Depending on where on your body, and what your pain thresholds are, the sensation of getting a tattoo can range from an almost soothing buzzing feeling, to a mild ‘scratchy’ feeling, through to a sharp cutting pain.
I don’t mind the pain. It’s part of the parcel and becomes an intrinsic element of getting a tattoo, adding a visceral element to the trust you are placing in the artist. After all, you are allowing them to hurt you.
There is also a formulaic/ritualistic element that comes to bear when I am getting a new tattoo. It all helps me get into the right head space I guess, and whilst each artist is different I’ve found they all go through the same basic preparations, so you can use those steps to prepare yourself.
That’s presuming you’ve had a tattoo before, if not, read on…
If you are getting a custom piece of work done then step one is to book a consultation with the artist. You’ll have to have done some research into what style of tattoo you want, then find a tattoo artist who works in that style. If you are like me, you’ll then have some rough idea and try and draw it up… don’t worry if you can’t draw, you aren’t the artist here, and you get to explain your idea to the artist at the consultation. You will need to pay for this, but typically that payment is also the deposit for the tattoo itself.
The consultation is usually a quick chat and a chance to ask questions and then, book your appointment. It’s getting real now!
But don’t get too excited just yet… If you’ve picked a good artist they’ll likely be very busy and you won’t get to see the tattoo design they’ve drawn up until a few days before your appointment (or in some cases the night before!). Before you know it though, the day has arrived… NOW you can get excited!
Presuming you’ve got an agreed design – or as near as, all good tattoo artists should be happy to work with you if there is a last minute adjustment needed – then on the day of the tattoo itself you have your own prep to do. The good news is that means eating tasty food! Do make sure you’ve eaten well before you go, whilst you may just be ‘lying around’ getting tattoo’d, it’s still a traumatic experience for the body and you’ll need good energy reserves to help with the recovery.
As much as pre-tattoo noms are important, the provisions you take in with you can be just as vital. If you are going to be getting tattoo’d for longer than an hour I’d suggest you take some sweets, for me that means Haribo, and a bottle of water but each to their own. And yes, tattoo days are always ‘cheat’ days!
All set? Time to head to your tattoo parlour of choice.
Once you arrive, you’ll sign some forms (disclaimers and medical confirmations), and with a last check on the design you are all set.
Each artist will have their own working area – some places are open plan, some places are separate, all will have the option of screens for discretion – and once there the artist will look to prep the area to be tattooed. It’ll be shaved smooth (even if you’ve already shaved it, they’ll do it again anyway to be sure), and the first cold rub of whatever cleaning/antiseptic liquid they use hits your naked skin.
An important note here on health and hygiene. All reputable tattoo artists make sure their equipment and areas are clean and sterile. The artists will use new (unwrapped in front of you) needles, and will wear latex gloves throughout (changing them when needed). They’ll also wipe down the area getting tattoo’d now and again (cold and a little bit stingy!). If you have any doubts, ask!
OK, now you are ready to get the tattoo. The first step is to make sure design/placement is correct. The artist will use a stencil of the design to make sure the placement is right. They gentle smooth it into place, then carefully peel it off and you get the first impression of what your new ink will look like. This can take a couple of attempts to get right, depending on the size/location/design. For example, my last one was on my back but as my spine isn’t perfectly straight (whose is?!) it took a couple of placings to get it looking right.
Presuming you are happy, and this is your last chance to say so, you get comfortable and the sharp buzzing needles begin. A few minutes in the artist will pause, and ask if you are ok. Regardless of how many tattoos I’ve had, it’s always the same and I take as a good sign given that some people, when experiencing a new type of pain, shut down completely so you can’t rely on them saying to stop.
After that, depending on the location of the tattoo, time ebbs and flows. Once you are past the first ten minutes or so, and are used to the sensation, the pain is usually tolerable, and sometimes hardly noticeable. I’ve run the gamut from almost falling asleep to tapping out after four hours because I was starting to shake, everyone reacts differently and there is no shame in asking for a break. Again, good tattoo artists will stop now and then and check in with you, handy when you do actually doze off…
I know some people take in a book, or headphones, to distract themselves but whilst I’ve tried that in the past I actually prefer to just lie and zone out as best I can. My most recent tattoo was the first one I’ve gotten since I started meditating regularly and I found at times I was a similar experience, it’s wonderfully relaxing although the slightly ouchy bits (on my spine) did have a tendency to bring me back to reality.
Once your new tattoo is finished, it’ll be wiped clean (again that cold antiseptic fluid that always makes me gasp) and a barrier cream will be applied (something like Bepanthen) and the tattoo will be wrapped in clingfilm. Remember, as horrible as it sounds a tattoo is essentially an open wound, so this is all to protect you from infection.
It’s worth pointing out that, whilst the tattoo itself is clean the surrounding area will be covered in ink. It washes off easily enough though, don’t panic.
Your tattoo artist will give you after care advice which will cover how long to keep it under clingfilm, how to keep it clean and protected. For me I tend to clean it – a very VERY gentle process that does NOT involve soaking the tattoo just a gentle rub down with hot soapy water and the palm of your hand – then cover it in a thin film of bepanthen and re-clingfilm for the first couple of days. It can be a little awkward but it seems (for me, YMMV) to help the healing process.
After that, as long as it’s healed/scabbed over, you can switch to a good thick moisturiser. Again not too much, you are not just keeping the ‘wound’ supple and moist enough that the thin inky ‘scabs’ don’t pull off. This should keep your tattoo looking good, just be careful not to scratch at it, or bump it too hard. Not only will it hurt but it’ll lift some of the ink and leave your tattoo looking less than pristine.
However if that does happen, just let your tattoo artist know, all will happily touch-up the tattoo if needed.
And then you just have the itchy itchy phase to get through (mostly as the hair regrows) – remember, no scratching!! – and you are done!
I got my first tattoo as an act of quiet rebellion. These days I get them for a variety of reasons, but mostly because there are so many amazing artists doing custom pieces in a huge variety of styles. And yes, also because I enjoy the entire process, from the excitement of the first consultation to the first reveal of the finished job.
Now I just need to decide what the next one will be… and yes, I’ve got a few ideas in mind.