Your First Tattoo

I was talking to a friend recently about tattoos (ok, so, this could describe about a full quarter of the conversations have on a daily basis but nevermind).

This is one of those conversations you get in regularly if you’re heavily tattooed and in any way expert.

“I want to get a tattoo, can you tell me were to go.”

This is different than who did that tattoo or where did you get that tattoo; that question comes from two groups. One, those who are looking and know enough to know good work and to inquire as to it’s origin, and two, those who feel the need to comment and don’t know what to say. That second group, i can say 222 tattoo, san francisco, or I can say, san francisco or I can say katmandu and it won’t make any difference. They stare at me blankly either way.

But those are not the conversations I’m talking about. I mean the ones where someone who’s never been tattooed asks for help or advice. This is always a difficult conversation. Because tattooing is so completely personal.

Thus, here’s some general advice for those who want to get a tattoo and have no idea where to start.

Tattoo artists are called that for a reason. They’re artists. This means several things, but one of the main things it means is that you’re dealing with creative minds. It’s a broad generalization, but a fair one; artists, creative people, are prone to certain kinds of thinking. They tend to be visual thinkers, they tend to have a certain amount of ego involved in what they do. They can be moody, sensitive, opinionated.

What this means is that you’re not dealing with a doctor, or a lawyer. You’re not dealing with a bricklayer. You’re paying someone for creativity and talent, not just for a service. Be ready to deal with that. Trust your artist. If they tell you something won’t work, it won’t work. If they tell you a tattoo is the wrong shape, or if it won’t work in the area you want it, listen. Don’t argue with them. If you don’t like what they say, talk to another artist, and if they tell you the same thing, give up and re-think what you were doing.

The artist’s goodwill translates to better work. I’ve seen what happens when you piss off your tattoo artist and then still have them tattoo you; it isn’t pretty.

I’ve a lot of close friends who are or have been tattooists; to a one they have a consistant complaint. The customer who walks in with no clear idea of what they want. I hear the conversation every single time I’m in a tattoo shop:

I want a tattoo.

ok, well, we can help you. What did you have in mind.

i want something that’s pretty, you know.


but not too big.


I kind of like this (points to something in a book or on the wall) but I don’t really want one like that. I like this and this and this (points to several tattoos in completely different styles).

well, ok, why don’t you look around and figure out what you want.

what do you think I should get?

This conversation takes off in all sorts of directions. Sometimes the customer will want the artist to pick something. Sometimes they want the artist to draw them something, so that they can say “no not right” over and over until it works. Sometimes they choose three or four tattoos that are wildly different and want the artist to somehow come up with a fusion of them.

“I like, you know, tribal, japanese kinds of things,” I’ve heard someone say. Like these are in any way similar styles.

The point here is this; your tattoo artist can’t tell you what to get. If you’re VERY LUCKY or if they know you well, they might make a suggestion. But generally, they want no part of that choice. They want you to come in ready.

This is your tattoo. You need to make choices.

Now, this can be difficult. Unless you’re a major tattoo aficionado, you won’t know the names for tattooing styles. The difference between single needle, tribal, traditional, japanese will escape you. Even more, the difference between things like borneo (what we usually call ‘tribal’) and polynesian will be completely obscure. You won’t know how Sailor Jerry is different from Ed Hardy.

To complicate matters, unless you’ve got an arts background, you might not know the difference between artistic styles. Realistic, illustrative, etching, woodcut, brush painting. You won’t know surrealist from graphic from stylized.

Not having the right language makes the process harder; you may have an image in mind, but you can’t lay words to it, so the artist won’t have any idea what you mean unless you can point – “this style, but that image over there,” you might say.

Most difficult though, is the customer who desires a feel, but has no visual image. They might want something scary or a really elegant tattoo or something sexy. This is one of those exchanges artists dread, because these are the people who need the most help and who often wind up the most frustrated.

So what do you do as a first-time tattoo customer?

First, you need to understand the artist – see above. These people are artists, remember, so they can be tempermental. They deal all day every day with customers who ask stupid questions, want bad tattoos, or are generally difficult. They hurt people for a living, they deal with drunks, they deal with people who want something they can’t articulate.

Be ready to deal with some ego and attitude.

Second, you need to figure out what you want. They can’t do it for you. You need to figure out where you want it, what you want, and more or less what style you want. This means do your research. This is easy, but will take you a bit of time; go to shops and look at the flash, look at tattooists books of photos. Wander the web; go pick up books (there are hundreds of tattoo books out there). Get the images in your head, and don’t be afraid to ask questions like “what would you call that style” about any particular tattoo. The more you think about the image you want, the more you search, the more you refine your artistic vision, the better your experience will be.

