Getting a tattoo can be a unique mode of self-expression. (We see you, Jason Momoa). Today, they're more popular than ever—with 40 percent of millennials reporting that they have at least one marking, according to the Pew Research Center. Yet, it's not a decision that should be taken lightly (that is, if you're prone to disappointment or hate commitment). If you're considering getting inked, say, to commemorate the special relationship you have with your mom, or simply because you've seen an influx of delicate wrist tats on your IG feed and you can't stop thinking about them, here's what you should know before making your decision.
Wondering if getting a tattoo is a bad idea?
Ask yourself if the tattoo you're fantasizing about means something to you and if you truly love the artwork. If the answer is yes to both, and you find an artist you trust (more on that later) then you should feel confident, says Savannah Leslie, a Florida-based tattoo artist who specializes in pro-bono mastectomy and self-harm scar restorative tattooing.
Timeless images like flowers and animals age well if done right, says Adam Goodman, owner of Prick Tattoo in Decatur, Georgia. But he advises against starting with a back tat as your first foray into body art. Also, avoid trying to cram too many words in a small area. Instead, he advises going for something small and possibly easy to conceal. And speaking of concealing: don't overlook your lifestyle and the type of work or office environment you'll ultimately be in, even if it's not a factor now.
Regardless, he advises staying away from tattoos that are overtly political becuase that's what he sees his clients ultimately regret the most. "And, of course, the cursed boyfriend/girlfriend name is almost always a bad idea," he says.
Dr. Nazanin Saedi, MD, an associate professor of dermatology and the director of laser surgery and cosmetic dermatology at Thomas Jefferson University, agrees, echoing that names are what she removes from her client's bodies the most.
Where's the least painful place to get it?
The forearms hurt the least, says Goodman. "The most painful areas are the ribs, stomach, neck, hands, and feet." Basically, anywhere that you have thin skin is likely going to hurt more than not.
Okay, but what does it feel like?
Here, I can speak from personal experience: Getting a tattoo feels sort of like a very slow, very deliberate cat scratch. Meaning, it does hurt, but it's also not the most excruciating thing, especially if you go for an area like the forearm. (If you're hoping for a popular wrist tattoo, those are less pleasant.)
Are there any health risks I should consider?
There is a chance that you can contract a blood-borne illness, according to the Mayo Clinic, however if you find an experienced artist (and you should) with up-to-date sterilization techniques, it shouldn't be a major cause for concern, Leslie and Goodman say.
Also: If you are on blood thinners or you're an expectant or nursing mom, you should not receive tattoo work because of the risk of contamination, according to the American Pregnancy Association.
You should also likely not get a tattoo if you have a history of skin cancer, says Dr. Howard Sobel, MD, a cosmetic dermatologic surgeon and founder of Sobel Skin in New York, NY. "Tattooing involves injecting organic dyes and metallic salts into your skin, which causes inflammation that could increase the risk of malignant transformation."
"If you've got allergies, always relay them to your artist," Leslie adds. "Smoking, drinking, recreational drugs, and poor sleeping habits all affect your immune system. This can definitely derail your healing, and in turn, the longevity and quality of your tattoo."
Still interested? Now, choose a good shop.
Goodman says a reference from a friend can't be beat. Of course, you should also check out the artist's website or social media page.
You should also seek out a place that is clean and sterile and, if your gut tells you that's not the case, then leave, he says. But also keep in mind that a tattoo's price cannot be the primary deciding factor for your first (or any) ink. Remember: This is going to be on your body for the rest of your life so this isn't the time to make a decision over a marginal cost difference.
And set up a consultation.
Getting a tattoo consultation with a reputable artist is key to making sure your first experience is a positive one, says Leslie. "Have an idea of the direction in you're heading. Know roughly what you want and where you want it," advises Leslie. "Be prepared to pay your deposit for your tattoo appointment, and book that day. And, Listen to your tattooist's instructions for what they expect of you before/during your tattoo appointment."
How long will my first tattoo take?
This can vary wildly, basically depending on how big or small your tattoo will be—but that's something you'll get a sense about at your consultation. However, Goodman says besides just the ink, you should also factor in the time it takes to sign a release form, copy your ID, and for the artist to clean and bandage your new tattoo.
Don't forget about the maintenance.
In general, during the first six weeks of tattoo healing, you'll want to avoid direct sun exposure and going in lakes or oceans, because they could harbor bacteria, says Goodman.
In the short-term, make sure you take the time to wash, dry, and lubricate the area, says Leslie. Both also agree that long-term care involves one thing: sunscreen. "No matter how beautiful and bright your tattoo may be, it will be affected by sun exposure," Leslie says. "Being loyal to your SPF is a must for long-lasting, beautiful tattoos."
What if I don't like my tattoo?
Start by talking to the artist to see if there's anything they can do to fix it, says Leslie. "Most problems are easy to salvage, and tattooists often truly want you to be happy with what they've made for you."
However, if you hate your tattoo or no longer want it, tattoo removal is thankfully an option these days... though a pricey and painful one, at that.
"Depending on the tattoo, it can take between eight to 12 sessions to completely remove," says Dr. Sobel. "The treatment itself can be uncomfortable, so we do provide topical anesthesia to numb the sensation. Based on tattoo size, each session can be 30 seconds to 5 minutes."
But, Dr. Saedi cautions, even with removal, "a lighter shade outline of the tattoo and some stubborn pigment may remain. So, make sure that it's something you really want and won't regret in ten years."
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