Once considered the markings of outlaws, sailors or bikers, tattoo acceptance has drastically evolved throughout the past 30 years. Today, we’ve found ourselves embracing an eccentric, niche fine art form that’s swept millions off of their feet and into a shop to cross “get a tattoo” off their bucket list — only to find themselves immediately adding “get another tattoo.”
Taking the plunge for any tattoo can be intimidating, let alone your first. Questions such as "How much will it hurt?" and "How permanent is permanent?" might run through your head.
Vox sat down with six local tattoo artists to get the answers to ensure you walk away loving your new personal piece of art. Whether you’re considering a tattoo for the first time or you’ve already had multiple, you’re going to want to hear what they have to say.
Decide on your tattoo
“The first step of the process is figuring out what you want to wear on your body forever,” says tattoo artist Roxane Jeffries. She’s been collecting tattoos since the moment she turned 18. For some, taking ample time to deliberate is a necessary part of ensuring you’ll still love it after a few decades, while others quickly make peace with their decision and are ready to hop in the chair. Either way, the tattoo artist isn’t there to judge you.
“I think it can be totally fine to pick something in five minutes or sit on it for a year," says Jake Bailey, an artist at Iron Tiger. "I’m not here to make someone’s decision for them.”
There’re all kinds of tattoos to choose from and create. Try identifying which styles you like best to draw inspiration.
Tattoo enthusiast Justin Tombleson says he's partial to American traditional artwork, which dates back to the 1920s and '30s. “Sometimes I take an exact piece of flash that I would like to an artist and other times I say 'Hey, I would like something kind of like this, can you draw something up?' and let them go from there,” he says. Tombleson booked an appointment in August for his thirty-sixth tattoo, saying he's willing to wait for the right artist rather than quickly scratching the tattoo itch without much thought.
Do your homework
Choosing the right artist is as important as the design. According to the owner of Iron Tiger Gabe Garcia, word of mouth has always been the best way to find the suitable tattoo artist for the art style you’re looking for. Still, COVID-19 has altered the initial in-person consultation between artist and client — it often occurs over Instagram now.
Almost every artist possesses an online presence showcasing their work. “At this point, social media is everything," Bailey says. "Instagram works well because it is so image-based."
“Portfolio is the golden word, of course,” says Trent Tucker, a tattoo artist at Living Canvas. Looking through someone’s past work can give you an understanding of what they’re capable of doing for you. Tucker says traditionally a client would look through the hard copy portfolio, but, throughout COVID-19, many studios adapted to social media and a business card Q.R. codes that pull up your portfolio or most recent work.
Garcia recommends looking at the cleanliness of an artist's lines, how dynamic the designs are and how saturated the colors are, especially paying attention to how dark the black ink is. “Get online and look at people’s work," Garcia says. "If you see pictures taken from 10 feet away, there’s a reason for that. You know what I mean?“
Once you find an artist that matches what you’re looking for, reach out to the artist through their preferred form of communication, whether that be email, phone number or direct message. Make sure the artist has a consistent schedule and you can rely on that artist to see your tattoo through its final session. Then set up a consultation, which will allow you to discuss the details with the artist and get a feel for who they are and if you want to work with them.
“Make sure that’s the person you want to go with at the end of the day. Do your work on the shops around here. Make sure you feel like family walking in a shop because that’s how it should be,” says Derek Hoskins, a tattoo artist at C.R. Ink.
Artistry and design
Come to your consultation prepared with reference photos and the ability to describe what you want clearly. “With new clients, I’m really heavy on giving me as much reference as you possibly can,” Tucker says. “I don’t care if it’s a t-shirt, bumper sticker, somebody else’s tattoo, a drawing, painting, graphic, a logo — anything. If it has anything to do with the style of the tattoo or color, composition or feature, those are all really important things for me to get an idea of the general vibe that you would like in the tattoo.”
The first thing to expect is feedback — you might not get exactly what you want. “It’s important to be open-minded because what works on paper doesn’t always work on skin,” Jeffries says. “The main thing is listening to your artist, what’s going to work and what isn’t.”