You can come in with an image; “like this, only in that style”, or “like this, but let’s customize it”. But don’t come in with a stack of images, the artist doesn’t need to have twenty images of a bluebird, he knows what a bluebird looks like. Tattoo artists collect source material, and if he doesn’t have a reference for whatever thing you want, one image is plenty.

Once you’ve got a clear idea of what you want, understand that not all artists do all styles. They generally have specialty, so ask; who can do this style best? Don’t go to a guy who specializes in tribal, graphic styles and ask for a portrait.

The process of choosing a tattoo, particularly for a first tattoo, is often one of narrowing down from a billion possibilities to just a few.

Don’t try to mix things that don’t go together. You can’t have a tribal tattoo that’s also japanese; you can’t have traditional and realistic. Mashups may work beautifully for music, but with tattoos, unless the artist is particularly inspired, mixing up styles almost never works well. If your artist is inspired to do it, and you like it, ok, but don’t demand it. Get two tattoos if you want two styles.

Keep it simple! Tattooing is a crude, primitive medium. You can’t get too much detail, you can’t pack too much in a small tattoo, you can’t get too many elements is one design.

Don’t rush it. I know you want your tattoo right fucking now but if you don’t know what you want, your choice is gonna be wrong. Trust me, i’ve made that choice. With tattoos, now is almost never better than right.

Not every tattoo idea is a great one. Not every tattoo idea works. Not every design is ready. Don’t be afraid to throw it away, or shelve it. Don’t be afraid to start over from scratch. You can come back later to your idea, or wait for months or years until you find the image you’ve been waiting for. If you hit a dead-end on a design, put it away. If you still want a tattoo now, start over and do something else. Trying to force an idea to work, won’t.

Forget the idea that they can be removed. The surgery is more painful that getting the tattoo was, takes much longer, almost never removes the tattoo completely, and always leaves scars. It’s also horribly expensive. Anyone who tells you different is lying to you. Tattoos are forever – remember that.

Think hard about where. Not all tattoos work anywhere. Think really, really hard about getting them where they’ll be visible. I know I do it, I know celebrities do it, but think really hard about it before you get ink someplace you can’t cover it with clothing. Tattoos on the face, neck, or hands are a huge lifetime commitment to saying i’m out on the edge. Make sure you want that message sent for the rest of your life.

Tip your artist. Every time.

Don’t price shop. They cost what they cost, and you get what you pay for. If you can’t afford what you want, save up. Discount tattoos are like discount sushi, ie, to be avoided.

Don’t argue about the price. Goodwill is your friend, and the artist can round up or down; the more they like you the more likely they’ll round down. This gets more true with successive tattoos; I have artists who always under-charge me which I re-pay by over-tipping.

You’ll get another. Don’t try to get everything you want into one tattoo. Trust me, you will get another. People with only one, have only one so far.

Don’t be afraid. It’s only a little needle.

10 thoughts on “Your First Tattoo”

  1. “Something Sexy” Hmmm… Why does that make sense that concept is hard to articulate into a specific image. Exactly what I’d want though! There is a lot of wonderful information here. I love the post. Thanks for educating the rest of us!

  2. Right on, daddy-ö.

    The only other thing I’d add is this: when it’s over, you tip. Your tattoo artist is like a hairstylist; he or she expects to be compensated in part through your munificence, and if you want to return to that particular artist, you want to show your appreciation.

    chelsea g

  3. Damn right CG. Always tip; but I could add, don’t argue about price. I think i should add this:

    -Don’t price shop. They cost what they cost, and you get what you pay for. If you can’t afford what you want, save up. Discount tattoos are like discount sushi, ie, to be avoided.

    -Don’t argue about the price. Goodwill is your friend, and the artist can roundup or down; the more they like you the more likely they’ll round down. This gets more true with successive tattoos; I have artists who always under-charge me which I re-pay by over-tipping.

    I have a feeling I’ll be adding several such things to this entry.

    GOD I need to get tattooed.

  4. d’evil, if i had the fuckin’ time to get tattooed I’d have needles pokin’ me right now. I don’t even have time to PLAN a damned tattoo.

  5. I learned something about looking for designs lately. It really helps to have some definite design idea in mind before you go in to a shop. Also learned something about searching for images. If you search for the image name + “vector” you can really narrow it down a lot to specific designs…

  6. “Don’t be afraid. It’s only a little needle.”

    Ooooo that sent a delicious little thrill down my spine.


  7. “Right fucking now” Yep. Great time for a tattoo… After you find the image, style and artist. Oh and the time for “right fucking now!”

    – linked this post today.

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