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The Ultimate Guide to Getting Your First Tattoo

Getting a tattoo can be an immensely intimidating process when the storefronts tend to be dimly-lit and full of people with menacing bodywork or scary piercings. With social media, the process of getting a tattoo has become easier and less harrowing, but what can we expect during the process?

Diving into the tattoo world

Types of tattoos:

Firstly, there are many styles of tattoos and articles out there on this topic, so identify what kind of tattoo you’re looking for. That will help you look for an artist you want, through hashtags on Instagram, or word-of-mouth. There are also two main types of tattoos — flashes and customs. Customs are designs that are made to your request, while flashes are the artist’s designs that they may share for anyone to adopt. They usually come in a set or sheet and are often cheaper than customs. 

Placements:

One placement to avoid would be any area exposed to the sun and go through a lot of ‘wear and tear,’ so to speak. For example, avoid the knuckles or hands, and expect wrist tattoos to fade faster as compared to those on your rib, since a rib tattoo is usually covered, which slows down the sun’s UV rays from breaking down the tattoo pigment. Best places for a tattoo would be the back, upper arm, and the thigh, due to the amount of space there, and how it is covered.

Identifying a good artist:

Signs of a good artist, especially for your needs, are usually having a portfolio of works in a similar style you want and healed pictures of their work. Freshly done tattoos will often look great, but healed tattoos are the true sign of an artist’s skill since it stands the test of time. Be reasonable, of course, especially for places exposed to the sun frequently.

Tattoo designs:

It can be scary to get your first tattoo if you think it’s something simple compared to the full-fledged bodywork of the artists. Don’t worry, the artists have probably seen it all and won’t judge (that much). Still, there are some unspoken rules and norms that you should know before you get a tattoo. It is considered rude to ask artists to reproduce another design or another artist’s work entirely. They will almost always do it in their style, so do not go to an artist expecting to micromanage or have full control. Exceptions may be made if it is your own work or some sort of precious memory. Artists may not work on your request immediately as they have many other clients, and most send your custom design a week to a day in advance. Changes or adjustments are also acceptable. Most artists accept two to three changes, and beyond that, you may have to pay more.

How to reach out

Artist specifications:

Before you reach out to an artist on Instagram, take note of their instructions that are usually in their bio or highlights. Some artists prefer WhatsApp, some prefer email, and some are okay with Instagram DMs. If you DM an artist who only does email, you probably won’t get a response, and don’t blame the artist for that — they’re really busy! If an artist releases a number on social media for contact, do NOT call them. That would be extremely rude and disrespectful of their boundaries. Try not to spam them either, but if there are no replies in a week or two, you can send a prodding message.

Booking an appointment:

The process of booking an appointment can go two ways. One, you meet your artist in-person to discuss the tattoo and placement, and then meet once more to do the actual tattooing. Between these two appointments, your artist should send you your design request for your feedback. Two, you discuss your design over text, email, or DMs, go back and forth on your design, and then go to an appointment where the tattooing happens.

Costs of tattoos

One of the biggest questions people have on the topic of getting tattoos is the cost. What can you expect to pay for a tattoo? Tattoos are not the most affordable. Deposits of $50 to $100 are normal upon confirmation of your design request and appointment date. Artists usually charge by size or hour, dependent on their style, skill, or experience, as well as the intricacy of your tattoo You can expect to pay $200-$400 for a palm-sized tattoo, or $120-$180 per hour, and a palm-sized tattoo might take two or three hours. All this is highly dependent on what your tattoo is, so definitely check in with your artist instead of going by this article, but it can give you a rough idea of how much to prepare if you have a design you want. In addition, studios in more expensive places such as the central area will charge more as they have to pay for rent. So don’t immediately discount tattoo shops that are in places that seem a little shady!

Please respect artists’ work and time, try not to ask for discounts. Instead, tell them your budget and they can suggest what they can do for you with the amount.

Day of appointment

Duration:

On the day of your appointment, do not expect to pop by during a lunch break and walk out with a completed tattoo, unless it’s a really simple one. Time will be spent on actually placing the tattoo template (a piece of paper that transfers temporary ink to show the outline), and the actual tattooing can take anywhere from 2-8 hours (or more) depending on the size. 6-7 hours for one session is usually the maximum — your artist gets tired too! If you’re planning on a full sleeve or back piece, it will take two to three sessions. Ask your artist in advance on what to expect.

Preparation:

To prepare for your appointment, definitely prepare cash as many studios do not take other forms of payment and ATMs may not be nearby. Some artists may accept mobile payments, just check in with your artist when booking.

If your tattoo is somewhere inaccessible, wear something that makes it easy for your artist to access your skin. For example, if you’re getting an arm tattoo, wear something sleeveless. Don’t wear long pants for an upper thigh tattoo, if it can’t be rolled up easily, you might have to take it off entirely for your artist to access the area. Wear black clothing as the ink may smudge or get on your clothes as the artists clean your tattoo — it just makes your life easier. Also, your artist will probably shave the area to prepare it for tattooing, so don’t be shocked.

When you turn up for your appointment, make sure that you’re hydrated, well-rested, and full! If you’re not feeling your best, your body may not be able to handle the trauma from the needles, and you may faint. If your tattoo is a larger piece, bring some snacks to keep your strength up (and butter up your artist by sharing).

Pain levels:

Although many of us are afraid of pain, try to avoid pain killers or skin numbing creams as they can affect your skin condition for the ink to take on. It can also affect how you process pain which is something important for you to judge how long your body can handle the needles. Pain level depends on the person and where the tattoo will be placed. From my personal experience, my upper back tattoo was much more painful than my inner arm, even though it’s usually the opposite. Trust your senses and don’t be afraid to take a break if you need it, which is why painkillers may be detrimental.

During the appointment:

Do not be afraid to ask your artist to move the template if you’re not happy with the placement. Your tattoo is forever, their mild inconvenience is temporary (and paid for!). However, do not be too fussy as skin is not like paper. Skin will move, for example, wrist or arm tattoos will appear distorted as you turn your arm. Also, the template ink will stain and affect the visibility of your tattoo, both for you to judge if you like the placement, and for your artist to trace over on your skin.

Afterwards:

Once your tattoo is completed, your artist will probably want to take a photo of their work. Be prepared for them to move your body around for the best angle or lighting, and some artists may even prepare robes for you to wear. Try to be as accommodating as possible since these photos are their portfolio to help them attract more clients. Sending them pictures of your healed tattoos are a nice courtesy as well.

Don’t forget to ask your artist about aftercare for your new ink. Some artists use sticky transparent film or normal cling wrap, some artists will recommend a salve and some will recommend simply leaving it alone. But one thing universal is to not go swimming too soon! The water will affect how the tattoo heals and how the ink takes to your skin.

You can also expect to return in 2 – 4weeks for a touchup of your tattoo, or you can also request for a touchup. This appointment should be free.

Hopefully, this article demystifies the process of getting a tattoo and makes it less intimidating for those who want to get their first tattoo.

Zinc Tan

Nanyang Tech '21

Zinc (she/her) is a Sociology undergraduate at Nanyang Technological University and the Senior Editor for HC Nanyang Tech. During her free time, you can find her drinking tea, sewing, or watching films (and often commenting on them). A proud intersectional feminist, she has a passion for creating discourse on inclusivity.
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