Getting a tattoo is kinda like getting married. Choose correctly, and you’ll (hopefully) be happy with your decision for years and years. But make a spur-of-the-moment choice when you’re partying in Vegas…and you might end up regretting it big-time.
So to avoid having to remove or cover your tattoo later on, take the time to carefully consider your decision first with the following expert advice from two top dermatologists and tattoo artist Becca Roach (who’s responsible for Lady Gaga’s unicorn tat).
What to know before getting a tattoo:
You might have to wait for an open appointment.
While walk-ins are welcome at some shops, the well-known, Insta-famous artists have a waiting list of anywhere from a couple months to a year. If you’re obsessed with the artist, then wait. It’s a good test to see how badly you actually want the tattoo when you’re forced to wait and think on it. Or find a more low-key artist who is just as talented—you’ll also save quite a bit of money.
Know that tattoos are surprisingly expensive.
A good tattoo isn’t cheap, and a cheap tattoo isn’t (usually) good. The price of a tattoo depends on the size, the area of the body you want covered, and the artist, but typically, a good tattoo will cost you anywhere from $50 for a tiny design…to a few months’ rent for more elaborate art. Yes, really. At most places, the prices are non-negotiable, and, heads-up, you should also factor in a tip of 20 percent.
Visit the shop before getting your tattoo.
Check that the place looks clean, that they have good artwork on the walls, and that you get good vibes from the staff, then schedule a consultation with the artist to talk about pricing and any questions you might have. You can (and should!) also ask to see the artist’s state tattoo license to make sure he or she has completed the necessary requirements (like, for instance, a safety course on blood-borne pathogens. Trust me—it’s important). And if the artists aren’t using gloves and single-use needles, run. Fast.
Consult your dermatologist before getting tatted.
Tattoo reactions are not common, but when they do occur, they’re difficult to treat. They often develop in response to red dye (a common allergen), so if that’s the color you’re wanting to use, make sure to talk to your dermatologist, first, about your concerns. And if you’ve previously had allergic reactions to hair dye, costume jewelry, or cheap fragrances, you might have a higher risk of developing an infection, so, again, talk to your doctor.
So you booked your appointment. Now what?
Ask to see the sterilized needle
Before inserting the clean needle into the tattoo machine, Exley presented it to me in its unopened, sterile packaging. “A good studio will always show you this,” she says. She also repeatedly changed her gloves throughout the process.
Collaborate with your tattoo artist on the design.
If you find an artist you’re really drawn to but still can’t figure out what design you want, reach out and ask for their input—many tattoo artists have tons of designs they’ve created on the side and are dying to tattoo on people.
And even if you have your dream tat picked out, listen carefully to the input the artist might have on your idea, whether it’s about the design, size, location, or ink color. Let the artist know what aspects of the tattoo you’re not willing to change and where you’re flexible. Just like a haircut, if you don’t speak up, you’ll get something you didn’t want…and something that’s permanent.
Proofread your tattoo.
This sounds so obvious, but yet here we are: PROOFREAD YOUR TATTOO. You and the tattoo artist will probably make a few edits during the sketching and stenciling process, so make sure you spellcheck any words on your tattoo after each round of edits. Unless you’re Ariana Grande and did it intentionally, no one wants to be a walking typo.
Brace yourself, because a tattoo will hurt.
How badly do tattoos hurt? What does tattoo pain feel like? Will I cry?! Hey, I get it—those are very real, normal questions. And the answers…vary, depending on the size of the tattoo and where on your body it is (smaller tattoos on fleshier parts of your body will hurt the least).
Realistically, getting a tattoo feels like a touch of slightly stinging, burning pain coupled with an annoying, intense vibration and the sensation that someone is dragging a needle across your skin—because that’s exactly what someone is doing. After about 15 minutes, your adrenaline will start kicking in and help manage some (emphasis on “some”) of the pain.
Tattoos can fade fast depending on their location.
Keep in mind before you lay down a few hundred bucks on a tattoo, some spots fade faster than others, like on your hands and feet. Since your skin exfoliates and regenerates fastest on those parts of the body, you can expect your ink to start fading within a few years.
Don’t drink alcohol before your tattoo.
Yeah, slamming a few shots right before getting your tattoo may seem like an easy way to curb the pain, but in reality, it can be dangerous. Alcohol thins your blood and can make you bleed more during your tattoo. Scary for health reasons and annoying for aesthetic reasons: The excess blood can thin the ink and mess with your final result.
Certain areas hurt worse than others to tattoo.
Although everyone experiences pain differently, you can expect for the tattoo pain to be worse on your ribs, feet, ankles, neck, and backs of your knees. Really, anywhere that has a high level of nerve endings and not a lot of fat. So, if you were planning on getting a tattoo in one—or all three—of those areas, possibly reconsider if you don’t have a high pain tolerance. Or pop a few Tylenol (notibuprofen, which thins your blood like alcohol does), ahead of your appointment.
If you have a large or intricate design, you could need multiple tattoo sessions.
Most tattooists will only work in two-hour sessions at a time. If you have a very large design, you’ll have to schedule a couple of appointments a few weeks apart—important to note if you’re traveling far to see your artist.
Here’s what to expect after getting your new tattoo:
Tattoos can take a few weeks to heal.
The tattoo will look perfect immediately after it’s finished, but after a couple of days, it’ll start to dry out a little bit and might peel like a sunburn. You also might get a few scabs, but it’s important not to pick at them or the design won’t heal correctly.
After two weeks, it should be completely healed if you’ve properly cleaned it and moisturized it with fragrance-free lotion. According to dermatologist Michelle Henry, MD, in New York City, the most concerning adverse reaction is pain that worsens day by day, which could be an indication of infection. In which case, pay a visit to your doctor ASAP.
You’ll need to be diligent about post-care for your tattoo.
Steer clear of any body of water for two weeks after your tattoo is completely finished (sorry, but your international surfing competition will have to wait). During that time, stick to showers (no baths!) and stay out of hot tubs, pools, lakes, oceans, ponds—you get the idea—to prevent infection.
Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital, also suggests keeping it covered with antibiotic ointment like bacitracin and clean it twice daily with a gentle, non-abrasive cleanser. Then after your tattoo is totally healed, you’ll need to slather that sucker with sunscreen forever to prevent the colors from breaking down and fading, says Dr. Henry.
Wanna get rid of your tattoo? Cover it up or laser it off.
If you get a donut tattooed around your belly button and decide 10 years later that it was a horrible idea (albeit an awesome one at the time), you’ll only have one very painful option to get rid of it: laser removal. Laser tattoo removal heats up and shatters the ink particles in your skin into tiny fragments that are flushed out of your body over time. The removal usually hurts worse than the tattoo, but Dr. Henry says your dermatologist can use a topical or injectable numbing medication to alleviate the pain.
Sadly, it’s not a quick fix: It takes multiple removal treatments over many months to really break down the tattoo, and it can cost way more than the tattoo initially was worth (anywhere from $300 to $800 per laser treatment). Of course, there’s always the option to cover up your unwanted tat with another tattoo (or some waterproof concealer), but obviously, it’s not as ideal.
Your tattoo ink might need touch-ups over time.
If a portion of your design didn’t heal correctly or if you have some fading down the road and want to get it touched up, pay your artist a visit. He or she will probably be more than happy to fix any imperfections either for free (if the error was their fault) or for a nominal fee (if you’re getting a touch-up).
Written by Brooke Shunatona