Did you actually sleep last night?
Because today you’ll get a new tattoo, so I’ll outline what to expect. Whether you’re an old hat at this or it’s your first one, getting inked is an event. Even if yours is a small piece or actually a large one requiring multiple sessions, this is still an altering moment. It’s up to you whether you’ll go peacefully.
Your attitude will decide how the day will go. Be positive and allow the pain to move through you and don’t resist. Struggle against it and the pain will feel more intense. At least that is how I approach it. I personally try and find a “Zen” moment, a kind of “Mindful Meditation” state when getting tattooed…I also bring my headphones and tunes.
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming….
Sorry, I got a bit woo, woo. I’ll try and keep to topic. So let’s talk about how this day will generally go, there may be some slight variations dependent upon on how your tattoo artist prefers to work. Also remember to have cash or card depending on what they expect.
When you get to the studio/shop/parlor (not the artist’s home, trailer, or best friend’s basement) you will check in at the front desk. Bring your drivers license as you’ll need to show it for age and name verification. Plus, you’ll be filling out and signing a consent form. This is to protect the studio and artist from potential legal implications and truly it’s your next step for understanding you are undergoing a body modification procedure. Now your artist may be finishing up a tattoo or prepping the area for you. So when they give you a time to be there, expect that you won’t start getting inked for a bit, probably not for at least an hour. Remember, you shouldn’t be charged for any time that the artist isn’t directly applying the tattoo. You should still be there and on time because the preliminary work is important.
A clean space to work in.
The artist or the studio staff should prepare the area to be sterilized. This means cleaning the area you will be residing in thoroughly with bleach and/or specific disinfectants, covering all areas you or your blood might contaminate, and covering the equipment with fresh disposable plastic sleeves. The needles will be either be new, taken directly out of a sealed plastic package, or run through their Autoclave (a machine which uses heat and pressure to sterilize any tool which pierces your skin). Your artist should be wearing sterilized medical gloves when the tattooing work starts and change them out every time they take the gloves off for a break.
Your reputable studios and artists will be on top of this but just keep an eye out for your own safety. I personally haven’t had any trouble or concerns here. In future articles I will go over this in more depth.
Your Design & Decision
You should have had your initial consultation with the artist prior to this appointment. You may have seen the design already and approved of it. Or, in many cases, you haven’t seen anything and this will be your first chance. I’ve discussed this and the reasons why in the pervious post Your First Tattoo Consultation. Take a good look at the design. It may be hard, due to the pressure of the artist’s presence right there, but take 5 minutes to study the design. You have to take a mental step back from all your preparation and consider the design critically. Is this what you expected? Maybe you had little to no expectations (that’s an excellent starting place). Also, this is only a stencil drawing. This doesn’t include all the shading, possible colors, or artistic decisions that will occur in creating the tattoo on your skin. This is truly art in action and in the moment. So when looking at the stencil remember this isn’t the full, actualized piece. Talk with the artist a bit about their design and how they see it fitting on your body. If you feel comfortable with this representation then tell them. But if you feel hesitation and you want alterations, just tell the artist, don’t be afraid. If the change isn’t too big they will probably alter it right there. However, if it’s a complete redo, then you will want to schedule another appointment. Don’t be afraid to walk away from the design, remember this is your body first and foremost. It’s my feeling that if you didn’t get to see the design prior to the actual sitting and it’s not what I want in any way, then I have the right to reject it and not lose my deposit. This is a much deeper conversation around ensuring you are getting the piece you want and the artist being respected and paid for their time and work appropriately. I will be tackling this in a future post as I think it’s one of the most overlooked discussions between the consumer and artist.
So let’s assume the design is amazing and you are super excited to move forward. Which, to be honest, it usually is. Your artist will take the design and put it on a thin sheet of acetate paper as a stencil. They may need to resize the image to ensure it fits correctly. The artist will shave that body part, no matter how smooth we assume it is. Rubbing alcohol will be applied to clean the area fully. Once done the acetate stencil will be laid on the location the tattoo will be inked. They’ll peel back the acetate and the stencil image should remain. It’s at this time the artist will have you look in the mirror to ensure it’s positioned as you want it and get your sign off. This may take several rounds to get it right, just be patient, it’s part of the process. Better to get it right…for the rest of your life. Just on a side note, some artists will draw directly on you and you will approve the design that way. It just depends on their style. I’ve had that happen several times and it’s still a very legitimate process. I’ve gotten some great tattoos that way.
