How to Get Tattoos

Think safety first when you go to get a tattoo.
Think safety first when you go to get a tattoo. (Image: leopard tattoo image by Dmitri MIkitenko from

You've finally decided to join the counterculture and get yourself a wicked-looking tat, but you don't know where to go. Or perhaps you've already got a tattoo or two, but you can't figure out why it looks faded and blotchy, and you're saying to yourself, "But that fat guy at the biker convention seemed so competent and reliable!" Either way, we're sure there are things you'd like to know before you get large quantities of ink permanently injected into your flesh. What follows is intended for the thoughtful tattoo-seeker; if your plan involves a drunken stupor and a rusty razor, you may find this article a little too safety-conscious. However, if you think about things before you do them, even when you're trying to look like a bad-ass, this will give you much food for thought.

And yes, it hurts. But not that much, wimp.

Be Safe

The first thing you've got to think about when you consider getting a tattoo is that it involves someone sticking needles into you. Now, who do you trust to have enough respect for hygiene to stick needles in you? Your doctor, probably; but who else? Some greasy, leering guy in a tent at an outdoor concert? Your friend's buddy, who works out of his basement? No and no. You trust people who act very much like doctors when it comes to hygiene, and no one else.

Sure, a lot of tattoo studios look pretty Goth, with black and purple paint and vampiric-looking staff, but if it's clean black and purple paint, don't let that part worry you. But if you get the impression there's anything dingy or unkempt about the place, take that as a sign of insufficient concern about cleanliness and find somewhere else to go. Choosing a tattoo artist is a serious decision, for a lot of reasons, and you should feel comfortable asking your tattoo artist about safety, cleanliness, his or her experience and anything else that is important to you. If you don't feel comfortable talking to your prospective artist, look elsewhere. Be picky. The basic idea is that you want to find a place that is as clean as your doctor's office.

Specific things you must watch out for:

  1. Most importantly, a brand-new sterile needle must be used every time.

  2. All other tools involved in the tattooing process must be either sterilized or disposable (and, of course, they must be either sterilized or disposed of after each customer).

  3. Everything should be personally laid out for your tattoo. You don't want to share a big communal bottle of ink with your fellow tattoo-lovers; you want little, individual disposable containers of ink just for you. You should see latex gloves. Vaseline should be dispensed via disposable instruments, not by hand.

  4. Nondisposable equipment should be sterilized with an autoclave (an apparatus that uses superheated steam under high pressure to sterilize instruments), not an ultrasonic cleaner or a dunk in a tub of rubbing alcohol. Ask the tattoo artist if his/her autoclave is FDA-regulated. Wiping with a greasy rag, Windex and spit-shining are also (while quaint) unacceptable.

Don't allow the foregoing advice to leave you with a bad impression of tattoo artists in general. Many, many tattoo artists maintain spotlessly clean and scrupulously hygienic studios. We just want to ensure that you realize how important it is to find one of them.

Choose a Tattoo Artist

There are three main concerns when choosing a tattoo artist:

  1. Is he or she any good?
  2. Do you feel comfortable talking to him or her?
  3. Can you afford it?

Is He or She Any Good?

The only way to tell whether an artist is good is to see examples of his or her work. Recommendations are helpful, of course, but the recommendations should carry infinitely more weight if the recommender is proffering a tattooed example of the artist's work. There are plenty of awesome artists out there who, though you wouldn't deny their skills, just don't appeal to you with the style of tats they do. So don't take anyone else's word for it; get a look at the artist's work yourself. Furthermore, it's best to see actual examples of tattoo work on a live person who can tell you who did the work. Anyone can put up a bunch of pictures and claim authorship.

You can meet people and talk to them about their tattoos at tattoo conventions, in the tattoo studios you visit and on the street or at a club, as long as you're not an idiot about it. People are usually proud of their tattoos, and if you seem genuinely interested, a lot of people will be happy to tell you about their ink. Tattoo magazines are also a good source of information. The photo essays they publish about various artists are likely to be well researched and legitimate examples of the artists' work. Websites such as also show examples of artists' work. The key is to shop around and find someone really capable, because the quality of your tattoo depends so much on the talent of the tattoo artist.

Do You Feel Comfortable Talking to Him or Her?

This is important for safety reasons, of course, but it's also important because you have to communicate what you want in a tattoo. If you don't feel comfortable talking to your tattoo artist, you likely won't get what you want. You don't have to be best buddies with the artist, but you need to be able to talk to him or her without reserve, and with some certainty that your desires will be met.

Can You Afford It?

As you shop around for a good tattoo artist, you likely will find several whose work really appeals to you. Whether you can afford them is another matter, but it's something you must take into account. They will not necessarily live in the same city as you, and even if they do, they might charge a lot of money for their work. Before you get too far into it, figure out whether it's really feasible for you to work with a certain artist. You might want to call an artist to get a general idea of what your tattoo would cost; some artists will give you a rough idea over the phone, but some won't. If the artist lives far away, you likely will have to pay for plane fare, a hotel and the cost of the tattoo. Don't bother getting all worked up about being tattooed by a certain person, and don't waste either of your time if you can't afford to pay all the necessary costs.

