How To Actually Get A Decent Tattoo (or At Least, Not Get A Bad One)

Note: Today, I go to get yet another piece done on my Ghost in the Shell sleeve on my right arm. I figured it was a good day to repost one of the most popular pieces I've ever written on getting a decent tattoo. If you're interested in watching the progress of today's session, check out my Instagram feedFacebook or Twitter, as I'll be annoying people with photos of the session all day today)

So, by this point in my "tattoo career", I've pretty much done everything you can do, both the wrong way and the right way. I've got a full Akira-themed sleeve, I'm working on the second sleeve (which is Ghost in The Shell themed - 1, 2, 3), several calf pieces (soon to be "pant leg" - whatever you call a sleeve on your leg), and some back pieces I hate and will be getting covered very soon. And through it all, I've learned quite a bit of stuff. Given that God has somehow decided that my entire existence is to serve as an example to others, I figured I'd take a bit and pass on some of my hard-won knowledge to you, the tattoo newbie.

Now, there's going to be some debate here, as some of my advice flies in the face of the standard guidelines of most franchised / smaller tattoo shops. And while I'm sure there are other ways than mine to achieve great results, the things I tell you NOT to do, I assure you, lead to BAD results. You don't have to do the things I suggest, but I highly, highly, highly suggest you DON'T do the things I say don't do.

The inner forearm part of my Ghost in the Shell sleeve. By all accounts, a decent tattoo

So to start with:

Coming Up With Your Tattoo

What You Want: I can't tell you what you want. Your friends can't tell you what you want. The artist cannot tell you what you want. Only you know what means enough to you to put on your body for the rest of your life - and it's VERY important you realize that's what you're doing. You're putting an external avatar representing you on your body for the rest of your life. Don't count on being able to get it removed - removal is tricky, and doesn't work on all people.

Take your time. And I don't mean a few hours to look through art books - take a few weeks or even months to plan out your piece. This is going on your body FOR. EV. ER.

My advice to everyone is to start with thinking about the things you love. Don't be afraid to look through books of tattoos, flash art, or other "premade" stuff for inspiration - but definitely take it to another level and make it unique. You don't want to be at a party and see your tattoo on someone else's arm. Or maybe you do, who knows... I can't tell you what you want, after all.

Also, don't be afraid to ask your artist to work up something unique for you. Most, if not all, artists LIVE for the chance to come up with something new and unique for their clients. They're artists, after all - and if they're not willing to work with you on a unique piece, that says a lot about them as an artist.

Just know that every tattoo is a story... And picking "E-17" off the wall tells a story that ends with you eventually being sorry.

And really... If you're going to get Kanji, KNOW WHAT THE FUCK IT MEANS. The collection of tattoos in this video is full of stuff that's just plain wrong, and anyone who speaks / reads Japanese will get a big kick out of it:

Where you want it: Again, I can't tell you what works best. I rock a full sleeve, with many below-the-shorts-line pieces on my leg. I also work for myself, so I have no one to answer to.

It's a sad fact, but we live in a judgmental society, and you will be judged based solely on the fact that you have a tattoo no matter what the tattoo is of. So if you work in an environment where tattoos may not be socially acceptable, or if your community is particularly judgmental of tattoos, keep these facts in mind. Most people will opt to stay above the sleeve line on their arms, or go for the back or legs for their art. Some place they can cover it. Your mileage may vary.

A question I get a lot is "where does it hurt most / least?" The very basic rule is "The closer you get to bone, the more it hurts." This is 100% true in my experience. But there are also areas that are covered with muscle and tissue that still hurt, such as the little gap on the inside arm between the bicep and tricep, or on any joint.

