What You Need to Know Before Getting a Tattoo

Medically reviewed by Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN on December 19, 2017Written by Tess Catlett on December 19, 2017

What to know before you head to the shop

Above all else, you have to know what imagery you want. Do you want something floral? A portrait? Abstract blots of color? Or maybe you just want some simple script?

tattoo consultation

It’s important to have your core idea fleshed out before setting up a consultation — unless you’re coming in for lettering, which often only requires you to decide on a font. During the consultation, your artist can work out the finer details. You can show them any images you’ve saved as inspiration and figure out placement and pricing.

Depending on the time they have available, the artist may create a mock-up of your tattoo on the spot or a few days later, but ultimately, the final results will depend on several factors:

  • how much of your body you want to dedicate to the art
  • how feasible the tattoo placement is
  • how well the colors you want will show up on your skin tone
  • how much time you want to spend with the artist

Here’s more on what you should consider when designing your next tattoo:

Style

Once you’ve decided what you want tattooed, you have to figure out how you want it to look. There are a ton of different tattooing styles, and you’ll want to go to an artist who’s skilled in the look you’re after.

Some of the most popular styles include:

  • American traditional. Characterized by clean, black outlines and the primary color palette, this style commonly features skulls and roses.
  • Traditional Japanese. Inspired by traditional Japanese artwork, this style’s clean lines and minimal shading are often used to create tigers, koi fish, and flowers.
  • Realism. The goal of this style is to recreate subjects using shading and color contrast, as they appear in real life.
  • Illustrative. By combining aspects of traditional tattooing and realism, this style is about bold outlines and intense color saturation.
  • Neo-traditional. A modernized take on American traditional imagery, this style leans heavily on shading and color to create realistic portraiture.
  • Minimalism or geometric. With a focus on crisp black lines and negative space, this style is about precision. The results are often simple and symbolic.

But you don’t need to be familiar with the lingo to get one of these styles. Browsing Instagram is incredibly helpful, as most artists post their work on their own channel and to a hashtag feed. If, for example, you’ve decided you want to get a tattoo of a cat, a quick #cattattoo search pulls up over 220,000 results.

Save the images you like most and show them to your artist during your consultation. They can use these as inspiration to create a one-of-a-kind piece of your own.

Design

Many people opt for pure illustration, but if you want script — standalone or alongside an image — you’ll need to figure out what kind of font you want.

Adobe Typekit is a great place to look up font styles, offering everything from handwriting to typewriter. The site even lets you see your text of choice in the font you’re considering so that you can actually visualize how it might look on your body.

If you see something you like, print out a couple of different versions to bring to your artist. They may not have your exact font on their computer, so they can use these pages as a reference.

Color

Although the style of tattoo often dictates the color palette, the artist can work with you to modify the design and style to better suit what you want.

That said, your skin tone plays a big role in how well individual colors will hold. For example, fair skin tends to hold white ink better than other skin tones. Red and purple pigments are also more vibrant on fairer skin tones.

Darker skin tones typically hold darker colors — think crimson red and royal blue — better than lighter hues. Having darker skin doesn’t mean that you can’t get pastels or other light hues, just that these options usually don’t appear as pigmented as darker colors might.

Greyscale is also an option. With this style, your artist will use a mix of pure black, watered-down black, and white ink to create the appropriate shades and hues.

Tattoo color guide

  • Lighter colors show up brighter on fairer skin tones, especially white, purple, and red.
  • Richer colors hold better on darker skin tones than pastel colors.
  • All colors will fade over time.

Remember, all colors — including black — will fade over time. You can search online for examples of tattoo appearance over time to get an idea of how yours may look one to five years from now.

Size and location

Speaking of fading, outlines and shapes may look sharp and slick at first, but over time, these can fade or even blur. It all depends on the size and location of your tattoo. That’s why it’s important to think about where you want your tattoo and how visible you want it to be.

Often, location alone can determine your tattoo size. After all, there’s only so much space on your forearm or your thigh.

Don’t worry if you’re still second guessing the finer details. Your artist can help you weigh the pros and cons of the location and sizing, as well as set expectations for how it’ll feel when you’re getting inked.

What to look for in a tattoo shop or artist

tattoo artist

If you know what you want, consider it a sign that you’re ready to take the next step: Shopping for an artist. Ask your friends to see if they can refer you to a specific shop, or let Google or Instagram point you in the right direction.

Here’s what you should keep in mind while you’re sifting through your options:

1. Make sure your artist and the shop has proper licensing

A quick Google search will show you what your state’s rules and regulations are for tattoo licensing. Each state is different, so it’s important to be familiar with the guidelines in your area.

Once you know what you’re looking for, make sure the shop and artist you’re interested in are certified. The parlor’s licensing should be prominently displayed on their website and on the shop wall.

