I will preface this page by saying these are strictly my opinions on the topic and not everyone will agree with me. That’s fine. These are just my opinions based upon my own personal experiences. I will also say that tattoos are not for everybody. If you have doubts, just don’t or wait until you are sure you want to commit. I would never pressure anyone to get a tattoo.
The first question everyone wants to know is “does it hurt?” Well, let’s think about what a tattoo machine does for a second and the answer will become clear. A tattoo machine uses an oscillator (either a rotary motor or electromagnetic coils) to insert and withdraw a cluster of needles (between 3 and 25 of them) into and out of the skin at approximately 100 times per second. Now, you tell me whether or not getting a tattoo hurts. That’s what I thought.
HOWEVER, it doesn’t hurt as bad as you probably think it does if you place it wisely. When a tattoo is done properly, the needles just barely go into the dermis. Depending upon where you get the tattoo, it can be mildly annoying (like a sunburn or cat scratch) to excruciatingly painful. More on this later.
Before we get into the gray areas, let’s cover some dos and don’ts when it comes to getting your first tattoo:
DO start small. As a tattoo is painful and stressful, you need to build up a tolerance for it just as you build up a tolerance for anything, be it exercise, playing an instrument or hot chili peppers. You will not be able to handle a 6+ hour session, no matter how macho you are or how high your pain tolerance.
DO eat a good meal before your session. This will lessen the stress somewhat and reduce the risk of passing out (which can happen in more sensitive areas).
DO choose a more muscular or meaty area to place the tattoo. This will make the tattoo less painful. Fatty areas are somewhat worse than muscular areas, and bony areas are the most painful.
DO carefully consider the design. This will be a permanent, life altering decision after all. You want to make absolutely sure this is what you want, otherwise you WILL regret it.
DO go to a reputable shop that is clean and uses sterile equipment. Back-alley tattooists might be cheaper but might not use sterile equipment, thus increasing your risk of infection. All needles should be individually packaged, single use and sterile. Tubes/grips should ideally be single use disposable, but if re-usable metal tubes are used they should be autoclaved after every use (ask to see this). The shop should be licensed by your local health department and have that license displayed in a highly visible location. Needles, tubes, etc. should be disposed of in a biohazard container after use. The floors should be spotless as should pretty much every surface in the shop. All artists employed at the shop should wear medical gloves any time they are handling tattoo equipment or touching another person’s skin. If you see anything other than the above, run like the wind.
DO tip your artist as you would a cosmetologist or a waiter/waitress. It costs money to run the shop and tattooing is a labor of love that doesn’t make one rich. A tip is a nod of a job well done and will help your artist feed his/her family.
DON’T haggle on the price. It’s just plain insulting. Your tattoo is a work of art. Your artist knows what his or her time is worth. Don’t argue.
DON’T get a tattoo under the influence of any mind-altering substance. Not only do they cloud your judgment some can make the process more painful and even others will thin your blood and cause you to bleed more.
DON’T choose a “standard” tattoo or something trendy. Your tattoo should be as unique as your body. Doing something trendy is sure to lead to regret.
DON’T place your tattoo on a very bony area. These are the most painful.
DON’T get a tattoo while sick. It’s unsanitary (think of sneezing all over an open wound!) and will make you feel even worse.
DON’T exercise too soon after getting a tattoo. The ink needs to set and excess movement and rubbing up against clothing will irritate the tattoo. Also, excess stretching immediately after a tattoo could distort the proportions.
Now, some topics that are up for debate:
*NUMBING GEL/CREAM. This is a major source of contention. I will openly admit I used numbing cream and/or gel on my first couple of sessions. My opinion is this: if you have a high pain tolerance and place your tattoo in a less painful spot, it’s not really necessary. If you have a low pain tolerance and/or a high level of anxiety, it might be a good idea for your first one or two. Beyond that it isn’t really necessary unless you are getting tattooed in a very sensitive or bony area (which, as someone who has a very low pain tolerance, I will probably continue using it in these applications).
Numbing gel or cream will likely wear off long before the end of your session. It’s not designed to completely eliminate the pain. Some even argue that it’s a psychological thing. It might be, but I will tell you it will make your first session or two easier.
As far as numbing products, in my experience it is concentration of active ingredients rather than brand that matters. You want something with a 5% concentration of the active ingredient or a combination of active ingredients that total up to 5% concentration. Examples include EMLA (2.5% each lidocaine and prilocaine), NumbFast (5% lidocaine), Super Numb (5% lidocaine) and the like for the start of a session. For the middle of a session, Vasocaine (5% lidocaine) is the gold standard, however it doesn’t work on unbroken skin so it’s not useful at the beginning of a session. If you choose to use numbing products, be sure to follow the instructions verbatim or you will not get the desired effect.
Please note that no matter what you choose, it will not completely eliminate tattoo pain. It will take a lot of the edge off and make it to where just about anyone can tolerate a tattoo.
*DRY TREAT, MOISTURIZE OR SANIDERM. Others might have varying opinions on this, but my answer is hands-down: Saniderm all the way. It’s so much easier. Just wash twice per day with soap and water and forget about it. The Saniderm provides a naturally moist healing environment that promotes faster healing than the other two methods. Just follow the directions given to you by your artist or on the box, whichever is applicable. You can buy Saniderm here. There are a lot of old-school artists who are still stuck using the old ways so I always have some on hand for self-application.
*HIGHLY VISIBLE OR CONCEALED. You need to consider your profession and career aspirations here. Does your profession or industry frown upon visible tattoos or do they not care? My rule of thumb is nothing I couldn’t conceal if I had to (even if that means long sleeves and pants), but some industries don’t care. I have no real recommendation one way or another here. Of course, if you are self-employed you don’t have anything to worry about.
That’s about all I have to say on the topic. If anyone else has any other suggestions, or if you agree or disagree with me feel free to say so and why. I want your first tattoo to be one of the best experiences of your life. For a more in-depth discussion of what I use during and after getting a tattoo, check out the page about my tattoo “survival kit.”
I can guarantee you this, though: once you get your first, you are going to want more. Tattoos are addictive. Welcome to the club!