There will always be people who hear the siren call of permanent ink on their eighteenth birthdays. I opted to hit the local adult bookstore instead, where I learned that an “adult arcade” involves a lot of Kleenex and no pinball, but we each walk our own paths. On that journey, you’ll see scores of people who decide to spontaneously get their first tattoo on a vacation or a drunken night out or by sticking their arm in a hole and waiting for a surprise. In general, these spur-of-the-moment tattoos hold sentimental value for a variety of reasons, but the art is rarely something of which the wearer remains proud. Deny it all you want, your tattoo of Drake as Bart Simpson isn’t aging well.
It’s time for me to make a confession: I don’t have a tattoo. Piercings were my rebellious self-expression of choice. So, I had to seek out an expert on the subject of first ink. Enter tattoo artist and all around super cool nerd girl, Karla Yvette. Though she started her career in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, she now works at Adorn in Portland, Oregon — a city where you are legally obligated to have at least one tattoo, and it better have some whimsy dammit. Who better to ask for insight into making the best decisions about your first tattoo?
Instead of pointing to some tattoo line-art at a walk-in shop — which is like being told you are going to get a haircut that will last for the rest of your life and pointing to an image in The Big Book of Generic Haircuts while you sit in the waiting area of Fantastic Sam’s — consider the following:
Thankfully, you no longer have to go to the tattoo shop and flip through literal portfolios (although, that is still really fun). Artists and shops now have extensive websites with images of work. And, never overlook Instagram. If you would Google the crap out of a potential job or that guy you are supposed to meet for tiki drinks and discrete “cuddling,” you can give an equal amount of energy to researching the person who will mark you for the rest of your life.
You need an artist who works in the style you want. “For example, if you would like to get a Japanese style sleeve, but the artist has mostly black-and-grey realism in their portfolio,” Yvette points out, “they will probably not be a great fit for your project. There’s no fun in waiting weeks for a consultation only to have an artist decline your project because they don’t feel comfortable taking it on.”
Know What You Want
There’s a reason the word “artist” is in the job title. “Tattoos are a collaborative project, and a client who is able to clearly articulate their concept, either through words or reference images, is a huge help to us,” Yvette reminds customers. The reference image part is super important. Don’t expect Honey Boo Boo’s face but in the style of Matisse to necessarily translate to every tattooer. Do you mean Matisse in his early years as a painter or in his declining stomach cancer years when he got into paper collages?
Bring in some pictures. Find other tattoos that evoke what you want. And, they don’t have to be exactly what you are looking for; you can explain to the artist why you picked the images.
But, Remain Open
Don’t be so committed to your idea that you can’t accept changes. The person you are working with is experienced in creating imagery on human skin. You researched them and sought them out because you respect what they do. Show them that respect by believing them when they tell you that your idea for “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti” tattooed in small script across your hip is a bad one.
As Yvette reminds potential clients, “Be prepared to accept that tattooing is a unique medium with some limitations, and not every idea may translate well onto skin.”
Know That a Consultation Isn’t a Commitment
If you are one of those people who feels obligated to buy something because a salesperson spoke to you or helped you find something on an endcap, you need to absolve yourself of that responsibility. Yvette notes, “A professional tattoo artist should have the same goal as you do: to give you a tattoo that you are going to love now and forever.” You aren’t obligated to sleep with the person who bought you dinner, and you don’t have to get your tattoo from an artist who isn’t listening or seems disinterested. Almost one fourth (23 percent) of people regret getting a tattoo and many of those people probably went with artists they didn’t feel completely comfortable with.
Avoid regrets. The point of a consultation is to consult. “Find a person you feel comfortable with, who is willing to answer all of your questions.”
Ask About Bringing Guests
When my son got his first tattoo, we did almost everything on this list, but this one didn’t even occur to him or to me. The room he ended up getting his ink in was super tiny and there wasn’t anywhere for my fat butt to perch and observe. Then, my mom arrived and it was anarchy. Ultimately, my mom and I bailed and left my son with his artist (Karla Yvette!). This could have all been avoided if I’d followed her advice.
“Ask your artist beforehand if it is okay for you to bring a friend or family member. Some studios have the space, and others don’t. If companions are welcome, it’s best to limit it to one or two people. Having a large group of people around is a distraction to both you and your artist, as you are trying to make important decisions regarding your tattoo.”
Don’t Let Fear Rule
You know that your tattoo won’t be licked on by baby narwhals, right? It will be uncomfortable, so it completely makes sense for you to get a little nervous. But, Yvette cautions “It’s best to remember that the pain is only temporary.” Don’t let you fear cause you to change the location or the size of your design. “Your discomfort will only last a few hours per session, at most, but the tattoo will be there forever.”
Get what you want, where you want. And, not to peer pressure you or anything, but four-in-ten millennials have a tattoo and half of those have two to five (18 percent have six or more). Those people all made it through the pain.
There are some pretty understandable prep tips, like getting a good night’s sleeps and eating something before your appointment. But, it’s a good thing I asked a pro because she also advises “wearing appropriate clothing that you don’t mind getting stained.” Also, take it easy with the drinking both the day of the tattoo, and the night before too. Yvette warns, “Getting tattooed hung over is the absolute worst and can sometimes cause you to bleed more than usual.” For those people with medical complications or who take prescriptions that affect the blood/immune system/skin, it’s best to consult your doctor beforehand.
Do Your Aftercare
It’s not just about coming into the appointment at your best, you have to continue taking care of yourself and your tattoo afterward. Trust the tattooer to give you clear instructions in person and to provide you a hard copy, as well. “It also helps to take care of the rest of your body, as your immune system does its work to heal your tattoo – drink lots of water, eat well, and wash your hands when needed,” says Yvette.
Follow Up If You Need To
Just because you get aftercare information at the close of your session doesn’t mean that all contact has come to a close. If you have questions about aftercare, healing, and touchups, go for it. “A good studio will be more than happy to answer any questions you may have, especially as you heal a tattoo for the first time. It’s only beneficial for us to have nice looking work out there and for you to want to recommend your friends,” states Yvette. “Also, understand that, on occasion, a piece of your tattoo may not heal exactly right (sometimes through no fault of your own, or the artist’s); ask your tattoo artist in advance about their touch up policy. Most offer free touch ups, though there may be exceptions for certain parts of the body.”
As a final thought, I asked our sage guide about tattoo trends that need to die in 2017, and she responded, “I think tattooers are collectively baffled by the trend of anchor tattoos with the words ‘Never Sink’.”