Getting your first tattoo is both terrifying and exciting, and you probably have a million questions already. How bad will it hurt? How do you know if a parlor is safe? How much will it cost? Before you get anything permanently placed on your body, you should make sure every single one of these questions (and many more) are answered 100%.
Even though I have nine tattoos and counting, I’m still nowhere near an expert on tattoo care. So I enlisted the best professionals in the biz (a celeb tattoo artist and two dermatologists) to spill all that tattoo-related tea – removals, reactions, pricing and more. Along with their expert medical advice, I also shared a few things I’ve learned from when I’ve personally gone under the needle – both the good and very, VERY bad. Read on for all of the things you NEED to know before you get your first tattoo.
Prices vary depending on size.
Tattoo parlors adjust prices based on the size and style of the tattoo you want. And FYI, if they know you’re a tat virgin, they might try to up the price on you. It’s a good idea to call and ask for an estimate before you go in, although that number may change slightly once the design is drawn. If you can, bring someone who has gotten inked before to help you negotiate or do research on pricing beforehand to make sure you don’t get ripped off.
DON’T go bargain hunting.
Many parlors have minimum prices (usually $50 or $100), so a tiny heart tattoo, for example, shouldn’t cost much more than that. If someone is willing to do your tattoo for $15… HARD pass. Sketchy artists could mean infections and shoddy work. Since your tattoo will be on your body for life and your health could be at risk, it’s an investment worth the money.
That being said, some parlors do totally legit tattoo sales for holidays, like Halloween or Friday the 13th (I’ve even seen some for Harry Potter’s birthday). They’re called “flash sales” – you pick a pre-drawn design for a discounted price.
Other than that, though, tattoo shopping isn’t the time to bargain shop. Instead, save up for a professional, reputable tattoo artist. “If you can’t afford to be tattooed by the artist that you want, you need to wait until you can instead of settling for ‘fast food,'” says celeb tattoo artist, Bang Bang McCurdy, who has tattooed celebs like Kylie Jenner, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato. “You won’t regret waiting, but you can absolutely regret not waiting.”
You CAN be allergic to tattoo ink.
Ink allergies and allergic reactions to the prep and aftercare process can happen. How do I know? Well, it happened to me and it f*cking sucked.
Dr. Rachel Nazarian MD FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in NYC, says ink allergies, though rare, aren’t unheard of. But if you’re experiencing a reaction, it’s likely due to a substance used in the tattoo process or aftercare products (which is what happened to me).
“True allergic reactions to tattoos, and the ink, are very, very possible, but thankfully not super common. Often people with sensitive skin mount a reaction to the prep process that cleans and sterilizes the skin, which is more common than a true allergic reaction to the ink and tattoo itself.”
If you do react badly, the tattoo might break out in an itchy red rash like mine, but Dr. Nazarian says it can be treated with steroids from your doctor or extra-strength hydrocortisone cream. That’s what I used and my tattoo healed just fine after treatment, FYI. (Read the full story of my terrifying tattoo reaction here.)
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You have to be 18 to get one.
Yep, like voting and scary movies, you’ve gotta be 18 to get inked. Some states will allow you to get a tattoo earlier with a parent’s permission while you’re still underaged, though.
Look into the parlor beforehand.
Just because the tattoo parlor is within walking distance from your dorm, doesn’t mean it’s a quality shop (I learned this one the hard way, btw). Visit the parlor, ask about their artists’ licenses, and also check out reviews online – Yelp will give you allll that tea. Tattooing laws differ by state, so you should research the guidelines in your state and make sure anywhere you’re considering has the proper licensing and adheres to those guidelines.
“It’s very important for a client to feel comfortable with how clean the studio is,” McCurdy says. “Ask an artist: What do you do to clean in between tattoos? How often do you clean this station I’m going to be tattooed on? What kind of surface do you tattoo off of?'”
The parlor should be spotless (like, SPOTLESS spotless).
Getting a tattoo isn’t a minor change, like coloring your hair. Another human being is *literally* creating an open wound that can get infected if the shop isn’t taking proper precautions. Though it’s much more important how the surfaces and tools are being sanitized, the shop should look and smell as clean as a hospital.
