What It's Really Like to Get a Tattoo

Tattoos, tats, ink—so many fancy them but can’t muster up the courage to take the plunge. Whether you ever intend to hop on the body art bandwagon or not, wouldn't you love to get the lowdown on what it’s really like to get tatted? To satisfy your curiosity (yes, we’re talking to you, tattoo virgins), we asked four collegiettes about their ink. From inspirations to words of wisdom and how painful the process actually is, scroll ahead to see what they had to say.

Photo: Refinery 29

What was the inspiration behind your tattoo(s)?

Jordan Sypek, a senior at University of Tampa: My tattoo is on the top of my foot and is the father-daughter celtic knot symbol. My dad and I got them done together. We have always been close my whole life and I knew I would only get a tattoo if it meant something, so this seemed like the perfect one.

Maya Dartiguenave, a junior at University of North Florida: The one that I love the most is a quote running down my spine saying, "You, alone, are enough." Maya Angelou said it, and after she passed away this year, I knew I had to get it. She's always been an inspiration to me and my family, so much so that they named me after her! 

Lisa Whittemore, a senior at University of California, Irvine: My first tattoo was of a phoenix rising out of its own ashes. That one resembled a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m heavily tattooed so the more tattoos I got, the more I wanted them to relate to each other—one cohesive theme rather than little memories here and there. I didn’t want a bunch of random stamps, but ones that correlate with my life experiences. 

Jen Morgan, a junior at Messiah College: The first tattoo I got, the one on my wrist, symbolizes my recovery from my former self-injury addiction. I had been wanting the tattoo while I was still struggling with it, as I hoped it would be a tool to help me to stop whenever I had triggers. When I was of legal age and had been in recovery for a full year, that's when I finally decided to get the tattoo. The tattoo says "Love" in cursive, and my favorite Bible verse right underneath in newspaper-style print.

Photo: Pinterest

How did you decide on the tattoo shop?

Jordan: I went to a place a lot of friends and family had been to before. Getting positive reviews from other people is definitely a plus. Don't go to a place because it is cheaper—go because it has a positive reputation. This tattoo will be on your body FOREVER, so picking the less expensive option in this case is not smart. 

Maya: I actually have two tattoos, both of which I got from Florida Velvet in Florida by a man named Will. I thought long and hard about what I wanted as tattoos, and decided on Will because I had seen the quality work that he's done on my friends.

Lisa: The shop I went to in Venice, California, where I got my first tattoo, was just convenient but then I got to know several tattoo artists who guided me during my decision-making processes. When I lived in Japan, Horiyoshi III, a renowned artist who specializes in Japanese traditional full-body tattoos, tattooed my whole right arm by a hand technique using a long bamboo stick with needles. 

Jen: My friend Kelsey recommended Stingray Body Art (in Allston, MA/Boston) to me because her friends have received tattoos there, so I went in to check it out. Once I toured the shop, felt comfortable with the atmosphere and met the artists, that's when I knew I wanted to get my tattoo there. I loved the experience so much my first time that I decided to go there for my second and third tattoos as well, with the same artist! 

Photo: Freja Beha Erichsen

How much does it actually hurt?

Jordan: It did hurt, but since it was my first tattoo I have nothing to compare it to. It felt like someone scratching you in an annoying way for 30 minutes. The top of the foot is supposed to be a painful place because there is barely any fat, but it was definitely tolerable. I am a big wimp when it comes to pain, but this pain wasn't that bad. 

Maya: The pain of a tattoo is REAL, but it can be beaten. A few deep breaths and concentrating on something else definitely makes it better. I actually got both of my tattoos in the worst spots, my ribs and my spine, so the pain is higher there. I would advise to anyone who doesn't take pain well to get their tattoo in an easier spot.

Lisa: There are some areas that are really painful and some that don’t hurt at all. The back of my calf didn’t hurt but down the sides of your ribcage, your elbows and lower back (I cried when I got tattooed there) hurt. It’s a consistent pain, and almost feels like your skin is being scraped over and over with a razor blade. It’s so consistent that it’s almost lulling. Surprisingly, getting tattooed on my fingers didn’t hurt. The thing that gets the most annoying is the sound of the machine. 

