How To Get A Great Tattoo And Never Regret It

Tim Kern, tattoo artist & chicken lover.


While tattoos can be fantastic & beautiful, they can also be hideous & embarrassing. This article will tell you about the sort of things you need to consider before you get a tattoo, how to pick a design, how to choose a tattoo artist & how to look after it once it’s done.

I love my tattoos (I have two half-sleeves), but before you get any, you need to think about the fact that getting a tattoo is a big deal. It might come out looking terrible, you might hate it, you might be allergic to the ink they use, your parents may never speak to you again, you may become unemployable (depending on what you get & where) & YOU WILL HAVE IT FOREVER. Unless you can afford laser removal which, I understand, is very expensive.

There are lots of good reasons for getting a tattoo. There are also a lot of bad ones. For example:
You want to piss off your parents. You want to look tough. All your friends have them & you feel left out. You want to profess your undying love to your new girlfriend via ink on your skin (dude, just send a card). You want to be cool. You’re drunk. Your friend needs someone to practice on. Et cetera.

I have seen so many bad tattoos — so bad they make me cringe when I think about them. I know a guy who went somewhere “cheap” to get his done & he ended up with a tattoo that is crooked. It is so embarrassing! My point is, getting a tattoo which doesn’t suck isn’t that easy. The proliferation of ugly tattoos on the shoulders of the great unwashed is proof of that.

Where do you want it?
My suggestion (at least for a first tattoo) is that you get it somewhere which is easy to cover for work. Anything below the wrists or above the neck is a pretty bad call, though there are a lot of tattoo parlours which won’t tattoo anyone there anyway. Remember that people really like to judge anyone with a tattoo. My friend is about to get his knuckles tattooed & I dread the day he has to go to court for a traffic violation or travels internationally.

How much do you want to spend?
The answer should be “as much as it takes”. Please, never go anywhere & say “Oh, I only have $100, what can you do for me?”. I have spent thousands of dollars on my arms (& that’s before you even factor in that I flew to New York to get Timmy Kern to do one of them). You should plan your tattoo with your artist first, get an estimate of cost, & then go away & save your money! It’s for life! Remember?!

What are you going to get?
Most tattoo artists have pages of what is called flash art up on their walls which you can pick from. I always thought that was quite a bizarre thing… you walk into a parlour, have a cursory glance around, then say to the man behind the counter, “yeah, gimme ‘horny little devil #6’, right here”. It’s so meaningless! I actually knew someone with that exact tattoo, it was painful to look at.

If you’re not sure of what you want, try making a list of things which appeal to you (aesthetic or otherwise). Make it three pages long if you need to, just brainstorm & rattle off as many things as you can think of. I did that for both of my tattoos. The first list (when I shrunk it down to the things I actually wanted on me) said: siamese twins / candy / cupcakes / teacups / fortune cookies / hearts. The second one said: swanboat / hot air balloon. If you can find pictures of the things you like, print them out & take them to your tattoo artist. This will help them a lot.

A reader just suggested that if you’re getting something in a written in a foreign language, make sure you check with a native speaker to ensure it says what you think it does!

I found a tattoo online which I really like…
No! No no no! Please don’t rip off someone else’s tattoo. It smacks of lame. A tattoo is meant to represent you, not someone else! People go to a lot of effort to design tattoos which are individual to them, & unfortunately this kind of thing happens all the time — which is one reason why I don’t really like posting full pictures of my tattoos online. Call me paranoid, but it’s almost like asking for someone to steal it.

Well, I found some art online which I really like…
Ask the artist for permission. They will probably be delighted, but it’s definitely polite to ask first. My siamese twins are two of Fawn Gehweiler’s characters joined together, & I definitely asked her whether it was okay!

How do I find a good tattoo artist?
Shop around. Have a look at Bmezine & search for artists in your area. Ask people online, ask your friends, then go into the shops & talk to the people who work there. Ask to see their portfolios — the flash on the wall is usually purchased from another company & is in no way indicative of their talent. A good tattoo artist should have social skills (i.e., not make you feel like a chump), be professional, polite & talented. If you find one you like, make an appointment for a consultation, & take in your ideas for your tattoo.

Okay, my artist drew something up for me, now what?
I am possibly the most cautious person ever. I once had someone draw me up a tattoo, which I then taped to the head of my bed so I could look at it every night & see whether I got sick of it. I did, so I knew I shouldn’t get it tattooed on me. (Looking back on it, I am SO glad I didn’t have it done. Phew.) Anyway, I would suggest doing something similar. Put it somewhere that you can look at it often.

It’s been months! I still like the design.
Get yo’ butt to the tattoo parlour, then! When they press the design onto your body, have a GOOD look at it in a mirror to make sure you REALLY like it. It can still be altered at this stage, so don’t feel like you’re being a pain if you want a slight change.

Does it hurt?
Yes, but not as badly as you think it will. Some areas (on top of bone, for example) hurt more than others, but it’s pretty bearable. If you’re worried about it, try taking some Tylenol beforehand. The best thing to do is concentrate on breathing slowly. Endorphins will kick in, & you won’t feel it as much. It also helps to think about other things than a needle in your arm — take a friend to talk to if you want, or make conversation with your tattoo artist. I’ve seen some people take mp3 players along, but I just think that’s kinda rude.

How do I look after it?
Tattoo artists have different aftercare methods, so do whatever your tattoo artist tells you to do. Basically, while it’s healing, keep it moisturised (but not over-moisturised) & don’t pick at it! Don’t go swimming, sit in a sauna or expose your new tattoo to sunlight. This will impede the healing process & can cause infections & other nasties.

It’s healed! I have a tattoo! I’m the coolest person ever!
Why yes… yes, you are. Remember to ALWAYS put sunblock on your tattoos whenever you go out in the sun. Otherwise your beautiful tattoo will fade & look sad, & we don’t want that.

A warning:
If your tattoos are visible to other people, they often think it is okay to touch you & ask inane questions. You will need to get used to this. They will ask you if it’s real (…) & then give you their opinion. You can deal with this however you like but I suggest reading my Avoiding Creeps article.

Extra For Experts:
rec.arts.bodyart tattoo FAQ will answer every question you could possibly have, including tattoos getting stretched, tattoo removal, etc.
Thousands of tattoo pictures from BMEzine — remember to use them as inspiration only!
Consider this a warning.