Tattoo Advice: Preparing, What to Expect, and Aftercare.

I currently have 13 tattoos, and I’ve been getting them since the day I turned 18. I’ve noticed that, even though I don’t have that many, people who don’t have tattoos (or who want to get tattoos) are generally really curious and have quite a lot of questions about them. So I thought I’d put together a little guide to getting a tattoo.

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Owl and the Pussycat tattoo by Amy Grant at Deerheart Collective, Lowestoft

Research

You will want to research tattoo artists in your local area to work out who is best. Two mistakes that people sometimes make include either:

  1. Going to a reputable studio but not asking for a specific artist. Studios generally have between 2 to 5 different artists as permanent tattooists and they are all going to tattoo differently. You need to work out whose work you actually want on your body.
  2. Going for the cheapest studio. Please, for the love of god, do not do this! It’s great to think that you can get a really cool piece of body art for super cheap, but guess what? Cheap studios are cheap for a reason.

So do your research, and find an artist that you like. If you have a big budget, you can look nationwide or even internationally (there are some great artists in Europe who I would gladly go on a plane to be tattooed by). Many tattoo artists also go on tour, so there’s a good chance they’ll be in your local area at some point anyway. There are loads of tattoo magazines that you can use to research, but I’d highly recommend looking through Instagram. Pretty much every tattooist has an Instagram account, and you’ll be able to look through a vast array of their work.

Make sure that the studio you’re going to is hygienic and safe, and look for people’s accounts of their experiences there.

Once you’ve decided, call up or go into the studio and book your appointment. They should be able to give you a rough quote when you describe what you want, and they will ask for a deposit of (normally) at least 10%. Most tattoo artists will be happy to design your tattoo for you.

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Suffragette tattoo by Harriet Heath, who was touring at the time

Preparing

So, you’ve booked an appointment and paid your deposit. You’re ready to go get your tattoo. What do you need to do to prepare?

  1. Do not drink alcohol in the 24 hours before you’re tattooed. This is pretty important, because booze thins your blood and makes it more difficult for your tattooist to work. You’ll be bleeding way more than you need to be – and it’ll probably affect the healing as well.
  2. Get a lot of sleep, especially if you’re tattoo is a big one. I recently got a tattoo that took about 3 hours, and by the end of it I was getting a bit woozy – and I’d had plenty of sleep. You don’t want to be passing out in the chair.
  3. Eat at least 4 hours before going for your tattoo, and have something sugary. Like I said, you don’t want to be passing out.

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Riot Grrrl tattoo by Brad Ward, at Rag & Bone studio in Norwich

What to expect

The main questions I get about my tattoos are “did it hurt?” and “what does it feel like?” Here’s what to expect when you’re being tattooed.

  1. I’ve been tattooed on my arms, legs, ankles, ribs, and wrists, and trust me: it’s going to hurt. It doesn’t matter where your tattoo is going to be; it’s still going to hurt. It doesn’t matter if you have a high pain threshold; it’s still going to hurt. The things that will make a difference to the pain are:
    1. Your tattooist’s technique. Traditional tattooists can be a bit more brutal.
    2. The type of needle they’re using. The thinner the needle, the sharper the pain.
    3. The type of gun they are using.
  2. You will bleed. You might bleed during it, and you’ll definitely bleed afterwards.

If you want to know what a tattoo feels like, imagine someone stabbing you with a needle (or multiple) and then dragging it through your skin. The only way I can really describe it is a hot, sharp pain – and it gets worse as the tattoo goes on. That’s fine if you’re only getting a little one, as the whole thing will only last 10 minutes or so. But if you’re getting something big or with a lot of detail, by the end of it you’re going to be in a lot of pain, especially if you’re getting shading or colouring. The artist will have to go back over the skin they’ve already done the lines on, and your skin is going to be super sensitive by that point.

I don’t mean to make it sound awful, but that’s the truth. But having a tattoo is bearable; otherwise nobody would ever do it. Take your phone in with you to distract you, or a book or magazine. I find that closing my eyes actually really helps for some weird reason, and most studios will have music playing pretty loudly so you can also concentrate on that.

One fun thing is that once your tattoo is finished, you might – if you’re like me – absolutely crave sugar. And you have every excuse to! Your body has technically been through some kind of trauma, so treat yourself to some fizzy drinks and sweets.

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My most recent tattoo, a tiger by Emma Sailor at Factotum Body Modification, Norwich. This photo was taken when I got home, when it was still wrapped up.

Aftercare

Aftercare is arguably the most important part. If you don’t look after your tattoo, you can end up with a pretty bad infection in the worst case, or a dodgy patchy tattoo in the best case. Neither of those things is particularly desirable, so make sure you’re super careful with your tattoo.

  1. Leave your dressing on for at least 2 hours, and then wash with cold, soapy water. Pat it dry with kitchen paper (do not rub), and apply your cream. Do not submerge your tattoo under any circumstances for at least a week, but make sure it’s cleaned regularly.
  2. Invest in a moisturising cream. Do not use anything perfumed as this will seriously irritate your tattoo. I always use E45 cream and I’ve never had a single issue. Apply it every couple of hours. Use enough that it covers the tattoo, but not so much that you can’t clearly see the lines through it.
  3. Wear clean clothes, and sleep in clean sheets. Don’t wear clothing which won’t allow your tattoo to breath, or which will irritate it such as scratchy fabrics.
  4. Don’t pick at it! If you’ve got large sections of colour or black, your skin is going to start to scab and flake, for want of a better word. This is your body healing the broken skin, and picking or pulling at it is going to irritate it a lot and cause problems.
  5. I mentioned drinking in the preparation section, but some people don’t realise that you should not drink immediately after getting a tattoo for the exact same reasons. Wait until you’ve removed the dressing, and can see that it is no longer bleeding or oozing.

The warning signs of an infection to look out for are:

  1. Your tattoo is still red and swollen after 3 full days.
  2. Your tattoo is hot to the touch after 3 full days.
  3. There is an odour, or there is pus coming out of it.
  4. There is an area that is struggling to heal whilst the rest of the tattoo is fine, and is particularly scabby or painful.

If you experience any of these things, you should visit your tattoo artist, and your GP, for advice. But remember, flaking skin is totally normal.

Your tattoo should be healed within about 2 weeks (sometimes longer – it depends).

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Tiger by Emma Sailor at Factotum Body Modification, Norwich.


I hope that this advice has helped, but if you have any other questions don’t hesitate to comment below and I’ll try to answer them.

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