You’ve wanted a tattoo since college but aren’t sure if you’re the “tattoo type.” Well, guess what: There isn’t one. Tattoos aren’t just for convicts and sailors anymore. Everyone from gas station attendants to Rhodes Scholars sports ink these days. Still, if you’ve got virgin skin, you’re going to want to know a thing or two before you book time and sit in a chair. Since the day a friend inked me at the tender age of 16 in his Brooklyn loft (don’t do this), I’ve been hooked. Here are some valuable lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. Pick the right spot
The writer’s tattooist of choice, El Clasico in Echo Park, Los Angeles.
Good customer service is a must. If you walk into a place and aren’t greeted and attended to in short order, leave. There are plenty of other shops out there that actually want your money. Take a look through artist portfolios and bring a friend who knows from good tattoos. The untrained eye can have difficulty telling the difference between good work and mediocre work. Tattoos don’t exactly age like fine wine, so you want to get it done right the first time.
Look for an artist who shares your aesthetic sensibilities. For example, I prefer a certain retro look to my tattoos, as opposed to a faux retro look. Thus, I go for shops that have an old school feel. It’s not that there aren’t “better” tattooists out there. It’s just that they aren’t “better” for my purposes. Once you’ve found a spot, talk to the artist a bit about what you want, then get him to quote a price.
You should never bargain shop for a tattoo. When you divide the cost of a tattoo by the number of years you’ll have it, even top-notch tattooists are a bargain at $250 an hour. I generally shoot for the $100 to $150 range. Your focus should be on finding the right artist for you. Haggling is, of course, totally out of the question.
I wish I lived in a world where this didn’t need saying, but… never get tattooed anywhere but a licensed shop. Your friend who’s apprenticing might be able to ink you for the price of needles. He can’t, however, magically control the environment for pathogens. Remember: a good shop smells a bit like a hospital because it’s more like one than a garage.
2. Choose your ink wisely
Think long and hard about what you want. It’s going to be on your body for the rest of your life. Talk to your artist about what you want. Chances are pretty good that he or she can offer suggestions to make whatever you have in mind better. Defer to his or her judgment on placement. Some tattoos just “belong” certain places on the body. True story: tattooists often take anatomy classes as part of their training to help with placement.
If you’re an upscale professional, get something easily covered by a shirt. Otherwise, go nuts. As a freelance writer I can get tattooed just about anywhere. I have hand tattoos and want more, but I’m avoiding my neck and face. Brian Setzer offers the advice that one should never get tattooed anywhere that a judge will see. I don’t worry much about prospective employers or Johnny Law, but you might have to.
When in doubt, you can never go wrong with the classics, in my opinion. I’ve got an anchor, the Virgin of Guadalupe, a tiger, a swallow, a few roses and stars and the name of a Black Flag song across my chest, among others. Creative? No. Awesome? I think so. Ultimately, it’s all about what you like and what you want. I know a guy who has the logo of defunct fast food chain Burger Chef tattooed on his leg. It takes all kinds, people.
3. Charm your tattoo artist
An irritated tattooist won’t purposefully mess up your ink. Still, no earthly force can convince me that I don’t pay less because I’m laidback not a pain in the ass. The point is to not just be another job for him. Some general dos and don’ts:
Do be friendly. Chat with your artist. It won’t throw him off his game and it’s a good distraction from the pain.
Don’t treat your artist like a therapist. He really doesn’t care about your problems.
Do leave your kids at home. It’s a tattoo shop, not the organic farmer’s market.
Don’t bring a dozen of your homies. Girlfriends and wives are OK. Anyone else… why?
Do sit still. A certain amount of flinching happens, but nothing irritates an artist more than Twitchy McSquirmsalot.
Don’t whine constantly about how it hurts, boast about how much you like the pain or ask dumb questions like “are tattoos really addictive?”
Do tip. Some people say 20 percent of total cost. I just throw in an extra $50. Let your conscience be your guide.
Don’t hit on your female artist. It’s a great way to get thrown out mid-tattoo.
Do eat, hydrate, shower and use the can before you sit in the chair. Be ready to sit there for a couple hours before you take a break.
Don’t wear Ed Hardy to the shop. Come to think of it, just don’t wear Ed Hardy.
Think of tattooists as a more manly kind of hairdresser. They could have done a ton of other things, but they chose to spend eight hours a day mostly slapping butterflies on college girls ankles, after several years of doing bitch work for little or no pay. Treat them with the respect you’d give a doctor or a lawyer and everything will be fine.
And yes. They hurt. Any attempt to avoid this with booze, drugs and topical anesthetics is cheating, gents.