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How to Get Your Dream Tattoo: A Step by Step Guide

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Art in 2021 takes on a vast variety of forms. People are making designer dresses out of recycled plastics. Sculptures have been cemented to the sidewalks across the nation. Art is ingrained in almost every part of our daily lives. We even can permanently put art on our bodies forever. That’s right, I’m talking about tattoos. There are so many different styles and variations within those styles. What we used to know as a traditional tattoo has expanded into Neo-traditional, Japanese traditional, tribal traditional, etc. What we used to know as color tattoos have turned into watercolor, pastels, black & gray, even UV now. The world of tattoos is a beautiful place of artistic creation and self-expression, which is what makes it intimidating to some. Reaching out to artists, finding a design and deciding on something to put on your body forever can be a scary and overwhelming task; which is why I’m here to help. As a person with a full sleeve in the works and an avid lover of the art form, let me help you through the process and tell you the things that I’ve learned along the way.

Search for Inspiration

It doesn’t matter if you have a specific idea in mind that means the world to you or if you’re scrolling through Pinterest and see something that you like, it is so important to look at the design that you want in different styles. This does a number of things. It gives you ideas. It can tell you what you don’t like. It can change the entire image in your head. Let’s say you’re in the market for a rose on your forearm. This sounds pretty cut and dry simple, but when you look at other rose tattoos, you might find things that you like and that you don’t like. Colors that might look great together in your head might not look the same way on the skin. By looking around for other pieces of inspiration they might make or change the idea you present to your artist.

A different way to search for inspiration is to “window shop artists”. We are so lucky to live in a time that we have social media. Whether you prefer Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tik Tok, there is going to be a tattoo artist on their showing off their designs and their work. The hardest thing about searching for inspiration this way is the fact that social media is so broad. I’ve accidentally fallen in love with artists that are on the opposite side of the country and others that are on a completely different continent. Saying that one of the best parts about looking for artists instead of designs is falling in love with their style and their art. Having an artist whose unique style is shown in every piece they tattoo is amazing. Having that same artist design something unique to you and them is a special kind of relationship and an even more meaningful piece to everyone involved.

Three drawings
Madison Nardi

Reaching Out

This can be the hardest part. I know the struggle all too well. But the honest truth behind the whole process is that it begins with you. Some tattoo shops allow walk-ins, others are by appointment only. This is a really important factor to keep in mind, especially amidst a pandemic. Every shop is going to have similar, but different rules and regulations for their shops. Some places only allow people into the shop if the person has an appointment. If you try to walk into a shop that has a regulation like this you would likely be redirected to an online format to book an appointment and possibly sent away without much if any progress towards booking your actual appointment. If you’re planning on going to a specific artist or a specific shop, I lean towards reaching out on some form of social media first. By reaching out online in some way, you’re not possibly intruding on any possible rules or regulations, and more often than not it's a much faster way to get you into that chair.

Let’s say you have a shop in mind. You know it accepts walk-ins, you're not quite sure which artist at the shop you want to see but you have a good idea of what design you want. What I would do in your situation is totally go for it! Go in and talk to someone on the inside. More often than not they are some of the kindest and most laid-back people I have talked to. It is way easier and less stressful to book an appointment for a tattoo than it is for the doctor's office I promise. Just go in and talk to someone. Tell them what you’re thinking and they’ll point you in the right direction for the artist, color, placement, and everything else. They are professionals and they love what they do. They are more than happy to help you get a beautiful piece of art that you love in the right place. Just walk in, strike up a conversation and go from there. They’re more than likely to take the lead in the conversation after you give them an idea of what you’re wanting. I always found this helpful, but to others, this might be a tad startling. You might get lucky enough that they’ll get you in a chair right then, but in other cases, it’ll just be a consultation. In that case, they will set you up with an appointment and you’ll come back when you’re scheduled. 

