Tattoos have always fascinated me. While I’m not the most tattooed person you’ll ever meet, I’ve experienced a few different types of tattooing in the last few years and happen to be in a relationship with a tattoo obsessive. For those who have always been curious about entering the tattoo world, here’s my guide to getting your first:
Research the styles you are drawn to
Tattoos come in many varieties. Some of the key styles you will find out there include:
Traditional — My partner loves this style. Characterised by bold lines and colours, it epitomises the ‘Sailor Jerry’ kind of artwork. Cartoonish, classic and timeless.
Realism — Like the title says, characterised by ultra realistic line and colour work, this is great for depicting a face or an animal in absolute realistic detail.
Watercolour — Tends to be much like a watercolour painting, so focused on texture and colour layering to achieve a beautiful design.
Tribal — Coming directly from indigenous cultures, tribal tattoos are the oldest form of tattoos we know, and tend to involve intricate line and dot work. Often rendered in black ink, they are very culturally specific and I think should be selected with care and consideration to the culture they originate from.
Japanese — From the Edo period, this style is similar to the woodblock prints of traditional Japanese artwork, and often includes mythical scenes, folklore, and other traditional Japanese details.
Neo-Traditional — Again, as the title suggests, a new take on the traditional tattoo style, therefore a mix of illustrative and coloured, but sometimes taking influence more from Art Deco style or adding bolder, brighter colour. Tends to be floral, and intricately patterned.
New School — Not all that “new” any more, this is all about blending pop culture with tattoo artistry, and can often be caricaturish and cartoonish.
Geometric and Illustrative — Finer lined works, usually, these two are about clean lined creations, patterned geometries or simple line illustrations of forms. Quite popular, quite modern.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, and you can always mix ideas according to the artist you go with. I personally favour geometric/illustrative, while my partner has Japanese and Traditional.
Understand the main techniques
I’m not going to exhaust this either as there are lots more niche, traditional ways tattoos are made on the skin. However, the main division that’s useful to understand for your first is between machine and hand-poked tattoos. This is essentially the difference between how the ink is inserted under your skin, whether by a hand-held needle that is pushed into the skin or a needle attached to a motor that performs a smooth movement, inserting much more ink at once (and deeper into the skin).
I have had both and infinitely preferred my experience with hand-poking — while it sounds scarier, it was actually far less painful, far more pleasant. The hand-poked healed quicker; the ink doesn’t penetrate quite so far down, and therefore caused less irritation to the skin. For geometric tattoos (like mine), this was great because it also meant the line would hold more cleanly over time, as with machine tattoos, ink disperses slightly more under the skin. However, it is also a much slower process and probably not an option if you are planning on a huge piece (which tends to take many hours as it is with a machine!).
Find an artist you like
The most important thing to say about getting started on the actual tattoo process is that you need to love the work of the artist you approach. It’s going to be on you forever. So do your research. Many tattoo artists display their work on Instagram these days, and it’s an excellent way to see a range of things they can do. So get on there and start researching; find the work you are most drawn to within a style you prefer!
Reach out however they prefer to be contacted
It might be email, it might be Instagram, but make sure you follow the instructions. Tattoo artists I’ve used in the past have had various levels of responsiveness to email approaches — some might be impossible to get a hold of unless you physically show up at the studio they’re working in. It isn’t like booking a dental appointment. Sometimes you have to be a bit persistent.
Go in and have a discussion
This means actually booking a consultation, and make sure you make the most of this opportunity! Ask all your questions, get the design as agreed as you can — make sure your desires are clear, they have understood, and you know roughly what to expect.
I have to say that all my tattoo experiences at this stage have been different — some artists have been very clear about only working from pre-established designs, others have refused to show me the final product until the day of the tattoo itself, some have been very open and easy about changing things. It really varies, but you do really get a sense at this point whether or not this is the artist for you. Use the opportunity wisely. Also make sure you ask the price and pay your deposit, if you are happy with what you find out and if you feel there’s a good understanding with your chosen artist. Don’t be compelled to buy if you aren’t comfortable.
Take your tattoo artist’s advice
If they’re experienced, they’re going to be best placed to advise you on your upcoming creation. This applies to several things:
If they say that the placement isn’t quite right for what you want to achieve, listen to them. They know how tattoos come up on the body, how the body moves and shifts and how this will affect the look of your tattoo. They will also take into consideration fading and ageing — ask them questions on this, because chances are they will have an opinion.
Design thickness and colour
There are some kinds of designs that might just not be suitable, either for your skin tone or for achieving the effect you desire. If you have darker skin tones, some certain pale and bright colours are unlikely to be as effective. Equally, some colours will change and be affected by your skin tone, and if you are a person who is a fan of tanning in the sun, the ink is likely to fade more quickly. Thin lines will go quicker than thicker ones. Be aware of these things when planning your artwork. Don’t be afraid to ask your artist questions on what they’ve seen in others in the past — how effective, clear and long lasting similar work was in the past.
Your artist should advise you about after care, though some are more detailed about this than others. When you get the work done, make sure you’re really clear just how long you should leave it wrapped up for, when to give your skin a wash, when to apply creams, and what to apply. You do not want to suffer through an infection, so these steps have to be crystal clear.
I have found the advice to generally be about keeping my tattoo wrapped for several hours (advice has varied from 3–4 hours to 12 hours), before giving it a very gentle wash (the ink will start to seep out the skin and you might be a bit bloody) with a fragrance-free, ultra sensitive soap. Then apply the most mild moisturising cream you can find — usually E45, or pure coconut oil. Don’t over saturate the skin with moisturiser, just make sure you regularly keep the skin moist throughout the healing process. Avoid baths, gyms and other steamy environments the first week or so.
Make sure you’re 100% happy before you say yes
Some tattoo artists will avoid showing you the final product before the day they are actually tattooing you. It can be a bit nerve-wracking. But you can always ask questions, always make sure it’s what you envisaged, and be prepared to confidently speak up if you absolutely need something changed. It can be a bit intimidating, particularly in a place where everyone seems to be an old hand at the whole tattoo process, but this is going to be on your skin forever.
It’s not actually that scary (and often not as painful as you think)
I’ve always been pretty confused by people who have totally lost it at the actual tattoo process. It’s true that it can be a little painful, but for me, I found it to be the kind of pain you quickly get used to — it’s low level enough that you sort of just get into the flow of it. Of course, everyone has a different tolerance, so placement needs to be a strong consideration here. Be a little thoughtful about this: if you’re highly ticklish, a toe tattoo is probably a bad idea. You have to be able to stay physically still. And some places will be more painful than others (i.e. ankles and ribs versus a nice fleshy bit of an arm!).
Enjoy the process
It’s a form of self-expression, after all, so enjoy it! I am personally super excited when I’m about to get a new tattoo, and I’ve got plenty of space still to experiment with… Be warned: it can turn into an (expensive) addiction very quickly!
Think it through carefully, get excited about a design you love, and happy tattooing :)