Once you’ve connected with an artist, you will likely need to go in for a consultation if your design is a more complicated custom piece. You can provide photo examples of the subject matter to help the artist understand what you want the tattoo to look like. For example, if you’d like a butterfly, bring in some pictures of butterflies you like, with the particular wing shape and colors you prefer, and in the position you’d like to see it on your body. The artist will collect your photos and ask you questions about the size and placement and will sometimes trace the area of your body where you’d like it to go. After your consultation, you will be able to make an appointment and will probably have to pay a deposit, which is typically $50-100.
Prepare yourself for your appointment. You should wear clothing that will give your artist full access to the area that is to be tattooed, but with the least amount of uncomfortable exposure. Sometimes this can’t be helped, if you’re getting your lower back tattooed or anywhere around your private parts, and you can request to be tattooed behind a screen, or simply have to lose your inhibitions. The artists have seen it all before and they see your body as a bunch of shapes and your skin as their canvas. Any other clients in the shop will be more worried about themselves than about you. You’re all suffering together. Also, this is not a fashion show. Wear something that you are ok with having permanent ink spilled on. The tattoo machine is a vibrating one and ink is likely to spray.
Plan to get to the shop early, in case the artist needs to ask you about any final tweaks to your design. Drink lots of water and eat something prior to your appointment. You will be nervous and may not feel like eating, but you need sugar or you might pass out from the adrenaline rush. Do not drink alcohol beforehand as it thins the blood, and you will bleed more readily, making it difficult for the artist to work. Finally, do not plan for any strenuous activity after the appointment is over, because you’ll have a fresh wound on your body. Plus, you’ll be spent, emotionally and physically. I always feel exhausted after a tattoo, especially a long one, because my body is tensing so much against the pain.
At your appointment, the artist will show you the final design to make sure everything is to your liking, and then you will need to fill out a form stating you are of sound mental health, not drunk, not a hemophiliac, not allergic to anything, not pregnant, not taking any drugs, etc. You will also need to confirm that you have read and understand the risks and issues that can arise with getting a tattoo, like infection, and fading, and provide your ID to get it copied. Sometimes the shop will ask you to pay in advance, which I don’t like, because artists usually get paid per hour and the front of the shop always overestimates the time the tattoo will take. If you pay with a credit card, there is also a spot to fill in a tip, which makes me feel pressured to do so when I don’t yet know how the tattoo will turn out. However, it’s not a good idea to haggle over tattoo prices at any point in the process, because you want a quality tattoo, not a cheap one, and a good artist deserves it. I love being tattooed so much, I usually over-tip anyway. So pay up, sit down, and wait to be called in while the artist sets up the station.
Once you are called in, you should see that the artist is using clean needles and that everything your body will be touching has been covered. If you’re not sure whether the needles are new, you can insist that they be opened in front of you. If you’re getting a color tattoo, you will see little caps of colored ink lined up by the needles. For black and grey tattoos, the artist will have a row of caps in black and varying shades of grey, which are achieved by adding water to varying amounts of black ink. There may also be a cap of white for highlights, which will be added at the end. Your design will have been copied onto transfer paper. The artist will then shave the area to be tattooed, because hair interrupts the flow of the needle and may also be pushed into the skin, increasing the chance of infection. Your skin will then be disinfected with rubbing alcohol, which sometimes stings if the shaving was roughly done. The artist will wet the area with greensoap, which is a vegetable-oil based, water soluble soap, used for prepping the tattoo site. It’s also used during and after the tattoo process to remove dirt, blood and tattoo ink. At this time, be sure to stand straight and keep still as the stencil is carefully placed onto your body. When it is removed, a purple outline will remain on your skin and you can check out the placement of the tattoo in the mirror.
Take your time with the tattoo design to make sure you like it. View it from different angles, turn and pose with it, and be absolutely certain that you will able to live with this tattoo for the rest of your life. If you think it’s crooked, or too high or too low, or just a smidge too far to the left, say something. Do not be afraid of the artist. Some can get cranky about having to move it around over and over again, but let them. Of all times, this is the time to be nit-picky, or you will regret not saying something afterwards. Believe me, there have been many times when I wished I had said something, but I figured the artist knew best and I’d go with their vision. The artist knows best about a lot of things, but you know your body best and you know what you want it to look like. Trust that the artist wants you to be happy with your tattoo and will do what it takes to make that happen. The stencil can be washed off and replaced wherever and however you like. I cannot stress this enough. It has cost me more, both mentally and monetarily, to fix or cover-up unsatisfactory tattoos than it would have for me to have simply voiced my concerns over design issues or placement before the needle went into my skin.
Once you have approved the stencil, you will be placed in the best possible position for the artist to comfortably work on your tattoo. This means that you are not always perfectly comfortable, although the artists will do their best to try and make it so. I have gotten many a cramp laying at awkward angles for hours to give the artist the best access to the tattoo site. The artist will continually put dabs of petroleum jelly on the spots they’re inking to allow the needle to move easily across the skin, so you will know where to expect the first puncture. When the artist starts up the machine and you hear that buzzing sound, you will probably take a deep breath, but don’t forget to let it out and keep breathing, or you will pass out. I nearly passed out during a tattoo appointment and had to be brought water and a candy bar before the artist could continue. It’s embarrassing, but it happens often, so be sure to keep the artist informed of how you’re doing as the tattoo progresses; they usually check in every once in a while, so be honest with them. If you pass out and move while the artist is tattooing you, any mistakes they make will be worse than looking weak by having to ask them to stop and give you a moment to recover.
While you’re getting a tattoo, the artist will periodically clean the area of excessive ink and blood to be able to see what they are doing. It’s cooling, yet can be painful as the artist is rubbing some very sore skin. You will probably get used to the sensation of the needle puncturing your skin fairly quickly. Some spots may become numb and you won’t feel the needle as badly. Other spots can become tender and every graze of the needle will feel like someone is stabbing you with a burning fire iron. Endure. It will be over soon and it will be worth it. Some people, including myself, even find it addictive. During the tattoo process, if the artist doesn’t need complete silence to focus on their work, distract yourself from the pain by having a conversation. Tell the story of your tattoo idea. Get to know the artist, how they got to be where they are, and find out what inspires them. If you’re traveling, ask about the city or the country you’re visiting and get some suggestions for where to hang out while you’re in town. This is your chance to really get to know the culture and community from a local who lives it.
Once the tattoo has been completed, you’ll have a chance to look at it in the mirror. Feel free to ooh and ahh over it, but also give it a discerning look. Although you can’t take anything away from the tattoo, you can still add to it, so again, take the time to inspect and voice your opinion. If all is well, the artist will give the tattoo a final wash, and may take a few photos for their portfolio. Then they will spread some petroleum jelly across the tattoo and bandage it up, while giving you a lesson on how to care for your new artwork. Most studios will also give you an aftercare sheet. Pay and tip your artist if you haven’t already, and go off into the world, newly inked, and thinking about what you want to get next.