Make sure the artist uses a new, disposable needle and ink cup, and wears clean gloves.
Reusing needles can spread infection or cause you to contract a serious illness, like HIV or Hepatitis B. Yeah, this sh*t is serious. So your artist should use a brand new, single-use needle and use all new cups, napkins, and gloves. Watch to make sure they open the needle package in front of you to insure it’s clean.
Check that the surface you’re getting tattooed on is a non-porous material.
Porous materials, like wood or marble, can be difficult to fully sanitize, so it’s not a good option for a tattoo station. “A porous surface, like rock and marble, would not be something that your tattoo station should be made of,” says McCurdy. “It should be stainless steel or a sterilizable material like stainless.”
Follow the artist you’re considering on Instagram.
After you have the parlor picked out, check out their artists’ work on Instagram and decide which one you want to work with. Different artists specialize in different tattoo styles – some are great with color, others with portraits or dainty script. Don’t forget to read the comments to see what their customers think.
The way the design looks in the sketch is how it will look on your skin.
The artist will draw the outline of your tattoo before they apply it, so make sure you’re especially observant when you okay the design. The drawing you approve will go directly onto your body and the artist will use it as a tracing for the final tattoo. Be extra aware of spelling (it’s not common that you’ll get a misspelled tat, but it does happen) and don’t be afraid to speak up about any changes you want. Remember: this is forever.
If the artist makes you feel uncomfortable, LEAVE.
If they get sassy when you ask them to adjust the design, leave. If they shame your tattoo idea, leave. If they just generally make you feel weird or uncomfortable, leave. Getting your first tattoo is scary and they shouldn’t be adding to your nerves or making you feel bad.
“I think that in our industry it’s a common thing where a young girl is going to come in to speak to an artist and is going to be met with a nose-in-the-air kind of attitude, like ‘I don’t want to do this girl’s silly tattoo,'” McCurdy says. “I don’t think that it’s a fair thing or that a client should put up with that. You should find someone who wants to do your tattoo.”
Bigger tattoos can take more than one session to complete.
Larger designs or ones with a lot of color can take multiple sessions to finish, so your tattoo might not be complete after your first visit. A bigger design with a lot of detail or color might take two sessions, while an entire sleeve could take months (and hundreds to thousands of dollars) to finish. On the other hand, a simple tattoo, like a small black star, should only take about 5 minutes. If you want a better idea of timeline, ask your artist to give you an estimate of how long it will take before you get started.
Think about your tattoo for at least a year before you commit to it.
“When [you’re] designing, try to think of the word ‘timeless’ because your tattoo will be timeless, even if your design is not,” McCurdy says. What you think will look cool rn, may change so you want to think hard about the design and make sure you will still be into it months later. Remember: your tastes may change over time but this will last forever.
Getting inked might seem like a fun thing to do with your friends on spring break or before graduation, getting a spur-of-the-moment tat is probably not a great idea. “Think twice before jumping into a tattoo,” adds Dr. Cameron Rokhsar, a cosmetic dermatologist who often deals with tattoo removal. “Don’t do it on a whim, don’t do it when you’re drinking — those are all the stories I get from my patients. Tattoos of boyfriends and girlfriends [are] a no-no — people always regret it.”
Don’t get inked before your beach vacation.
The quote you want on your rib cage will look great with that cut-out swimsuit, but tattoos take at least two weeks to heal, so you won’t be able to swim (pool chemicals and ocean bacteria are bad for a healing tattoo) or hang out in direct sunlight (even healed tattoos are sensitive to UV rays) if you get it on or right before spring break. Your best bet: Just wait until you get home and make sure to stay out of the sun, ocean, or pool for at least two weeks after you get inked.
You’ll probably have to get your tattoo touched up.
Tattoos fade over time, no matter how well you treat them, because your skin is always shedding new layers. So you’ll probably have to go back under the needle at some point to keep it in tip-top shape. You can go to any artist to get it touched up, but if you liked your original artist, it’s always best to go back to them. A lot of parlors will give you a touch-up for free, but others charge. Like normal tattoos, touch-up pricing varies based on the amount of work you need done, so if you’re curious, ask your artist for an estimate or check the parlor’s website – they’ll likely have a touch-up policy outlined under their FAQs.
