When the big day arrives, surprises are not welcome. From the moment a customer enters the tattoo shop to the moment he or she leaves, there is a typical process that is virtually scripted in the minds of many tattoo artists, and it helps a prospective tattooee to know in advance what that script involves.
Several steps of preparation involving the workstation, equipment, and pigments take place and may mean some waiting time spent idly gazing at flash or watching somebody else get tattooed. The design is prepared with either a transfer or a stencil.
The skin, no matter the part of the body involved, is shaved and given an alcohol wipe. A temporary ink outline of the design is placed on the surface of the skin and checked in a mirror. And all of these steps take place before a single part of actual tattooing begins.
This article is designed to relieve the natural anxiety that any new experience brings, by demystifying it and laying it bare. Knowing exactly what to expect, in the order it will likely happen, and the amount of time it will likely last, can mean the difference between a nerve-racking experience and an enriching one.
This article advises tattooees of some of the potential regulations involved, their responsibilities, the responsibilities of the tattoo shop or artist, and the requirements of payment up front and signing contracts. In addition, the prospective tattooee will learn that tattoo artists also have their own expectations, and that fulfilling these can make for an even better experience and better tattoo.
Before You Get There
You've done all your research, made all your decisions, and have your appointment ... what, no appointment? Part of the decision-making process was picking your tattooist someone in whose technical and artistic skill you have confidence, with whom you have some rapport—someone that you trust. Will he or she be at the shop that day or not? Assuming so, will he or she he busy when you arrive? If that is the case, are you going to wait? How long? But why leave any of this to chance? The first thing, then, that you need to do before you actually arrive for your tattoo is to have made an appointment beforehand. (It's not as spur-of-the-moment as some tattoos, hut the perfect tattoo rarely is.) The second thing to do is to take a bath or shower. Whether you've had your bath for the week already or not, be clean and presentable. Don't come directly from the gym in your workout clothes or after you've been digging trenches in the hot sun. Your tattoo artist is going to sit close to you and work with your skin. Don't give him or her a reason to hurry.
On your checklist of things not to do before your tattoo appointment is taking any aspirin or drinking alcohol. In both cases, the blood is thinned, which makes for more bleeding and possibly impaired healing. In the second case, though, it's simply poor form to show up faced. You are entering a tattoo artist's place of work and creativity. Is that how you'd wad somebody to come to your place of work? Save the drinking for later, when your friends take you out. Besides, you wouldn't want to miss out on a single part of your tattoo experience. When you look back on it, you'll know that you earned your tattoo the way millions of people have for thousands of years.
Dress appropriately for the placement of your tattoo, which you have already discussed with the tattoo artist. If you know you're getting a tattoo on your upper arm, then wear something sleeveless or with sleeves that can be rolled up high enough. If you're getting something on your lower leg, then wear shorts. If you're getting something on your lower back, then wear a shirt that you can lift and pants that are low enough or which can be lowered enough. If you're getting something on your back, girls, consider wearing a button-up shirt which you can then wear backwards and leave open in the hack. All tattoo shops will have at least a bathroom where you can change your clothes. Tattoo shops also have areas with more and less privacy. The front of the shop will almost always have a chair or two but also, usually there will be an area that is screened off from the view people in the front and the general public who are looking at flash. If you have questions about what would be good to wear, ask your tattoo artist. You don't want to wear clothing (like briefs or a bra) that will leave an impression in your skin in the exact place where you're planning on having a tattoo.
With all of that in mind, do your best to dress comfortably. There's no point in complicating matters by wearing something in which you can't breathe. Keep in mind the possibility that some stray ink might get on your clothes. It doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen. Some people who are in the process of getting a very large tattoo, over the course of several sessions, may even have a certain set of clothes that they wear for tattooing and may even bring their own towel or pillow for extra comfort. For most people getting their first tattoo, though, this would probably be completely unnecessary. Don't even think about bringing your teddy hear.
What to Bring
Make sure that you bring some form of identification with you, no matter your age. Depending on local regulations, many tattoo shops will have a contract for you to sign. As with any contract, you should read it. Unlike most, it'll probably be pretty brief. You can expect issues of responsibility to come up (for example, allergic reactions to inks aren't the responsibility of the tattoo artist) or the legal age limit for tattooing (different in different areas).
In essence, the tattoo shop and tattoo artist are going to limit the amount of responsibility that they are willing to accept to things that they can control: a sterile environment, satisfaction with the work, and the like. They are not going to take responsibility for things that they can't control: your allergic reactions, the particulars and peculiarities of how your skin heals. In order to sign a contract with you, they have to know who you are. The identification that you bring will be used to that end, and to verify your age if you look close to the legal limit.