Jen: This question is always so tricky to answer! I really do think it depends on your pain tolerance. Mine is extremely high, so I was totally fine getting my tattoos.  For all of my tattoos, I honestly was just listening to my music and laughing and joking with my friends the whole time in the shop, and then before I knew it, the tattoo was done! What I usually tell people who ask me this is: If you want the tattoo badly enough, you won't think about the pain. Going through an hour or two (give or take, depending on what you get) of pain in order to have a beautiful piece of artwork on your body forever is so worth it! 

Photo: Katalina Girl

Does fresh ink require special aftercare?

Jordan: The tattoo artist gave me cream to put on it everyday to ensure it would heal properly and I had to make sure it was covered from the sun for a few weeks. I still don't like it to be out in the sun a lot because it can make the tattoo fade. If I'm at the beach I will just bury my foot in the sand so that the sun doesn't get to it. 

Maya: Taking care of a tattoo was a lot like taking care of a new piercing. I had to wash it a lot with unscented antibacterial soap and put unscented lotion on it whenever it felt dry or itchy (that was tough for the spine tattoo!). My tattoo artist did say to stay away from the beach and swimming for at least two weeks after I got them. And don't worry,  when you start to wash it at first, it'll look like the ink is coming out. But it's not! The black stuff is supposed to rub off (I think it's a mixture of ink and dried blood), but your tattoo is perfectly fine!

Lisa: The most important thing after you get a tattoo—and it sucks because it’s painful—is to wash it. Not scrub it, but wash it with soap and water, then rinse it in the shower. Keep doing that until it doesn’t look shiny and lubricate it just enough to keep it moist.

Jen: You need to be super careful and cautious of your tattoo right after you get it! Do not go swimming or tanning for at least two weeks after you get it, as this can slow the healing process and make your tattoo fade sooner than it should. I took care of all my tattoos by letting them breathe (no fabric touching them whenever possible!) and washing twice a day, then applying Tattoo Goo for the first few days. Then, once the peeling and healing started, I would wash a bit more often and then apply an unscented and calming lotion like Aveeno. 

Photo: Pinterest

Any words of advice for tattoo virgins?

Jordan: Think about it long and hard before you get one. They are with you forever and it is so important to make sure you will like it for the rest of your life. Also, take into consideration your job goals and what you want in your career, because a lot of jobs won't allow you to have a visible tattoo.

Maya: DO NOT think you can handle it if something like a piercing is too much! Especially if you're doing a big piece! Also, THINK. Think hard about your tattoo, because it is there forever. If getting a tattoo hurts as badly as it did, then removing one will definitely kill. Be sure, and be ready, and you'll end up loving your tattoo! I think if you have a tattoo you know you'll love forever you'll, ironically, forget you have it! (I forget I have both of mine until I notice them in the mirror!) But if you have a bad one, you may feel regret every time you see it. 

Lisa: I would advise them to research the tattoo shop, find out how long it’s been there and how many years of experience the artists have, and look at their previous work. People should view it as a commitment. If you get a tattoo taken off, most of the time it looks worse than the actual tattoo. Size and placement matter. It’s not a sticker. You need to think about where it’s going to go. If you’re going to get a small tattoo, it’s better to put it in a smaller space and the same goes for big tattoos.  In the end, you make the final decision, but I think you need to listen to what the tattoo artist says. At least hear them out. 

Jen: Do know that it will hurt, but probably not as bad as you think it will hurt. The pain is definitely worth it for a lifetime of enjoyment! Also, don't compromise tattoo placement based on fear of pain. If you want something really badly on your ribs but you've heard that's a "bad spot" because it hurts, get it anyway. The pain is short term and so very worth it.

To the collegiettes who have tattoos: What else should someone know before getting a tattoo? And, if you could go back in time, would you change anything?