2. Keep an eye out for hygiene and general health habits

Most reputable shops smell like disinfectant and have spotless workstations and floors. If it smells like month-old gym socks, immediately turn tail and head to the next place on your list.

Assuming the shop passes your visual inspection, you’ll want to talk to your potential artist about their tattooing practices. Artists are required to use single-use needles and ink to avoid cross contamination. This also applies to gloves, bandages, swabs, razors — anything that your artist might use must be new.

3. Gauge shop courtesy and ask if the artist offers consultations

Last but not least, take note of the shop and artist’s general professionalism and personality. You’re about to trust someone to permanently etch a piece of artwork into your skin, and in order to do this, you have to be comfortable with the artist and with their work.

You want the artist to be as excited as you, or at least understand your passion. But remember, they aren’t required to work with you just because you like their portfolio.

If you aren’t meshing well or just not digging the overall vibe in the shop, it’s more than okay to move along to the next one. Just be sure to thank the artist for their time before you see your way out.

What a session is like and things to ask your artist

If you’ve made it this far into our guide, it’s safe to say that you have all your bases covered.

To wrap things up, here’s how your interaction with your artist and getting your tattoo done will likely unfold:

  1. Reach out to the artist or shop to talk about rates and set up a consultation.
  2. Meet the artist to talk about your design and expectations.
  3. Agree upon the final design with the artist and confirm the rate. If revisions are needed, this may involve setting up a follow-up appointment to look over the final design before locking in your tattoo date.
  4. Aspirin (Bayer) and ibuprofen (Advil) are off limits in the 24 hours leading up to your appointment, as they can thin your blood. This applies to the consumption of alcohol as well. You may be able to take acetaminophen (Tylenol), but confirm this with your artist beforehand.
  5. Plan to wear something that will keep the area to be tattooed exposed. If you can’t do this, wear something you can easily slip in and out of.
  6. Show up to your appointment 10 minutes early. Don’t forget to bring cash for tips!
  7. Fill out any paperwork and, if needed, finalize any details of your design.
  8. Your artist will take you to their station. You may need to roll up or remove any clothing that may be in the way of your tattoo placement.
  9. Your artist will disinfect the area and use a disposable razor to remove any hair.
  10. Then your artist will place the tattoo stencil onto your skin. Move this around as much as you like until you’re happy with the placement!
  11. Once the placement is perfect, your artist will tattoo the outline of your design before filling in any colors or gradients.
  12. After your artist is finished, they’ll clean the tattooed area, wrap it up, and tell you how to take care of it.
  13. Don’t forget to leave a tip for your artist when you pay! It’s standard to tip at least 20 percent, but if you had an awesome experience and are able to tip more, go ahead.

If you have any lingering questions, ask before you leave the shop. One of the best times to get them answered is when your artist is wrapping your skin.

Since you’re here, screenshot or print out this handy list of questions for your consultation before you commit to an artist.

Things to ask before you get your tattoo

  • How long have you been tattooing? Apprentices can provide great work, but some designs are best left to veteran artists.
  • What are your qualifications? Some artists favor specific styles, even if they can do more general styles.
  • Can I see your portfolio? A reputable artist will have a portfolio of past work on hand so that you can get a sense of their range and specialties.
  • Do you guarantee your work? Sometimes small spots of ink or other blemishes can occur during the healing process. Most artists offer one free touch-up appointment to take care of these areas.
  • What’s your hourly rate? It doesn’t matter if your piece will take 15 minutes or 2 hours — most artists have an hourly rate, or minimum, that must be met before they’ll agree to a piece. Others price on a piece-by-piece basis.
  • How do you sanitize your equipment? If they can’t answer this question, it’s off to the next one. Poor sanitation practices can lead to an infection or worse.
  • Do you have latex-free gloves? This is especially important if you have a latex allergy.
  • What brand of ink do you use? Again, if you have allergies to specific ingredients or materials, now is the time to bring them up.
  • What placement would you recommend for this design? Maybe you’re determined to get tattooed on the inside of your ankle, but they think the piece would work better on the inside of your calf. You need to be happy with the outcome, but remember that they’re the expert.
  • What aftercare procedure do you recommend? Reputable artists will have this information ready to go so that you know what to expect after your piece is complete.

What does getting a tattoo feel like?

Before you ask: Yes, it’s going to hurt. But how much it hurts depends on your pain tolerance, size, and location. Tattoos tend to hurt more around sensitive areas that have more nerves and less flesh. But if you’ve got skin made out of steel, you probably won’t feel a thing. This is especially true if you opted for a meatier location, like your bicep or thigh.

More painful areas tend to include the:

  • forehead
  • neck
  • spine
  • ribs
  • hands or fingers
  • ankles
  • top of your feet
Pro tipThe fleshier the area, the less it’ll hurt. It’s probably going to hurt a little no matter where you put it, but most artists agree that the areas listed above tend to hurt worse than others.