Bring your money. You've already discussed your design in detail with the tattoo artist. Once the artist has seen the design, and knows how big it will be and where on your body it will go, he or she can give you a price. Body location will change the price since some parts of the body simply mean more work and time for the artist than others. You know what forms of money they'll take: cash, maybe checks (but you should ask), and credit cards. Make sure to bring enough with you for the tattoo and your tip, if you're thinking of giving one after being pleased with the final product. You may he asked for the fee up front, so that they can be sure you've got the money.
Be on time for your appointment. Not only is it courteous and good business practice—it also helps to have as much time as possible for your tattoo. There may be more appointments after you. Even if you're on time, though, prepare yourself to wait anyway. Tattooing is a people business and people can be unpredictable. Some tattoo clients may need more breaks during their tattoo process than others or may simply need to take the whole thing a little more slowly. Others simply sit down, sit like a rock, and get up when it's done. Of course, even if everything is on time, waiting during preparations is part of the normal process.
The following scenario can only be a general guideline since it will most definitely vary from place to place and artist to artist. But in its broad outlines, this is pretty much what you can expect.
When you arrive and are greeted by your tattoo artist, he or she will confirm the tattoo with you (design, placement, colors), see your ID, have you sign the contract, take your money, and then make the preparations. You can watch, you can look at Rash, or you can probably watch somebody else getting tattooed. You might have seen all of this before when you made your grand tour of local tattoo shops or when you looked at your artist's portfolio. Your artist will now create the artwork for the outline of your tattoo design, if it hasn't already been done. A simple, clean, black-and-white version of the outline of your tattoo will be drawn or traced. This paper version might be held up against your body for position and placement, helping with that final visualization process of how your finished tattoo will look. Don't have any ink or temporary tattoos at all in the area where you'll be getting your tattoo. Once the outline is finalized, the tattoo artist will make a transfer, essentially xeroxing the outline onto special transfer paper.
At this point, tattoo artists prepare the work area by wiping the chair or table down with a disinfectant. They may also use Saran wrap to cover these same areas. Then they'll do the same for the surface on which their equipment rests, again wiping it down with a disinfectant and putting down Saran wrap, especially over anything in the area that might be particularly sensitive (like the power supply for the tattoo machine, for example, if it happens to be located on the worktable—you wouldn't want to get any liquid on that sucker). At some point your artist will don sterile latex gloves. These are worn at all times when touching your skin or anything that will be touching your skin. If your artist has to answer the phone or fetch more ink or whatever, he or she will need to put on new gloves each time before sitting down to tattoo you.
Next, the equipment is brought out to the work area. The tattoo machine itself, unopened packages of sterilized tubes and needles, and a disposable razor are placed on the disinfected worktable. You'll be invited to assume the position—take a seat or lie down, whichever is appropriate for your tattoo placement. Before the transfer can go On, your skin will be cleaned with alcohol, using new tissues or cotton balls, and then it will be shaved. No matter if you're a guy or a girl or what part of the body we're talking about (since there is body hair everywhere, even though it's hard to see), your skin will be prepared by removing as much body hair as possible with a single gentle shave. The artist will wipe (town the area with alcohol and place the outline of your tattoo, now on the special transfer paper into contact with your wet skin. When the transfer paper is removed, it leaves behind a purple outline on the skin that your artist will use as a guide to create the outline of the tattoo. You should check this in a mirror, using a handheld mirror along with the ones on the wall if it's on your back. What you're seeing is a very close approximation of how your finished tattoo will appear in the context of the rest of your body—although it's a far cry from the black outline and shading that will obliterate the transfer ink. Also, don't worry if the transfer seems messy. It's not permanent ink and it only serves as a guideline. If, at this point, you want something changed about location, size, or design, now is the time to say so.
If the transfer looks good to you both, you'll be asked to resume your position. The artist will then set up a palette of inks. Generally a new paper plate or a sterile tray serves to hold the inks that will be used for your tattoo. Inks are stored in sterile plastic bottles with conical tips. The inks for your tattoo will be dispensed from these bottles into new and disposable plastic caps. A mound of Vaseline can be placed on the plate with a sterile wooden tongue depressor and the caps may be dabbed in it so that they stick to the palette. The cap of an ink bottle is removed and wiped with a tissue, and then ink is squeezed directly into the small cup on the palette. Although this process might be repeated later, generally an artist will put down enough cups to hold enough ink for the entire tattoo if it's a small one. Then the tip is wiped again and the cap and bottle replaced. The palette with Vaseline and inks will be placed close at hand at the worktable.
Once the palette is in place, it's time to load the needles into the tattoo machine. While you may not see the inks dispensed the most important part of the sterilization procedure should he done in front of you: opening the autoclave bags. The tubes are first removed from their autoclave bags and fitted into the opening in the tattoo machine. Many artists have particular favorites among tube styles and they likely own their tubes, matched to their machines, and they may purchase and manufacture their own needles as well (soldering needles to the bars). The needles are removed from the autoclave bag and inspected by the artist with a loupe. They are inserted into the tubes and attached to the machine.