PreppIng The Area

Assuming everything has gone according to plan, you have a design, a shop, an artist, an appointment. All the stars have aligned and you’re getting ready for your appointment there are some important things to remember. Whether it's the day of or the night before there is something you can do that may make you more comfortable during your appointment. For one, most artists are going to shave the area that they are going to tattoo. It’s totally up to you to shave the area prior and it’s not a bad thing if you don’t. No artist is going to care or judge you for having body hair that they have to shave before they start your tattoo. This is a prep step that is completely for your comfort. I have about a 3/4 sleeve on my right arm, and typically I don’t shave my arms, but in the past when I’ve gotten my arms tattooed, I have shaved my arms to make it easier for the artist during my appointment. Even when I’ve shaved the area that I’m getting tattooed in the past, they’ve reshaved it before they started tattooing, this is just a step I take to make myself more comfortable. 

Another important prep step is to stay hydrated and to make sure you’re eating meals the days leading up to your appointment. Tattoos hurt and they take a decent chunk of time to do correctly. Taking care of your body in the days leading up to your tattoo is important because you’re going to be stressing out your body for a while. You want to decrease the chance of your body reacting poorly. Tattoos are painful. By eating and staying hydrated in the days leading up to your appointment you’re going to decrease your chances of passing out during your tattoo. Tattoos are abrasions to the skin, which means you’re going to bleed. By taking care of your body before your tattoo you’re not going to bleed as badly. There’s a lot of science behind it, but it is so crucial to take care of your body in the days before your appointment. Remember hydrate or die-drate.

Something else to remember is the condition of your skin. More specifically, sunburned skin is a big no-no when it comes to tattooing. It’s more painful for you because the skin is already more tender and sensitive. It’s more likely to heal in an unexpected because the skin is healing from the burn and from the abrasions caused by the tattoo gun. If you’re sunburned going into your appointment there is a good chance that the artist won’t be able to tattoo you and you’ll have to reschedule your appointment. This is why tattoo artists recommend getting tattooed in the winter months. Your skin will be exposed to the sun less, therefore it’ll be easier and healthier to tattoo.

The last few things to remember are the day of the appointment. One, wear loose movable dark clothing. Wearing dark clothing is important because tattoo ink is messy, it bleeds. You don’t want to ruin a piece of clothing that you love because of the tattoo ink. Wearing movable clothing is important because the artist has to easily be able to get to the area you want tattooed. Wearing shorts to leg tattoo appointments is ideal. A bikini top or tank top (whichever is more comfortable for you) for stomach, ribs, arms, or neck tattoos. Your artist may or may not still have you change or adjust what you’re wearing when you arrive depending on the area, but it’s easier for everyone involved if you’re in easy clothing. Don’t forget to have plenty of music and things to keep yourself entertained and slightly distracted during the tattoo. You’re likely to be anywhere from uncomfortable to in a decent amount of pain for an unknown amount of time. It’s a lot easier to sit through it when you’re listening to your favorite artist or reading a good book. On the same note, make sure your phone has plenty of charge. I once was in the chair for nine hours and my phone died around hour two. Needless to say, that felt like a very long appointment. Also, make sure to bring a water bottle or a hydrating drink. Again, tattooing puts your body into a stressed-out mode. You’re more likely to sweat and possibly get dehydrated during the appointment. Bringing something to drink is a good distraction and a great way to help your body during the process. 

Aftercare

I can’t tell you a lot about the pain or anything like that because pain is a completely subjective experience. It hurts differently for everyone. Certain areas hurt worse than other areas. There’s not a lot of advice I can give you here other than to take a deep breath and relax. The pain is worth it because, in the end, you will have a beautiful piece of art displayed decadently on your body. What I can tell you more about is how to take care of your tattoo afterward. There are two pretty common ways that artists tell you to care for your tattoo after you leave the shop. They’re pretty similar but have some pretty important differences.