The cost of getting a tattoo varies from artist to artist. Popular artists can charge more, while incompetent or inexperienced artists will be cheaper. Artists will usually charge a flat rate for their flash designs, and this will depend on the size and color of the design. Expect to pay approximately $50 to $100 for a "flash" (stock piece) design of about 2 square inches. For custom work, artists will usually charge by the hour, but they might negotiate prices with you ahead of time based on how difficult the design is and how long they think it will take. The hourly rate for custom work ranges from $50 to $300. Don't go for bargains. A cheap tattoo will look cheap. Try to find an artist who charges from $100 to $150 per hour. If money is no object and you simply must have a popular, expensive artist work on you, then go ahead and spend more.

Choose a Design

The classic mistake is, of course, tattooing yourself with the name of your main squeeze. Go ahead and do it if you feel you must, but imagine finding yourself in a quandary about whether to stay in a relationship and finding that one of the considerations is that you must keep your skin art contemporary. Besides, there are so many other interesting, meaningful designs you can choose that can't take off with all of your NoMeansNo albums.

The most important thing to consider is the permanence of tattoos. You have to choose something that will always be meaningful to you, and that's hard to know. How many things did you think were really cool five years ago but that make you cringe now? Think carefully about what sort of image or design has the kind of lasting significance to you that you cannot imagine being erased by time. The tattoo ain't going anywhere unless you put in more money and a few more hours in the chair, and even then it's not going to look perfect.

Styles of Tattoos

The basic distinction in tattoos is between "flash" (or stock) tattoos and custom tattoos. Flash tattoos are the ones pictured on the walls, which range from standard old favorites such as anchors, hearts, skulls and dragons, to the artist's custom designs that he or she is willing to do for a flat rate. Custom tattoos are designed or requested by you, then worked out with the tattoo artist. You can draw your tattoo yourself, get a friend to draw it or tell the artist what you want and get him or her to draw it. The artist will have to do some work with it anyway to create an outline, and when he or she is finished adapting your drawing or idea, you should check and make sure it is what you wanted.

There are as many styles of tattoos as there are people … and body parts. If you want to see a couple, then Tao of Tattoos is for you. (See Resources.)

Care for Your Tattoo

Your new tattoo is an open wound; let's make sure it doesn't turn into a festering open wound. Leave the bandage on for at least 12 hours, and when you take it off, be gentle. If it won't come off right away, use warm water to help it off. Let it dry for about an hour, then wash the crud off (don't ask us to go into detail, but it'll be there) with a gentle soap. Then apply a thin coat of antibiotic cream.

For the next four or five days, wash it gently and reapply the cream twice per day. Do so in the shower, not the bath, as the new tattoo should not be submerged in water for any great length of time. That means no swimming, no hot tubs and no baths for about two weeks after you get tattooed. After four or five days, switch to a water-based cream such as Moisturel until your tattoo is completely healed. As with any open wound, you must not allow it to get dirty. And keep your hands off it: no picking, scratching or other dorking around until it's healed. It will scab over a bit while healing, but that's natural, and you should not feel compelled to try to remove the scab.

For those of you who are too hardcore to worry about your health, this is not just about health. Think of it as primarily about making sure your tattoo looks its best, because if you mess with it while it's healing, the colors can run together and it can fade. And if it gets infected, the resulting wound could cause enough scar tissue to seriously mar your work of art.

Get Rid of That Foul Thing

So the erstwhile love of your life has run off with your best friend, and now you want both of their worthless names off your body. Well, the first thing you need to know is that none of the available methods of tattoo removal is perfect. Here are your four options for getting rid of the tattoo you now hate:

  1. Cover-up tattoo
  2. Excision
  3. Dermabrasion
  4. Lasers

Cover-Up Tattoo

If you still want to have a tattoo, just not that one, consider covering it with a bigger, gnarlier tattoo. The obvious problem is that you have to think of one that will cover the old one and one that you will like, so that you don't have to get rid of it five years down the road. Therefore, this decision is even more difficult than your first tattoo was, because you have to choose something that either incorporates or blocks out the old tattoo. Your tattoo artist should be of help here, if you've found a good one by now.

Cover-ups are about the same cost as getting a new tattoo, except that it will almost always be custom work. It will probably take longer, too, as the work must be done very carefully.


Cut that sucker right out of there. You get a physician to remove the skin with the tattoo and suture the sides together. It's relatively cheap, but it won't work on really large tattoos, and it will definitely leave a noticeable scar. There are two ways to remove a tattoo through excision. First, a physician can place a small balloon under the skin and inflate it so the tattooed skin gradually stretches. When it has stretched out enough, the physician cuts the skin and stitches it up, leaving a thin scar. Second, the physician can simply cut out the skin in small patches and sew it together, which can create significant scarring.


This is fairly nasty. The skin is scraped or "sandpapered" off--or, alternatively but no more appealingly, chemicals are applied, after which the skin is peeled off. This is time-consuming, but it scars less than excision and it costs less than lasers.


This is probably the best method, as laser technology has improved significantly. It doesn't hurt, and it has a pretty good success rate. However, it costs a lot, and it can still cause scarring or discoloration of the skin. A laser-removal session usually costs about $300, and it can take five or more sessions to remove a tattoo. Lasers are less effective at removing lighter colors such as green or yellow, so if your tattoo contains those, you could be looking at a lot of money and a lot of hours in the chair. Most laser-removal specialists will provide you with a free initial consultation, in which they will tell you how much the removal is likely to cost.

Peace be with you, friends, as you select, get and then remove your very own tattoo. And if, after reading this article, our sage advice has led to your decision not to get a tattoo, peace be with you, too. Get a nose ring instead.

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