That said, there's no place on your body that you'll get inked that you WON'T feel at least something... But for the most part, shoulders, forearms, biceps, quadraceps, chest and back don't hurt much at all. The sensation is much like a rug burn - it burns more than it "hurts" if that makes sense, and all but the most pain-sensitive people can tolerate it. But each individual is unique, so to determine how much it may hurt for you, you can try one of two simple tests:

"Slap Test" - get a friend to take two fingers, hold them about 4 inches from your skin, and "slap" you with them. If it feels like "pressure", the tattoo won't really hurt. If it feels like "stinging," pack your ibuprofen and a bite stick :)

"Tickle Test" - lightly rake your fingernails over the area you plan to get tattooed (or get a "special friend" to do it. Tell them it's in the name of science, they won't be able to resist). If it feels pleasant, like a nice back / arm scratch, it probably won't hurt to be tattooed there. If it tickles... Yeah. Probably going to hurt.

Beautiful... And probably painful.

The bottom line: ribcage pieces hurt. Inner thigh pieces hurt. Armpit pieces (or any piece that goes "inside the arm", like an upper arm wrap) hurts. Ankle pieces hurt. The elbow joint (both inside and on the bone) hurts. The wrist hurts. And don't even get me started on the knee pit. Know this going into your decision of where you want your piece.

Selecting Your Artist

Do NOT Bargain Shop. I can't emphasize this enough - price, while important, should not be your determining factor. I can't tell you what the going rates in your area should be, but really, what you pay today for your tattoo will matter MUCH less than how it looks in 3 years. Will the inks fade? Are you scarred? Does your "photo-realistic" piece actually look photo-realistic? Will your artist work with you on their own time to come up with a nice piece for you? Trust me, $20-50 more dollars an hour is a small, small price to pay for someone worth a damn.

The submitter of this pic is a close friend of mine. She says (and I vouch):
"The photo isn't blurry. This is what the tattoo actually looks like. Be careful what you get and
who you get it from... It's on you for life."

Stay Away From The Chains. We have a chain here in Georgia called Ink Wizard Tattoo. They boast 17 locations. They SUCK. It's basically the puppy mill of tattoo artists. Summer jobs for kids who passed their bloodborne pathogen test and can put ink into the skin of a grapefruit. That's not to say every chain sucks, but it's a pretty decent rule of thumb. Some things to look for - if they require a "needle fee", push retail sales of aftercare products and / or body jewelry, or have walls covered in flash art, you're likely in a tattoo mill, looking to churn customers. Keep your wits about you.

If You Can Afford It, Go To A Named / Known Artist. Even if you have to travel. They're known for a reason, and the wait list is WELL worth it. My artist is Todo of ABT Tattoo. He's done everyone from Joe Perry of Aerosmith to Scott Wieland of Stone Temple Pilots to Slash of Guns N' Roses / Velvet Revolver. I also get work from Jeremiah (JET), who apprenticed under Todo. He's unbelievably talented, and will someday be a rockstar in the tattoo world. Neither are cheap, but the work is worth it. I trust them. I know them. But before I met either one of them, I knew who they were - and they came highly recommended.

Trust me, Kat Von D is worth every penny of the $400 an hour she charges, because she's Kat Von fucking D. You know her name for a very, very good reason.

If you find a guy who claims he can do your piece for $75 an hour, and you know a guy who you KNOW can do your piece for $150 an hour, SAVE UP FOR THE $150 GUY. You've waited this long for your piece. Wait just a bit longer and do it right.

Yeah, no.

Lastly, beware of "flat-rate" tattoos. Some artists may claim a rate of $75 an hour, and tell you they'll do a piece for $100 bucks when it takes them 30 minutes to knock it out. That's not to say all flat-rate artists are bad or shady, but the vast majority of them are (this is pretty much true of every contractor in every field, by the way... Think about the last "flat rate" website you saw if you doubt me).

RESEARCH YOUR ARTIST. Find out if there are any health department complaints on the artist or the shop. Ask everyone you know with a tattoo who they went to, and begin looking for dotted lines between the quality of their piece and who did it. Go to their website (do they even have a website?). Study their portfolio. This is your body you're about to have inked with needles - do not rely on a kind smile and a promise that they'll do a good job, make damn sure they will (and that you won't catch staph or Hep B from them).

