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What to know before getting your first tattoo

It can be a little daunting the first time you decide to get tattooed and we’re sure there are plenty of questions you need answering to help put your mind at ease.

By Faith Richardson

We spoke to tattoo artist Greg Scott (@gregscotttattoos) from Iron Hand Tattoo in Whitley Bay about what to expect, from the first time you message the artist, up until the time you leave the chair.

So where to start?

Pick your artist

This should be one of the most important things you do before booking a tattoo. Make sure you’ve looked at plenty of different artists and gotten a feel for what kind of style you like, then find an artist that does this well. Go through their work – most artists will have Instagram accounts, and studios tend to have physical portfolios of their different artists for you to look through. Don’t just pick the cheapest or first artist you find on social media!

Contact your artist

Once you’ve chosen the right person for the job, get in touch with them to discuss your design. This is the most involved part of your tattoo process! Communication is key here, as you both want to be happy with the outcome. Most artists are happy to answer DMs on Instagram, or else will have their email address posted on their account or on the studio’s website. If you’re visiting a studio, be specific about which artist it is that you want to book in with.

When emailing, try to have a few reference images ready similar to the style you want, but remember – most artists will refuse point blank to copy a design, particularly one you’ve just found on Pinterest. They will redraw it and re-design it in their unique style – don’t ask them to simply copy something.

It’s also important to have an idea in mind of where you want it and how big. Get specific! They need approximate measurements of how big you want your piece so they know how long it’s going to take. Avoid asking for something ‘medium-sized’ or ‘small’ – one artist’s small could be the size of a thumbprint, whilst others could consider a full forearm small.

Greg says “Try to be concise with what you’re after – your email should contain a short description of what you want that includes a rough size, where you want it, images of similar designs, and whether you want it to be in colour or black and white. Don’t just email asking ‘how much is a medium-size tattoo?’ – it entirely depends on size, style and how detailed the design is.”

Booking in

Once you’ve successfully communicated what you want and your artist is happy moving forwards, it’s time to book your appointment. Your artist will give you a list of available dates and times, as well as roughly how long it will take and what the total cost will be. Be prepared to be patient! Most good artists are booked at least a few weeks in advance, if not months. If your design is very small or straightforward you may be lucky enough to nab a spot quickly, but for bigger and more complicated designs that require several hours or a full day, you might have to wait a while.

Tattoo artists will almost always ask for a deposit to secure your space in their diary, which can usually be paid via PayPal (or in cash in person if you’re physically in the studio). Once your deposit’s paid, the date is yours and you can start getting excited about your new tattoo. Remember to make a note of your appointment somewhere you’ll remember it, like your phone calendar. You’d be amazed at how often people don’t show up for an appointment because they forgot, or message 3 or 4 times before their appointment asking to be reminded when it is!

Waiting for your appointment

Tattooists usually have to spend a lot of their free time and evenings drawing up designs, and your design usually won’t be drawn until the week leading up to your appointment. Try to avoid hounding your artist for your design every few days – we know it can be hard when you’re excited about it! But once it’s drawn up the artist will send it to you for you to check over and confirm you are happy with it or make any necessary changes.

It’s absolutely fine to request some changes to your design if you want – it’s important you’re happy with it and your artist wants you both to be pleased with the outcome. Some suggestions may not work from a design perspective, which the tattooist will communicate with you if necessary.

The day of your appointment

Eat!! It’s amazing how many people show up with an empty stomach – make sure you have a good meal before you leave for your appointment and bring some snacks and drinks with you – I personally swear by Lucozade Sport drinks because they keep your electrolytes up! You need to ensure your body is prepared to sit through the surge of adrenaline and tension that comes from sitting and getting tattooed for a few hours. An empty stomach makes you crash quickly and can make you feel sick, shaky or weak after a little while.

It’s always best to check if you’re able to bring a friend with you beforehand – most studios usually allow someone to come in with you (although at the moment due to social distancing and Covid-19 most don’t allow any extra people in the studio) but this isn’t an open invitation for you to invite your mum, best friend, children and dog along to watch. One person is fine – any more than that is pushing your luck. Children and dogs are generally not a great mix when you’re getting tattooed – there’s often small spaces and a lot of very dangerous equipment around – not to mention any children running around risk messing up someone’s tattoo for them!