Managing the pain
Pain management during your tattoo is a much bigger topic than one or two paragraphs and I will be dedicating a whole post to it in the future. When I got my first tattoo, on my upper arm, the pain felt more like someone was taking the dull edge of a blade across my skin, not necessarily in it. It was kind of annoying and itchy after awhile but bearable. That tattoo was only a couple of hours. No biggy. When I got inked on my calve the pain was more intense and managing the pain became a bigger factor. I took a break after two hours. On my back the first 3 hours where manageable but into the third hour and the more detailed work needed, over one spot, felt like a knife driven into my back repeatedly. But there are multiple factors that determine the pain.
- Location on the body
- How well rested you are and how healthy and strong you feel
- The artist’s touch and skill (some have lighter touches than others)
- How detailed your piece will be. The more detailed, the more one area will be worked over multiple times
- Your overall pain tolerance
As I chatted about in the beginning, I take a Zen approach and try to meditate through the experience. And, I do listen to my music which takes me away from the moment. You have to find your path to pain tolerance. But keep that excitement about a new tattoo going. That’s why you are there and this is the fire you go through to get something you’ve really wanted. Another point I want to make is to stay still. Don’t shift, don’t be restless. The artist has to stop each time you move, even when you breath. They get into a rhythm with you and that’s cool. But if you move a lot, the tattoo will take much longer, mistakes can happen, and the artist will get really frustrated with you. So focus on staying as still as possible. If you start cramping up, tell the artist and they will have you shift to a more comfortable spot or take a break. Keep that communication line open.
This is it, the moment it all begins. You will be placed in a position both comfortable for you and allows the artist the easiest access to start creating. Remember, this is intensive on the artist as well. They are working intently on creating your amazing tattoo and have to be bent over the area for hours. While you should avoid pain reliever medication, they probably won’t. I’ve always found my artist will ask if I’m ready and then put the tip of the needle to my skin and create the first dot. They will check in to make sure I’m ok. They want to gauge my pain tolerance and it will tell them how the sitting will go, maybe I’ll need to take a lot of breaks, or maybe not many. The artist starts inking the stencil outline first. Since the stencil rubs off easily it’s very simple to lose the intended image structure. From there they will begin applying color, shading, or additional design elements. This is all up to the artist. If I can, I usually like to watch. I’m not squeamish about blood. Obviously, I’m fascinated by the process.
Chatting with your artist
It’s very common to talk with your artist throughout the tattooing. Personally, I like to keep it to a minimum. Here are my reasons. It’s up to you and your artist. Though, most artists won’t say anything as they know it’s part of the business like a hairstylist…but my hair will grow out if they screw it up (yea, yea, I’m bald but you get what I mean). Here are my thoughts:
- First, this artist is (should be) completely focused on creating a piece of artwork that will last most of my life. I really want him or her attention focused on that rather than the odd questions I might ask to pass the time.
- This is highly skilled practitioner is spending intense hours altering my flesh. Blood is being spilt. My body is dealing with a localized trauma. I usually don’t chit chat with my doctor or surgeon while they are working unless it’s directly related to my health due to the results.
Again, this is just my perspective.
Take a break
So depending on how long your tattoo will take and your ability to manage the pain, breaks are common. Your artist understands this and will check in with you. I usually take a break every 2 hours but you can do it more frequently. Just remember, the more breaks, the longer the time it takes to finish the tattoo. If at any time you feel light headed or dizzy tell your artist and take a break. Eat and drink something you’ve brought. If you can’t continue, tell the artist and you can schedule a future appointment. It could just be that day and how your health is. You’re losing blood, so you need to be stable.
Once complete, at least for that day, you can release that big sigh you’ve been holding in. Your artist will clean the tattoo and put ointment on it. Usually, they will want pictures, as will you. So bring your camera. After the photo shoot, its time to get wrapped up. Different artists and studios will take a variety of approaches. It seems surprising there isn’t a consistent method, but much of what is learned has been passed down from artist to apprentice. Or it may just be the shop’s rules. Here are the multiple ways I’ve seen or had it done.
- Plastic wrap, like Seran wrap, enclosing the tattooed area
- Blue Medical wrap, easy to put on and it sticks and seals to itself
- Paper towel below any of the above options
- Meat packing pads, similar to what you find when you get meat from the deli (of course fresh, unused ones)
There are a lots of debates going on as to whether one is better than the other. I won’t go into them here. I would follow your artist’s lead in this department and then you can change it out when you get home if you feel comfortable with it.
This is again, is another topic, I will explore in future posts because I am very interested in what is truly best for healing my tattoos.
After the artist has wrapped your tattoo up they’ll provide you with instructions on Tattoo Aftercare. This is also varied and not consistent.
So check out my next post Tattoo 101: Aftercare