If you were to see my family, you might not imagine that I was the first one to get tattooed. Three of my brothers now sport full sleeves. Jeff, who makes his living as a clean cut military sergeant, transforms into a inked-out biker on the weekends. Even my mother couldn’t resist the needle and got her first tattoo last year to commemorate my father’s passing. But it was I, little hippie dippie Kat, who started the trend.
Of course, back then, I wasn’t a hippie. I was a rebellious teenager about to graduate high school. I wore too much makeup, the tightest jeans I could squeeze into while laying across the bed, and smoked Camel lights. All I needed was an ill-conceived tat to fulfill my teenage angst fashion statement.
I headed to a reputable tattoo shop, a good decision, and then proceeded to make several bad decisions resulting in a permanent stamp of regret. Over the years, I’ve gained a little wisdom on how to make good choices when it comes to tattoos- unfortunately, most of that knowledge was learned by delving into the field of “what not to do.
Make an appointment: I showed up at the tattoo parlor an hour before closing, without an appointment or even a concrete concept and demanded I leave with a tattoo. Of course, tattoo artists are not on salary. The guy wanted or needed the money, and did what was required to get it. I had no real idea what I wanted- just something small and tribal. I figured the whole process would take about twenty minutes. Unfamiliar to the scene, I had no idea about drawing time, making a stencil, set up, actual tattooing, clean up and aftercare.
He drew up a few quick options, I picked one and awhile later, I left with a black spot on my leg that resembled a giant beetle with a pink stripe down the middle. (right leg in pic below. I added the tribal bits around it a few years later.)
Give yourself time to make a sound decision. Provide the artist with time to draw and plan- as well as not hate you for being the bitchy girl that shows up NEEDING a tattoo right before he was going to switch off the “open” sign.
Pick a design that means something: I started getting tattoos in 1993 when tribal was all the rage. I thought I was being smart getting a tribal tat. I reasoned that if I got a concrete image, like an elephant, I might not like the tattoo once my elephant obsession ran its course. The tribal trend died out quickly and I was left with the tattoo equivalent of a polyester leisure suit.
Similarly, don’t get something simply because you think it is cool. My largest tattoo is a piece of biomechanical armor based on the Witchblade comic book series. Know the last time I read a Witchblade comic? Probably about the same time I got the tattoo.
Dig deep. Choose something with some significance. Doesn’t mean you can’t pick something fun- my favorite tattoo is a rooster. But I didn’t walk into the shop and choose Rooster #3 on the flash board. I got a rooster based off of a piece of embroidery that my grandmother stitched. Three of my four brothers also have rooster tattoos. When I look at it, I am not reminded of a dumb mistake- I think of a family that loves me.
Location, Location, Location: Where you put the tattoo is as critical of a choice as the subject matter. I am not referring to tattoo aficionados with full sleeves- clearly there is a level of commitment there that defies appearance. I am talking to the person that wants or needs the option of looking conventional.
I have close a half sleeve on my left arm- just long enough to require a long sleeve shirt to conceal it. This was not a problem when I was living in Colorado, working the night shift, and in full freak regalia. Jump forward ten years. I now reside in Arizona, where a long sleeve shirt in August is considered a form of torture, and I am hoping to make a living as a preschool teacher. Had I made that tattoo just a couple of inches smaller, I might be enjoying a t-shirt friendly existence.
Get it right before the needle hits the skin: When I got my half sleeve, I knew it was a bit longer than I wanted. But I didn’t want to be a troublesome customer- I wanted to be the cool “do whatever you want” chick. Getting a tattoo is not the time to illustrate what a free spirit you are. I should have spoken up and said “it’s too big.” My body- my rules. A good artist will not feel inconvenienced if you want to adjust placement or alter details- so long as you speak up before the tattoo is halfway done.
Clear your schedule: Ok, so you can be a little demanding before the actual ink work begins. Once the needle hits the skin, it’s the artist’s show. If he needs a break, let him take a break. It’s not easy to grasp a tattoo gun for extended periods of time. Hands cramp and get shaky. Maybe his head isn’t in the game and he needs a moment to reset. Whatever the reason, the artist will do a better job if you are not complaining about how much time he is taking. Plan for extra time and don’t be a dick.
Don’t get matching tattoos: It goes without saying that you should not get a name tattooed unless it is your family name or your child’s name. Ink the name of your beloved and you might as well sign your divorce papers. When my ex asked to get matching designs, I thought this was a fair compromise- if we split, there would be no tell-tale sign that I had ever been with someone else.
But I know. Every time I see that tattoo, I think of that asshole. Match your shoes, not your tattoos.
Color is a commitment: I love color, from the walls in my house to my rainbow bright wardrobe. It was a natural extension of my personality to get a color tattoo.
I am now in the middle of getting my tattoo recolored for the fourth time. My artist says that the new inks last longer, and I hope he is right. In the past, my color has started fading before the ink was even dry. Black and grey is a bit more forgiving. If you aren’t the person who is going to moisturize daily and avoid the sun, color may not be your best option.
Elbows, knees, fingers and feet fade: That cute mustache tattoo on the side of your finger is most likely not going to last. The elbow is going to be the first place your sleeve fades. I apprenticed tattoo for a short period of time, and was told that artists learn to tattoo on the bottoms of feet and palms because it doesn’t last. I have no idea if that is true or if they were merely fucking with me. Either way, talk to your artist about the possibility of fading when you are discussing placement.
Tattoos are permanent: This sounds like a “duh” piece of advice, but as laser removal and “wrecking balm” become more popular, tattoos do not seem like the commitment they once were. Removal is expensive and painful. We are talking thousands of dollars. I once watched a show where a guy started the removal process on his hands- his knuckles were covered in huge, oozing, bursting blisters.
Many people also think “I can always get it covered up.” The skin can only be tattooed so many times. I mentioned getting my color redone for the fourth time- something my current artist described as one too many. Sections of my skin are like hamburger- and it hurts like hell to get them redone. Think it through the first time.
Invest in sunscreen: Perhaps if I took care of my color the first time, I wouldn’t be in the boat I am now. I didn’t use sunscreen, despite living in the desert and spending most days outside. When I first started getting tattoos, people would caution me by asking “what happens when you are eighty and that tattoo is saggy and wrinkly.” I could care less about when I’m 80, but having a shitty tattoo at 39 is another story. Take care of your skin.
So should you avoid the needle? Of course not. Tattoo is a beautiful art form, a display of craftsmanship, and a wonderful way to express who you are. I have bought two of my brothers their first tattoos. All of my nieces and nephews know I will do the same for them once they are of age. I have always admired the art form and believe in the idea of adorning your body in images that you love. Just be smart. A forty year old with a tramp stamp is not sexy, she’s a punchline- trust me, I know of which I speak.