The most common way an artist will send you out of the shop is with your tattoo wrapped and taped with saran wrap. They’ll put some moisturizer on the tattoo before wrapping the tattoo in the cling wrap and taping it down. This is to make sure that the tattoo and your skin stay soft and moist. They’ll tell you to keep the wrap on for a couple of hours. Make sure you keep the wrap on for a minimum of two hours. It is most likely going to slide around, get sweaty on the inside and look gross because of the blood and the ink. But it really is important to keep the wrap on for as long as you can because it gives your tattoo the best chance of healing. Don’t sleep in the wrapping though because you want to give your tattoo a chance to breathe and air out. Your artist is also going to tell you to apply moisturizer to your tattoo at least once a day. This is because softer skin helps the tattoo heal better, brighter and healthier. Saying that you can over-moisturize the area which can have negative effects on your tattoo's healing too. In my experience, a good rule of thumb is once in the morning and once before bed. Throughout your day, check in on your tattoo. If it seems dry or cracked, apply moisturizer. If not, then wait. But it in my experience twice in a day keeps it pretty well moisturized. This method is going to result in peeling, which is totally fine and normal, but it will happen and can be kind of annoying.

The other way that artists have been wrapping and sending people out the door is with SaniDerm over their tattoos. SaniDerm is basically a clear bandaid that covers and protects your tattoo. If your artist wraps you in SaniDerm, they’re going to tell you to leave it on for three to five days and to leave it alone. SaniDerm is a wonderful way to protect and heal your tattoo. It keeps the tattoo moisturized and protected from irritation a lot easier. It’s a wonderful way to heal a tattoo. This method decreases your chance of peeling, but it doesn’t eliminate it. SaniDerm also must be removed after a few days. As I stated earlier, it’s like a bandaid. It’ll protect your tattoo, but when it comes off it can be painful as well. Pulling off SaniDerm doesn’t damage your tattoo, but it can cause irritation to the skin and can be painful. Just like pulling off a bandaid. 

No matter which way your tattoo artist sends you out the door. Listen to every word when they’re telling you how to care for your tattoo after the fact. Again they are the professionals, they do this for a living. I am giving you advice from my experiences and what I have been told. They will tell you what you need to know based on their knowledge, training, and experience. 

little things to remember

That’s pretty much everything you need to know about the process from start to end. Saying that, it never hurts to have a few extra "dos and don’ts" for the entire process and etiquette involved. Obviously, money is a big factor in tattoos. Throughout the process of consultation and booking an appointment, you should be given an estimation. Be honest with everyone involved about what your price range is from the very beginning. Maybe even make it one of the first things you bring up in your consultation. Ask your artist if they charge hourly or if they charge by piece. Whatever their answer is be respectful of their prices. The artist is doing you a service. They’re creating a piece of art for you. Be respectful of their work and their price. On top of that, don’t forget to tip. Again, they’re doing you a service. They’re creating art specifically for you. A tip is just another way for you to show your appreciation. Plus tipping is always a good way to build a relationship with your artist for more tattoos in the future. 

Another thing to remember is your tattoo, when it’s healing, is still a wound. It’s going to peel, just like what scabs do. Don’t pick at it. When the tattoo is healing, your skin is incredibly sensitive. Picking off the peeling skin can cause the tattoo to heal unevenly. When it heals unevenly, it can affect the pigment and depth of the ink which causes it to heal darker in some areas and lighter in others. Lastly and most importantly, trust and listen to your artist. Again, they are going to know what is best for you and your tattoo. They are getting paid for what they love and they won’t do anything to deliberately screw you and your tattoo over. Trust them. Listen to everything the tell you when it comes to the care of your tattoo. And if you have any questions after your appointment, shoot them a message. Drop-in and ask them your question. They want your tattoo to heal in the best way possible so that it can look the best that it can when it’s fully healed. 

Tattoos can be a lot of fun. They’re a great way to express yourself and your style. I can say that once I started getting tattoos I could feel my confidence grow with each one. They make me feel confident and beautiful. They’re a wonderful way to preserve a memory of a loved one or to have a permanent and daily reminder of something important to you. I understand that the process can be stressful and anxiety-inducing, but it’s all worth it. I hope this article helps you get the tattoo you’ve been dreaming of. 

My name is Gwenevere Ash, I am a senior at Central Washington University. I am studying English and Philosophy. This is my second year writing for HerCampus and in the past, I have written about real-world issues, my own experiences and have given my opinion on topics from self-care to podcasts. Stay tuned for this years articles!
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