Go watch for a day. The good ones don't mind, and you'll learn a LOT about their style, hygiene, and attitude. You are looking to see if your artist examines their needles under a jeweler's loupe (hooked / bent / hole-spotted needles are BADDDDDDDDDD), how well they clean and prep their area, their demeanor while tattooing, their needle policy (how often they change - a good rule of thumb is new needles every 5 hours), if they use paper towels / extra gloves to reach for items that aren't already sterilized, if they eat and drink in their station, etc. Oh, and I don't think I need to say this, but I will anyway: You want brand new needles. Not "cleaned" needles, not "sterilized" needles... NEW. Never been used before. Ever. If they're not brand new needles, run - don't walk - to the health department and report that shop.

Getting Ready

Don't shave the area. Let the artist do it. They're used to it, don't be embarassed. Besides, if you're not used to shaving your arm / leg / whatever, you may nick yourself there - and they won't be able to finish your tattoo there (most artists won't even approach an open wound with their needle). You really don't want to wait another 2-3 weeks for your piece, I'm sure.

Absolutely NO Alcohol. You don't want to bleed all over the fucking place. Also, no aspirin or acetaminophen for the same reason. BUT:

You Can (And Should) Take Ibuprofen. Take some about 30 minutes before you start, and recharge every 3.5 hours during your sitting. It'll keep swelling and inflammation down, and helps a bit with pain issues.

Bring Your iPod (or Zune). It helps to drown yourself in some music if you're nervous.

No Working Out The Day Of. Seriously, I need to repeat this: Do NOT work out or lift weights or run or anything before your tattoo session. Just... Trust me on this (and regular commenter Jeremy can vouch). Your skin gets tighter and tougher, blood pools around the muscles, your metabolism is higher... It's just plain unpleasant.

Eat An Hour Before. Keep your blood sugar level, get some food on your stomach before you go. It'll also help buffer the Ibuprofen.

During The Tattoo

To prepare you for what to expect from a great artist, here's a video of my artist Todo at work on one of my favorite pieces of his:

A video of Todo doing a Jack Nicholson piece from The Shining - this is a really great example of what you can expect from a good tattoo session.

So, while all of this is going on, keep the following stuff in mind:

Think Before You Speak. Some artists like conversation. Some do not. You should respect your artist's attitude and try to read them - if they're a "zone" type artist, they're not being rude by not talking to you. They're concentrating on giving you the best job they can. But if they do like to chat, don't hesitate to get to know them. I've made two lifelong friends that way.

But Don't Be Afraid To Speak Up. A good piece is a collaboration between you and your artist, so if you see a spot that they didn't hit or you change your mind on color during the session, don't be afraid to mention it. But be polite, ask their advice - don't demand. And if they're flat-out not doing things right, say so. This is your body they're working on.

Pain is not Pansy. It's okay to wince or grit your teeth or even groan if it hurts. You are not a wuss or a pansy if you do this. Trust me, they've seen worse.

Flinching is BAD. Yes, you shoudn't feel bad if you show that you're feeling pain. However - if you're feeling jumpy or flinching, this is going to negatively impact the artist. A GOOD ARTIST knows how to pull away if / when this happens (everything goes back to your choice of artist), but even the best can't read your mind and know exactly when you'll flinch. So, do your absolute best to stay calm and go into your happy place.

It's Okay To Come Back Another Day. If you feel you can't hang on and begin flinching heavily, go ahead and "tap out" (call it a day). Come back later. It's not worth screwing up your piece (or scarring yourself) to prove you can take pain.

After The Tattoo

For God's Sake, Tip. Unless your artist just flat-out sucked, TIP THEM. You will be remembered, and they will treat you right next time. It's not just proper ettiquette, by the way - even artists who own their own shops have costs they factor into their rate, and the tip is a nice little bonus they will appreciate.

Ask About Aftercare. Don't just let them hand you a sheet and tell you what's up - ask questions if you don't understand. Aftercare is the single most impactful part of how your tattoo will look (after the quality of your artist, of course).