What else will I feel?

Depending on the piece, you may feel:

  • Scratching. This is more common with tattoos that require shading.
  • Sharp stinging. Although this is usually associated with detailing, it may also happen with tattoos on areas with tighter skin, like your wrist.
  • Burning. This is the most common feeling, and it’s caused by the needle going over the same spot multiple times. Take a deep breath! It’ll be over before you know it.
  • Vibrating. This is more common with tattoos in bonier areas, like your ribs or on your foot.
  • Dullness. All feelings will eventually melt into a dull roar. Once you reach this point, you’re home free.

How to tackle potential pain

If the area in question is prone to pain, this will be a great time to get in touch with your meditative side and practice some deep breathing techniques. If at any point the pain becomes too much, let your artist know. A good artist will get to a stopping point and allow you to take a breather. Use this time to get your head back in the game.

How to care for your tattoo

A general rule of thumb is to keep the dressing on for a few hours — especially if you plan on spending the rest of the day out and about. When you get home, be sure to wash your hands before you remove the dressing. Remember, a fresh tattoo is an open wound. Dirt or bacteria can damage it or slow the healing process.

After you take the dressing off, wash the tattoo with your artist’s recommended cleanser or a gentle, unscented soap. You should avoid using any soap with fragrances or alcohol, as these ingredients can cause irritation.

After you wash, gently pat the area dry with a clean towel. Whatever you do, don’t rub! Rubbing can pull at the skin and may cause ink fallout.

If you’re dealing with itchy, dry skin, apply a thin layer of your artist’s recommended ointment or a gentle, unscented lotion. As with the cleanser, you should avoid using anything with irritants like fragrance or alcohol.

Most artists will give you a verbal rundown of how to take care of your new ink and send you home with a handout to reference later. You should always follow your artist’s aftercare instructions.

If the tattoo starts to flake or peel, don’t panic. This is a normal part of the healing process, and it usually only lasts through the end of the first week. Just don’t pick at it — this can lead to ink fallout and ruin your art.

How to maintain your tattoo

Most tattoos heal at the surface layer within the first couple of weeks, but it may be months before it’s healed completely. Skimping on care can delay the healing process and also affect how your tattoo looks in the long term.

Practicing good hygiene is the only way to reduce your risk for infection. See your doctor right away if you begin experiencing:

  • skin that’s warm or tender to the touch
  • a burning sensation
  • swelling after the first couple of days have passed
  • green or yellow pus
  • foul odor

In addition to keeping the tattoo clean, you want to keep it fresh and hydrated. Exposing the tattoo to direct sunlight can cause the colors to fade, so invest in a quality sunscreen or SPF clothing. Dry skin can also cause a tattoo or the ink to look dull.

Still have questions? Here’s everything you need to know about taking care of your tattoo.

If you changed your mind

Tattoos may not be forever, but they’re pretty close. Although many people can and do get tattoos successfully removed, there’s no real guarantee that these methods will always work. It all depends on the tattoo size, the type and color of ink that was used, and how deep the artist went with their tools.

Removal is also expensive and often more painful than getting the tattoo itself. And despite what some internet hacks may claim, the only way to remove a tattoo is through a surgical procedure.

This includes:

  • Laser therapy. After injecting the area with a local anesthetic, your surgeon will use targeted energy pulses to heat and shatter the tattoo ink. Multiple sessions are needed to fade the tattoo.
  • Surgical excision. Your surgeon will inject the area with a local anesthetic before using a scalpel to remove the tattooed skin. The edges of the surrounding skin are sewn together. This usually leaves a scar and is only recommended for small tattoos.
  • Dermabrasion. After numbing the area, your surgeon will use a high-speed device to sand away the inked layers. The area will be sore and raw for about two weeks after the procedure. Due to its unpredictable results, this method is used less commonly.

If you do decide that you want to get a tattoo removed, set up an appointment with your healthcare provider or dermatologist. They can talk through the different procedures available and answer any questions you may have.

In some cases, it may be easier — and more affordable — to get a new tattoo to hide the old tattoo. An artist can walk you through your cover-up options and advise you on what comes next.

The bottom line

You may be itching to get your new tattoo right away, but it takes time to get the details just right. The last thing you want is to cut corners on price or location and wind up with a shoddy tattoo — or an infection.

Patience will pay off in the long run, so be sure to explore all of your options until you find what works for you. And if you have a great experience, your first tattoo doesn’t have to be your last! Keep adding to your canvas and embrace the confidence that it gives.

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When Tess Catlett was 13, she wanted nothing more than to dye her hair blue and get a Tinkerbell tattoo on her shoulder blade. Now an editor at Healthline.com, she’s only checked one of those things off her bucket list — and thank goodness it wasn’t that tattoo. Sound familiar? Share your would-be tattoo horror stories with her on Twitter.

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