Similar to how you might identify a tattoo that connects to you, an artist's style is personal.
“Just because we’re versatile doesn’t mean we’re willing to tattoo every style,” Hoskins says. “I’m not doing a portrait because that’s not me. I don’t get enjoyment out of doing a portrait, and the simple fact is it would take me four times as long as Juan to do a portrait because that’s not my style.”
Make sure the price is right, but don’t haggle
Make sure to discuss pricing well before any needles touch your skin. Yes, it may be more expensive than initially anticipated, but, like most things, you get what you pay for.
“Shops will often have tattoo minimal, and you won’t get a tattoo below that price, no matter how many coupons or people you know," Tucker says.
Shops in Columbia typically charge by the hour for larger tattoos, which averages around $150/hour. At Iron Tiger, smaller tattoos have a base price of about $60. Much of that upfront cost covers single-use equipment, such as individually packaged needles, so the artist only makes $10 or $20. If you’re interested in getting two small tattoos, Garcia recommends getting them both at the same time to avoid paying a set-up fee twice.
While there isn’t one standard price for a tattoo, there is an etiquette for tipping.
“Some people don’t know protocol like that, but it always makes you feel like you didn’t do a good job when someone leaves without throwing you something," Garcia says.
The pain factor
Be honest with yourself about the pain, and your artist will reciprocate the favor. “I think by the time somebody is 18 or older, they have a fair idea of what their pain tolerance is like,” Jeffries says. “People get themselves so worked up, try to reel that in for your benefit.” When it comes to pain, it’s all about location, location, location.
Certain areas are more tender, such as the torso area. Jeffries says this is because it doesn’t get a lot of exposure to the elements, whereas the outer arm is more exposed to the elements. Specifically, the ribs and stomach tend to be more tender. However, the fear of pain shouldn’t deter you.
“Ultimately, it will be over, and all you have to do is take care of the tattoo, and you’ll have it forever," Tucker says.
To prepare, make sure you’re hydrated and have glucose in your system.
What to expect
Get a good night’s sleep the day before your appointment, drink plenty of water and eat a meal before you arrive (on time) for your appointment. It's best to have your I.D. ready to fill out the necessary forms, and then you’re ready for the prep work — especially hygiene.
Ensure that the station has been disinfected and that the equipment touching your skin comes out of a sealed package. If you have any questions, a shop that has adequately followed the sanitation measures in place will be happy to explain anything to you.
Once you’re in the chair, the artist may shave the area where you’re getting the tattoo. Then they will place a stencil, which is essentially an ink transfer. Depending on the design and placement, you might have additional details drawn on with a sharpie or pen.
“You need to be very honest with your artist saying you like it or you might want to move this or scoot this,” Tucker says.
Tucker also stresses that scale and design congestion also play a factor in how the tattoo will breathe and its legibility. Something very busy will end up blurring together over time.
“There are so many things that are technically possible with tattoos that will look good for a year or so, but we also want to talk about how tattoos will look throughout a lifetime,” Garcia says.
Arguably the most critical step of the process is taking care of your tattoo because the healing process takes time.
When your tattoo is finished, the artist will cover your tattoo with a clean, sanitary, medical-grade bandage that you’ll want to keep on for the first two days. You’ll be able to shower with it on, but you shouldn’t swim or take baths.
Hoskins shared the science behind the aftercare ritual. “Don’t put a crazy amount of film on your tattoo like Aquaphor because what that does is it traps bacteria on your skin," he says. "[It] not only traps bacteria, but it’ll constantly cause you to leak plasma, which makes your tattoo lighten up."
Hoskins also tells his clients their tattoo will go through an ugly stage during the healing process, which is something not everyone expects.
It's your body and it's your expression, and after hearing from Columbia's artists, we're confident that you'll find a fit worth the pain and worth the money to give you exactly what you're looking for. In the end, if you're happy, then you've done it right.