work done. It will be there forever, and you don’t want some hack with no experience poking you.
The third point is: always look for the health department rating. If you’re like me, you may not notice the health department rating at your local fast food joint, but your stomach can handle a lot more gross than your blood can. I don’t think I need to spend too much time on this subject, because it is pretty much common sense, but it is certainly worthy of adding to the list, if for no other reason than to act as a reminder.
Number four: where are you going to put it? If you have no intention of covering a large percentage of your body, you should choose where the tattoo will go carefully. If you end up covering everything, not everything will show; but if you’re just getting one here or there, you should put it in a place that it will looks its best for as long as possible. Our bodies change constantly. Even the most fitness conscious person will gain and lose weight throughout their life, and those changes can stretch the skin. Sometimes tattooed skin will show those changes more severely than “clean” skin. A cheetah tattoo can quickly turn into a giraffe if it’s placed on your lower stomach. Women should be especially careful with this decision. If you ever decide to have a baby, you could make a tremendous mistake by putting a tattoo anywhere on your abdomen. For ladies that aren’t finished with their procreating, arms and legs (below the knees) are great places for work to be done.
Point number five dictates that you should be prepared to pay for your work. The old adage that you get what you pay for is true in the body modification world too. Rates for good artists vary depending on what part of the country/world you are in, but if you are quoted a “great” price, it’s probably not going to be so great. Make your decision based on your artist, not on what he charges. Believe me; a good artist is more than worth whatever it is that he charges. If you have to wait, and save your pennies, do it. Tattoo’s are forever, so don’t get impatient and get sub-par work just because you can’t afford better.
The last point I’ll make is that you should have a plan. If there is even a remote chance that you might want to expand on a piece in the future, you should communicate that with your artist before he draws the first line. Let’s assume the tattoo you want has a water theme, and you want to put it on your upper arm. If there may come a time that you decide to add something to that piece, you will need to make sure whatever you add to it also has a water theme, or that water can be incorporated into it somehow. Of course, theme’s don’t always continue through more than one piece, and that’s okay as long as that is what you want. For me, if I’m going to have a sleeve of any size on one arm, I want the theme to continue the entire way, as if it were one piece. This is another mistake I made. I have an armband that I will have to cover somehow in order to continue a water themed tattoo I had done above it. Since I haven’t devised a way to make it look right, I haven’t been able to complete the sleeve. This is another area that a good, experienced artist will be able to help you. It is imperative that you communicate with him or her throughout the entire process.
Tattoos can be fun, beautiful and even meaningful. They can add beauty to an already beautiful person, or cover an ugly scar in a beautiful way, but they can’t do any of that without taking steps to make sure you get quality work done. They are not something to take lightly, or have done spontaneously. They require thought, planning and consideration, or they could end up being something you are embarrassed by, or regret for the rest of your life. Be careful, have fun and happy tattooing!