Finally, the machine is hooked up to the power cord, which generally has a foot switch in it for the artist to turn the tattoo machine on and off, hands free. Once the machine is turned on, the artist may fiddle with it or the power supply, and you'll hear it make a distinct buzzing sound—not so loud that a normal conversation voice is easily heard above it. though. When the machine is running to the artist's satisfaction, he or she will dip the running machine into the first ink cup (generally black to create the outline) and let you know that things are about to start and that you'll be feeling a brisk sensation.
The style of different tattoo artists when interacting with customer varies greasily, but this is why you spent some amount of time considering them in the first place. In addition, many tattoo artists will modify their approach or style and tailor it to their clients' needs (a first-time customer may need much more time than a repeat "offender"). They may offer you a moment to reconsider the tattoo before they begin ... or not. They may ask you if you're ready to begin ... or not. At this point, or at any time really, if you feel nervous or anxious, that's perfectly natural. Just let your artist know. Artists help hundreds if not thousands of people through the process of getting their first tattoo. Because you're embarking on something that will permanently be displayed on your skin for the rest of your life, it's not uncommon for that realization to come to you in that moment. Rather than worrying about pain, you're worrying about your decision. However, the point of this book is to make sure that you've done everything that you can to be prepared for this moment. Anxiety and nervousness are just a part of the tattoo process, part of the ritual in a sense, and part of every important ritual in the most universal sense. If, however, you're having serious second thoughts, say so. If your gut instinct is that you're making a mistake, then stop. Tattoo artists have seen that happen as well. You need to feel good about what you're doing in the big picture, even if you're nervous at the time. If you need to cancel, then do it, before the outline begins. There's always another day.
Let's assume that all systems are go. Your tattooist may begin with a small line, just a little bit of the outline, and then check on you. Do your best riot to move, but don't hold your breath either. At this point, after that first bit of outline, you've felt and now have experience with the pain level. This is the pain, whether you experience it as a stinging sensation or a rubber band snapping against your skin, that you will likely be experiencing for the rest of the tattoo process depending on the size and complexity of your design. It is a pain that the majority of tattoo clients would describe as manageable or moderate. Many first-time tattoo clients are actually relieved at this point to know that this whole tattoo thing is definitely doable. A smaller percentage grit their teeth and start a breathing exercise. If, however, you decide that the pain is manageable, then your tattoo artist will proceed, taking the tattoo machine away only briefly for more ink. Longer breaks will come as the needles need to be changed (different needle configurations are used for different parts of the design) and also to change ink colors (generally achieved by rinsing the needles in clean water in a small disposable cup set aside for that purpose).
Your job now is to sit like a rock, without flinching or squirming. Go ahead and talk if you like, but don't whine. Most tattoo artists are quite used to chatting with their clients during the process. If they need you to be quiet, like when they're doing the eyes on your pinup cutie, they'll let you know. Generally your tattoo artist will also let you know when the outline is done. Most people find the outlining more painful than the shading which follows. As the tattoo process proceeds, however, you may find that you need to take a break, maybe because of the discomfort, maybe to switch positions, or just to have a cigarette. Perhaps your tattooist will need a break as well, to take a phone call or see a client who has stopped by the shop. If you want a break, then ask for one. It's part of the routine. Your artist will wipe off the excess ink and body fluids, smooth on some Vaseline, and you can get up and check out the work in progress and have some water or your smoke. The position in which you sit or lie for your tattoo may not be the most comfortable. But your tattooist needs to get the right angle on your skin to do the tattoo well. Be as understanding as possible when it conies to being in an uncomfortable position. Tattooists battle repetitive motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome like everybody else.
The Party's Over
Well, despite how much you'd like the hot needle massage to continue, eventually your tattooist announces that your tattoo is finished, just when you were getting into the Zen of the whole thing. Finally you get up and look at your finished tattoo in the mirror. Don't be surprised if your skin is red and a little puffy. Lymph fluid and blood may bead up, ever so slightly. The colors often look darker and have more contrast at this early stage than when the tattoo is completely healed. The reddish swelling of the skin is one contributor to that darker effect. Also, the epidermis is full of ink as well, but we know that eventually the epidermis layer will be replaced with a new clear one, just as before. As you look in the mirror, though, what you see is pretty much your new tattoo and how it will look for many years to come. If you've done your homework and you've picked your design, body location, and artist well, then you're likely not looking at just any tattoo, but the perfect one—for you. No matter the size of your tattoo, you have joined the tribe as fully as it can be joined. Welcome and well done.