Make sure your friend is quiet and stays out the way as well – Greg told us “I once had a customer’s friend who kept leaning over the table to see what I was doing. Every time they leant over, they would move the table that my customer was sitting on and knocking me and the machine – I had a few near misses where I just managed to stop tattooing before they caused me to tattoo a big line across their leg! If you want to watch that’s fine – but make sure you don’t touch anything or distract the artist from their job. We have to focus a lot on what we’re doing – distractions can easily mess up someone’s tattoo!”

It should also go without saying, but think carefully about what you wear. If you’re getting a leg tattoo don’t show up in skinny jeans – not only will you not be able to wear them during the tattoo, but it will be almost impossible to get them back on afterwards! Leave your best clothes at home too – stick to dark coloured clothes that you’re not precious about – there’s always a chance you might get some ink on them.

What to expect when you arrive

When you arrive at the studio, your artist will bring you over to their space and apply the stencil that they’ll be using as a guide during your tattoo. This allows you to see how your tattoo will look, what the placement looks like and how big it is. Never be afraid to speak up if you want it moved a bit. Tattooists always have their client and their design’s best interests at heart and will do their best to accommodate your wishes. Sometimes moving it can compromise on how it will look when finished, which again they’ll communicate with you if it’s impossible to move it further round.

Once you’re both happy with your design it’s time to get started! Everything will have been completely sterilised and cleaned down before you got there so you can get started right away. Make sure you’re comfortable, take a few deep breaths and try not to feel panicky or anxious – this can make it worse!

The actual tattoo

Listen – the chances are it’s going to hurt. Some of the most heavily tattooed people I know will say they find getting tattooed painful – it’s an unfortunate part of it! There are plenty of things you can do to help alleviate the pain as much as possible though. Generally, artists don’t mind if you want to put your headphones in and listen to music or watch something on your tablet to try and help yourself zone out. Similarly, most are more than happy to chat if it helps distract you and keep your mind off things. A lot of studios have several people in, and it always helps to join in conversations!

Greg says “I have yet to have anyone who has been unable to sit through their tattoo – most people tell me it’s not nearly as bad as they were expecting. If you’re finding it tough, don’t tense up and feel like you need to push through the pain – speak to your tattooist and just ask for a quick break before you get back to it – 5-minutes moving around can make all the difference. There’s no shame in ending a session sooner than planned and coming back to get it finished at another time! As long as your outline is done, it’s easy enough to continue another day.”

Afterwards

So, you’ve stuck it out and have a beautiful new tattoo that you can’t wait to show off – but how exactly do you look after it?

Remember, tattoos are essentially open wounds – it might sound gross, but you have to treat them carefully and keep them clean at all times. Every artist will have an aftercare programme that they’ll talk you through, including creams they recommend, how often to wash it and what to avoid for the next few days.

Generally, you’ll be in no fit state to do anything physical (sports, the gym etc.) for at least the next day or so, and remember some minor swelling is normal, particularly in sensitive areas like legs and forearms. Avoid tight clothes and anything that will rub on the area – loose t-shirts are your new best friend. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s a good idea to put either some old (clean!) bedding on your bed, or lay on a towel – I’ve lost many-a good bedding set to the ink and blood that comes with the first night of a fresh tattoo!

The healing process can be tough – it gets super itchy but under no circumstances should you scratch a healing tattoo – best case scenario you knock a scab off and it takes some ink with it; worst case it can cause scarring and infections. The itching stage is usually only a couple of days, and once you’ve managed to ride that out you should be well on your way to being totally healed.

Artists are always more than happy to answer any after-care questions or concerns you might have – if you’re worried something doesn’t look or feel right, drop them a message and ask for their professional opinion.

Greg’s Final Top Tips

Research your artist thoroughly – if you want a specific artist, go to that artist. If you’re not sure, research their work and make sure they’re the right fit for you.

Don’t be put off by a long waiting list – if they’re busy for a couple of months there’s a very good reason!

Artists are generally very busy – we’re working all day and spend most nights drawing. We usually can’t reply to messages and emails immediately – we will get back to you I promise.

Listen to your artist when it comes to design – if we tell you it’s too small to have that level of detail, or that two styles won’t look right together, listen.

Don’t listen to other people about aftercare – follow your artists recommended regime, not people on Google. There’s nothing worse than going through all that just to ruin your tattoo at the final stage with bad aftercare.

Finally, please please never just send a message asking “how much are tattoos?” There are so many things that go into determining the final price. It’s one of the most frustrating parts of the job! Informative and concise are the best e-mails we can get.

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