Illustration by Corrinne James.

Illustration by Corrinne James.

So, you’re interested in getting a tattoo! First of all, I’m super excited that it’s something you might be looking into. It’s empowering and beautiful to have a customized piece of art on yourself, and having that art memorialized forever is an experience unlike anything else. But the decision to get a design permanently placed in your skin is a big deal, and it’s definitely not always an easy choice to make. It can be really difficult to figure out if getting a tattoo is right for you when there’s so much to consider—what to look for in a reputable tattoo parlor, how much it’ll hurt, how to take care of your tattoo once it’s been inked, and, OH MY GOD, so much more. It can quickly feel overwhelming, especially when there are so many conflicting opinions flying around online.

When I was researching these kinds of things before getting my first two tattoos this past summer, I felt way confused about all the discrepancies. Everything from what bandages the artist should use post-tattoo to the kinds of ointments to put on a fresh tattoo was disputed, and I felt like I was feeling around in the dark.

This is my best attempt to gather all the info I’ve picked up during that process, break it down, and make it easier for you to figure out the things you need to consider if you want a tattoo.

First thing’s first: How do you pick a tattoo?

If you’re thinking of getting a tattoo, you should put some thought into what tattoo you might want to have—and where you’d like it. Those two factors are completely up to you, but if you’re wondering about how much certain places might hurt more compared to other locations on your body, you might want to check out this chart. Everyone’s pain tolerance is different, though, so don’t take the chart as gospel—just know that for many people, those specific places will be less comfortable during the tattooing process than parts of the body like your forearms and shoulder blades.

Another part of the whole thinking-up-a-design phase is size. How big do you want your tattoo to be? While it’s not always fun to think about, the cost and amount of pain you’ll be facing for your tattoo depend heavily upon its size. A huge, ornate back piece will cost way, way more than your average wrist tattoo—hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on the tattoo artist—and will likely take multiple hours-long sessions to complete, which means constant care and waiting between sessions. Getting a large tattoo is an investment, so you should consider that if you’re thinking of looking into one.

Then there’s style. There are a whole bunch of different styles of tattooing, and while they’re all beautiful in their own ways, there are also unique benefits and downsides to each. For instance, watercolor tattoos (which I’m a huge fan of) look absolutely gorgeous, but are prone to fading out more quickly over time. Solid black tattoos are well-known to stand the test of time, but not everyone wants an all-black tattoo—color is a lot of fun! My advice would be to go for the tattoo you want—over time, all tattoos begin to show signs of age, and that’s natural. The real key to getting a great-looking tattoo is to research artists. Look on artists’ Instagram accounts and online or in-parlor portfolios to make sure that the kind of tattoo you want is actually something the artist can—and wants—to do.

What should you look for in a reputable tattoo parlor?

Hygiene and safety. First, be sure that the artist and shop you are going to have the licenses required by the state for tattoo artists and tattoo shops (this varies state to state). As a huge germophobe, I’m really concerned about cleanliness all the time as a general rule. But if someone’s going to be sticking needles in my body hundreds of times a minute for an hour or two, I go on mega-high alert. In essence, tattoo parlors should use single-use tattoo needles that come directly out of the packaging for the first time for every new client and are disposed of immediately after the session with that client is complete; same with gloves, bandages, swabs, coverings, and any razors used to shave the skin being tattooed. Any reusable equipment in the parlor should also be sterilized, with disinfecting chemicals or an autoclave. (An autoclave is a machine that sterilizes equipment at a specific temperature and pressure.) The tattoo parlor should not be OK with tattooing anyone under the legal age set for your location, either.

It’s pretty common for tattoo parlors to have clients sign waivers that include questions about subjects like existing allergies, possible pregnancy status, and current drug use. They need to know these things in case of an emergency—if, for instance, you have a tendency to pass out easily and this happens during the tattooing process, the artist will need to know so they can stop working at that time and assist you. And if you, like me, have a latex allergy, you’ll want to let your artist know so you can avoid having a bad reaction to the material of their gloves.

If you’re unsure for any reason about the health and safety practices of the parlor, don’t be afraid to ask questions! This is something that you should keep in mind throughout the whole process. If your tattoo parlor is reputable, they’ll be happy to address any concerns you may have.

Courtesy. If you walk into a tattoo parlor and are made to feel as if you don’t belong, you can’t be taken seriously, or you aren’t welcome for any reason, it’s totally OK to turn around and walk out. Though there are some resources that will tell you that a rude, brusque tattoo shop staff is just representative of “how tattoo shops are,” the tattoo you get—and who crafts it—is completely up to you. It’s your body and your tattoo, and if you are at all uncomfortable with the way you’re treated by parlor personnel you’re perfectly within your rights to look around for somewhere else.

Consultation. Before you sit down in the chair, you’ll want to have a discussion with your artist about what you’d like and where, to make sure you’re both on the same page. If you have a specific idea of the image or style you’d like for your tattoo, bring a photo or sketch reference—and it doesn’t matter if you don’t consider yourself the world’s greatest artist! Any image that can give your artist a visual idea of what you want is helpful. Just make sure that by the end of the consultation both you and your artist are very clear on size, style, and design. This is when you can ask about how long the tattoo will take and its price, too—you might not always get a hard-and-fast price depending on what precisely you’d like to have tattooed, but you can expect to get a general quote. After you and your artist have come to an agreement, they’ll draw up a temporary stencil that they can place on your skin. When it’s laid out, you can go up to a mirror and check from all angles to see if it’s something you’d want on your body forever.