Tattoos fade faster when exposed to sunlight.
“There are certain parts of your skin that are exposed to more sun, so pigments can break down quicker,” McCurdy says. “Like the outside of your arm, it will age differently than the inside of your arm that isn’t exposed to as much sun throughout your life.” If you’re outside a lot and worried about fading, considering getting inked in a spot that’s less exposed like the inside of your wrist and always, always, always wear sunscreen, especially on your ink.
The pain depends on the tattoo placement.
Disclaimer: getting a tattoo will never not hurt. Pain tolerance differs for each person, but generally, tattoos placed right over bones tend to hurt the most. A tattoo on your foot or ribs might be an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, while a bicep tat might only be a 4. And of course, the bigger the tattoo, the longer you’ll be in pain. Speaking from personal experience, my foot, ribcage, and spine hurt the worst (in that order), while tattoos on my hands and arms were much more tolerable.
If you don’t end up liking your tattoo, you can get it covered up.
It’s pretty easy to get a tattoo covered up, especially if it’s small. A good artist can put a new design over it, covering the original tattoo completely — some parlors even specialize in cover-ups. So even if you do change your mind one day, you won’t be stuck with tattoo that you hate.
You can also get tattoos removed.
You can get your tattoo removed with a laser treatment. Depending on the ink color, stubbornness of the ink, and size of the tattoo, it can take up to several sessions. Blue, black, and green inks are easier to remove with laser treatment because the lasers can detect those colors more easily and thus, remove them more accurately, says Dr. Rokhsar. Lighter colors, like yellow and white, on the other hand, are more difficult to remove. But keep in mind, while the process eliminates the tattoo, it can leave scarring and the procedure can be pricey.
Tattoo removal doesn’t actually hurt if you go to a doctor.
Salons offer the service, but since they are not medical professionals, you should never go to one for a tattoo removal. Go to a real, licensed doctor to get the procedure done – it’s safer and pain-free, because unlike a salon, doctors can numb the area beforehand.
“Removing [a tattoo], actually, is not painful at all. If you go to a doctor, the doctor will numb it… with a local anesthetic,” Dr. Rokhsar says. “When you read about people who say tattoo removal is painful, it’s because they’re not going to doctors. They’re going to various spas, not medical doctors. Spas cannot administer anesthetic injections. A doctor can can administer local anesthetics, so you’ll feel zero pain.”
You might not be able to get the exact tattoo you want.
If you want to get a lyric in a really tiny font, your artist might refuse – and for good reason. If a font is too small, it can bleed together over time and basically just turn into a smudge. Instead, the designer might ask you to compromise with a slightly bigger font. Remember: Your artist is a professional, so if they have some serious feelings about the logistics of your design, hear them out.
They might shave you first.
If you’re getting a tattoo on your arm or another particularly hairy part of your body, the artist might shave the spot beforehand — like a doctor would before a surgery (this is an open wound, after all). You can ask in advance if you should shave the area before coming in, but most tattoos don’t require it.
It will itch afterward.
After about a week (sometimes sooner) new tattoos will start to have a mild itch – but whatever you do, DON’T scratch it. Your fingernails can peel off the ink, leaving spots of un-tattooed skin on your tattoo. (If you do accidentally scratch some ink off, though, your artist can fix it easily with a touch up.) Dr. Rokhsar says scratching can also lead to infection, so instead, slap your tattoo gently with a clean hand for relief. He also recommends using a Cortisone cream to take away the itch safely.
If the itching becomes unbearable or your tattoo breaks out in a rash (photos of that above), go to an urgent care or a dermatologist ASAP (again, more on that above).
Avoid long showers while you’re healing.
It’s important to keep your new ink clean by gently washing the area with antibacterial soap and water, then patting it dry three times a day. A little water won’t hurt it, but try to avoid spending too much time in the shower (no baths, please) after getting inked. Soaking your tattoo isn’t good for it, because the water will slow down the healing process by deteriorating your newly-forming skin. If you get a design on a part of your body that gets a lot of water in the shower, like your back, try to keep your showers short and limit the area’s contact with water until it heals.