Getting your first tattoo can be an intimidating process, especially if you haven’t done your research. Once you settle on a design, you still have to figure out where to get it, who should do it, what precautions to take and how to care for it. And if you’re wary of needles or pain, the process becomes that much more complicated.
But don’t get overwhelmed just yet, because we’ve contacted one of the top parlors in the country (as well as a tattoo removal expert) to get the answers to all of your burning questions. Hopefully, they can take some of the sting out of getting your first tattoo.
It’s important to choose your body art carefully.
“Don’t get a tattoo thinking that it can be removed later in life,” says Khani Zulu, co-owner of Zulu Tattoo in Los Angeles. She stresses that tattoos, by definition, are meant to be permanent. “You should think long and hard about a design that you’ll be happy with for years to come,” she adds.
If you haven’t yet decided on a design for your tattoo, it’s best to choose something that holds personal meaning or work with an artist to create entirely original artwork. “Choose a design that speaks to you in some way,” says Khani, adding that people often choose to represent their heritage or culture with a tattoo. “Even if you choose a universal symbol, make sure that it speaks to you.”
Not all artists and tattoo shops are created equal.
Once you’ve chosen your tattoo (and a body part to showcase it), you’ll need to research tattoo parlors and tattoo artists. The internet can be a useful tool, but you should also be visiting shops first-hand. “Do consultations and ask around,” advises Zulu. “Seek out an experienced artist and look for consistency in their portfolio.”
It’s also important to inquire about the certifications at a potential tattoo shop. Requirements vary from state to state, but Zulu says your tattoo artist should always hold a current Blood Borne Pathogens Certificate and know basic first aid procedures.
Finally, keep an eye out for hygienic tattooing practices. “Make sure the shop is clean,” says Khani, “and make sure that you are made to feel comfortable.” She adds that all tattoo needles and inks should be disposable and one-time-use only, and if you see something that indicates otherwise, head for the door.
Watch what you eat and drink the night before.
Essentially, you want your skin to be ready for your new ink, and that means eating right and getting a good night’s rest. “A tattoo causes trauma to the body, so you and your immune system should be in tip-top shape,” Khani advises. “You want your body as clean as possible to promote the best healing.”
The night before your appointment, Zulu says it’s a good idea to stick to a relatively healthy diet. Alcohol, for instance, should be avoided or strictly limited. “It can increase the amount of bleeding that happens,” she warns. “Also, avoid overly processed, salty or sugary foods,” she adds, saying that sodium nitrates and sugars can increase inflammation and swelling.
It’s going to hurt.
“Yes, of course it hurts!” claims Zulu. She says the pain of a tattoo is annoying more than anything else, but acknowledges that each customer feels pain in their own way. “It’s hard to describe,” she admits. “It’s different for each person.”
Even after the tattooing process is done, however, you can expect your skin to be red and sore for a while. According to the aftercare section of Zulu Tattoo’s website, your tattoo might feel like an itchy sunburn for several days after the procedure, sometimes even oozing pus and blood.
It’s not over when you leave the tattoo parlor.
Now that you’ve got your new tattoo, you’re going to need to care for it. As Khani says, “Treat your new tattoo like what it is: an open wound.” She suggests washing it regularly with only mild soap and water, and never using abrasive sponges, loofahs or rags. Then, pat the tattoo — don’t rub — with paper towels.
It’s also imperative to let you skin repair itself after a tattoo, so care should be taken when choosing and applying a healing ointment. Many tattoo parlors can suggest a brand to buy (and some offer their own formula for purchase), but whatever ointment you choose, make sure it contains no petroleum or lanolin. “A tattoo needs to breathe,” notes Khani, adding that petroleum and lanolin can clog the pores.
In the end, if you clean and moisturize your tattoo regularly, you should expect it to heal completely after three or four weeks.
Removal is possible, but it doesn't come easy or cheap.
According to Jonathan B. Levyn, a doctor of osteopathic medicine in Philadelphia, lasers are the most common method of tattoo removal. “Lasers deliver very short pulses of high intensity light into the treated area,” explains Levyn. “The tattoo is dissolved into smaller ink particles that are harmlessly removed by the body's immune system in the weeks following treatment.” This procedure, however, costs a pretty penny (it's around $200 per treatment, and always requires multiple treatments) and hurts just as much, if not more, than getting tattooed (Levyn likened the pain to being repeatedly snapped by rubber bands). Furthermore, Levyn states that “Not all tattoos are equally treatable, and some tattoos aren’t good candidates for removal at all.”
So what can you do if you laser removal isn’t an option? Khani at Zulu Tattoo notes that it’s possible to cover up a tattoo with another tattoo, though you should look for someone that has specific experience in drawing over tattoos, as not all artists are skilled in this particular craft.
Khani, however, delivers the absolute best advice on the subject of tattoo removal: “Make sure you get what you want the first time!”