No Tattoo Goo. I don't care what the aftercare instructions say, do NOT use TattooGoo or any other specially-made "aftercare" product. They suck. They are expensive, and do very little to actually heal your tattoo with no color loss. Don't use them.

My Aftercare Advice: I've got one of the best sleeves and two of the best leg pieces I've ever seen - the color is still as bright as the day I got them, and they're super clear and healthy. Here's how I did it:

Your artist will apply something like A&D Ointment, then they'll "bandage" the area with saran wrap (or at least they should). This should stay on for 2 hours MAXIMUM. Once it comes off, you want to use antibacterial soap and gently wash the area. I personally use Liquid Dial and a little warm water. Lightly rub the area, do not scrub (you won't want to anyway). Wipe down with a warm wet paper towel. Dab dry.

Apply Neosporin CREAM (not ointment) + Pain Relief every 4 hours for the first 24 hours, then every 6 hours for the next 24 hours. LESS IS BEST - apply only a THIN film across the entire tattoo, don't saturate it. If you can't see the tattoo clearly through the white cream, you need to remove it. DO NOT GO PAST 48 HOURS with the Neosporin Cream, or you risk your color falling out.

After the 2 days of Neosporin Cream + Pain Relief (again, I stress, NOT OINTMENT - use only Neosporin Cream), use Curel, Eucerin (that's what I use), or Lubriderm. In all three cases, use perfume-free, oil free lotions. Do not use the "hand cream" versions - make sure it's lotion. Test a little bit in the store before you buy - if it stings, DON'T USE IT. Apply this lotion every 6 hours for the next 5 - 7 days. Again, less is best - you want to keep it moisturized, not wet. The skin needs air to heal, don't block it.

This is the lotion I use. Not too thick, doesn't stink, and works.

Your skin will go through at least two peels - DO NOT PICK AT THE PEEL. Just let it fall off. Picking at it may pull into non-peeling skin and scar you.

IMPORTANT: DO NOT PICK ANY SCABS THAT MAY FORM. If you've done all of the above, you shouldn't scab at all, and if you do, it'll be only in spots of heavy, thick needlework. No matter how long the scab is there, do NOT pick it. You will scar, and the color will fall out there. Additionally, unless it's a horribly bad scab, don't put Neosporin on it to heal it faster. Just let it heal.

That said, if your artist sucks and you've got a monster scab that won't heal up, Neosporin it and insist they touch-up the area once it heals. Then never, ever go to that artist again.

Keep It Clean: No matter your shower habits the rest of your life, you need to wash your tattoo at least once a day with antibacterial soap, and after every workout / gardening session / whatever-gets-it-yucky. You don't want an infection... At least, I assume you don't.

Don't Sweat Too Much the Next Few Days: This may not happen to everyone, but for me, I went right into the gym the next day after getting tattooed quite a few times. Sweat cannot come out of the freshly-inked area, and you may form a heat rash around the area where sweat soaks under the skin. It's not contageous or dangerous, it just itches like crazy. So feel free to work out, just keep it cool.

Sunblock Rocks. SPF 50 or more is recommended on any and all ink you've got to keep the color vibrant over the years. It's tedious, yes - but you want your tattoo to look great years from now, and sun will fade the inks. More importantly, if you've got light blues, whites, light yellows, etc. and you tan underneath them, they're going to turn green and brown, and your tattoo will look all fonky.

Take Advantage Of The Touch-Up Session: This is time the artist will (should) not charge for, to go over the piece and get it to a standard she or he sets for their work. You will likely need a touch up after healing, and you absolutely should take advantage of this session - you'll be surprised how much tighenting-up can be done on your piece, no matter how great you think it looks.

And that's pretty much it. Years of tattoo experience condensed into an article on a blog that you'll probably comment on with "TL;DR". But seriously, I hope it helps you in your next tattoo adventure. If done wrong, tattoos are usually synonyms for "mistakes" - but when done right, they're life-long representations of you and what's important to you. Make the right choices early on, and you'll have a lifetime of staring at your own piece in awe.