by Dawn Grace at her own studio

Once you decide you’d like to get a tattoo, you need to have a design in mind. This could very well be an easy decision because it may be something you’ve been passionate about your whole life, or maybe you just really want a tattoo but you’re not quite sure what you’d like it to be. The comments I hear most often from people considering a tattoo, or who have already decided never to get one, are: I don’t have anything that I would want on my body for the rest of my life; and I’m so fickle that something I love now is not something I may love in twenty years. I understand that, but I also think that, like photographs, it’s nice to have reminders of significant experiences in your life. And you may no longer like doing the same activities as before, but you’ll still like the memories of having done them.

by Zach Stuka at Deluxe Tattoo

For example, I enjoy playing video games. I especially love the Legend of Zelda series, and so I have tattoos on my thighs of the Hylian crest and a life meter with Navi, the fairy, floating above it. Will I still be playing Zelda in twenty years? I don’t know. That Nintendo franchise may not even exist anymore. But will I look back on those times when I played through Ocarina of Time, the best game ever made, and smile? Absolutely. Will I regret getting a permanent reminder of it on my body? Absolutely not.

Sometimes you don’t know exactly what you’re going to end up with—like if you give your artist a vague idea of what you want and they come up with a design you couldn’t have even imagined, but you end up loving. Those are some of the best tattoo moments because it’s a beautiful collaboration and both you and the tattoo artist are happy with the process, rather than tattooists churning out the same generic tattoo over and over again without any input of their own. Or you may walk in with an idea in mind and walk out with something entirely different. I wanted to get a particular piece covered up and asked for a large star and the artist refused to do it, saying it would look too big and black and I would hate it. Instead, he sketched out some flowers on my leg, and asked me what I thought. I didn’t even know what kind of flowers they were, but they looked good, so I went with it.

by Dawn Grace

People often think tattoos must be super meaningful. Obviously, you’ll have a reason for the design, because you wouldn’t just walk in to a shop and get a tattoo of the first random thing you see, like a stapler, unless there’s something about staplers that you’d like a permanent reminder of, but it doesn’t have to hold some deep emotional significance. Your reason can simply be that you thought it would look cool. Most of my tattoos have stories behind them, although some are somewhat forced because of the particular trip I’m taking, like the shamrock and anchor for Nassau, two things I would normally never consider having on my body. Some of my tattoos were unexpected, like the flower cover-up mentioned above, or, others, like the bamboo on my back, I had seen tattooed examples of at some point and decided that I, too, would like to have them. Bamboo is supposed to be lucky, so that’s a bonus, but really I just like the way it looks.

by Dawn Grace

Once you have a design in mind, you will need to decide whether you’d like to get it in color or black and grey. Color is usually more expensive, but that shouldn’t sway your decision. Think about the style of the tattoo and whether it would look better in color. Sugar skulls, for example, do well with bright colors, whereas a portrait often looks best monochromatic. You may also want to consider your future tattoo plans. Some people only want black ink on their body, whereas others have mostly color. I do both, but have a preference toward only black and grey on my arms. You also need to decide where on your body you’d like to place the tattoo. There are a number of factors to consider, including size, visibility, movement, and pain tolerance. Sorry guys, size does matter. The more detailed the design, the larger it needs to be. Ink will fade and bleed as the skin ages and the design will become less clear. Quotes need to be in large enough font to remain readable over the years, and things like a barcode, for example, need to be big enough so that the lines don’t bleed together and become one gray rectangle. Visibility-wise, you need to think about how much ink you’re willing to show. A lot of men I know only have tattoos on their upper arms so they can roll their sleeves up at work and still look professional. If you have old-fashioned parents, like I do, you may want to keep your tattoos on your torso, unless you are willing to only visit them in the colder months, which is what I have to do at this point.

leopard print by Dawn Grace
leopard print by Dawn Grace
barcode print
barcode by Dave Cavalcante at Tattoo Paradise

I also take into account how the design will flow with the shape of the body-part. A triangular piece, for example, will look less awkward if the point is at your wrist and gets wider going toward your elbow, to correspond with the shape your lower arm makes. Because the arm twists, you also need to imagine how the tattoo will move with it. My leopard print and barcode tattoos are fully inked on the underside of my forearm, yet when my arm hangs at my side, they come over the top of my arm. This means that something may look straight in one position, but crooked in another. If you’d like the design to be as static as possible, consider a place on your body that doesn’t contort as much, such as your back. Designs should also sit so that they’re right-side up to others when looking at you, even though they’ll appear upside-down to you.

Lastly, consider the pain factor of the part of your body you’d like to get tattooed. Pain tolerance differs for everyone, but I don’t believe anyone who says that their tattoo didn’t hurt at all. Sure, some places hurt way less than others, but there will always be some discomfort. Places where your skin is thinner or closer to the bone or any area with tightly packed nerve endings, such as joints, are going to hurt more.

by Dawn Grace

For me, pain isn’t a factor at all when making tattoo placement decisions. I have a pretty high pain tolerance anyway, and I care more about how the tattoo will look afterwards, than the pain I will be in during the procedure. Others cannot handle the pain, however, and have had to compromise their tattoos because of it. I have seen numerous examples of arm bands that don’t quite meet under the arm, and had a friend who wanted to get a swallow on each ribcage, but refused to get the second one done after he endured the pain of the first.

by Zach Stuka

Also, the more detail and color in a tattoo, the more painful a session becomes. For some, the initial outline is the worst, but for me, it’s the shading and coloring in, especially if a spot is being worked over several times. My most painful tattoo thus far is the butterfly on my ankle. The outlining was no big deal, but once he started working in different colors over the same very bony spots, I was actually flinching, when I normally sit like a rock. The little gray dots he added at the very end nearly did me in.

You have a design and you know where on your body you’re going to get it. Now you need to find someone to etch it into your skin. Research your options. I’m a Yelper, so I typically will go there first to see what the masses have to say about the tattoo parlors in an area I’m about to visit. After that, I will go to the tattoo parlors’ websites and view their galleries. Depending on my intended design and the quality of the artists’ work, I will either contact the shop and request to be matched up with anyone available, or I will contact a particular artist directly. Usually, if I have a design already drawn up, I will simply contact a highly-rated shop because I am confident anyone there will be able to do a quality piece. If I need the tattoo to be designed for me, I will contact the artist whose style best suits my needs.

by Fred at Jade Dragon

There are numerous styles of tattoos and artists typically specialize in one or more. I tend to prefer artists who do more realistic, fine line work because I like more delicate and detailed pieces, and therefore will rarely work with an artist who does mainly traditional sailor jerry type tattoos that tend to have simpler designs with thick outlines. Before settling on a shop or artist, also make sure that the tattoo parlor is well-lit and clean, and that they have good hygiene practices and use fresh needles with every client. Contact the shop to make an appointment for a time when both you and your artist are available. Make sure this is a time when you’ll be able to properly take care of your new tattoo and you won’t be soaking in a hot tub on a spa vacation or laying out in the sun or doing anything that will continually rub against it for at least two weeks, when it’s fresh and healing.

by Fred at Jade Dragon

I’m not against walk-ins, by the way. I understand the spontaneous tattoo that you get because you’re hanging out with a friend who is getting hers and you’re looking through some flash art on the wall and suddenly really want a heart with a “Mom” banner wrapped around it. And I have gotten a walk-in tattoo before. I once walked into a parlor to get a specific design and while waiting for my appointment, I looked through the flash gallery and saw a cat I liked, which I ended up getting as well. Was it the best cat I could have gotten? No, but the more tattoos you get, the more you want, and the less obsessive you get over each one. At least that’s how it is for me. And I still like the cat.

As for how the tattoo process works? According to, a modern tattoo is created by an electrically-powered machine that moves a solid needle up and down to puncture about a millimeter of skin between 50 and 3,000 times per minute, depositing a drop of insoluble ink with each puncture. Pretty cool. One day, I’d love to be tattooed by a Buddhist monk with a pointy stick. I’ll be sure to update my blog as soon as I do.