10 Tips for Getting Your First Tattoo

By: Emilie Sennebogen

man tattooing woman
Getting your first tattoo can be a little scary. Our tips will help you feel more comfortable. Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Getting your first tattoo is a rite of passage. The air of walking on the wild side can be intoxicating, because you know your parents likely won't approve. They still think tattoos are for bikers and sailors. But you see this beautiful art on all kinds of people and you want to join the ranks of the alternative kids. Maybe you want to make a statement, or simply commemorate an event or something personal to you. But before you get your guitar gently inked on your bicep, it's important to do your research and know what you're getting into. Here are 10 tips for the tattoo virgin.


1: Be Picky About the Parlor

While a spontaneous trip to the tattoo parlor always sounds like a fun idea, you should take a bit of time and pick out a good one prior to hopping in the car. Cutting corners for the sake of a convenient location is not a great way to begin your life as a tattooed person. Remember, it's not just the quality of the art that matters — there's a needle involved that will make contact with your skin, so you want to choose a parlor that's renowned for taking proper health precautions. Talk to some well-tattooed folks for their recommendations.

2: Follow Aftercare Instructions

A tattoo isn't complete and fully set until the healing process is finished. Each tattoo artist will have a set of aftercare instructions, and it's important that you follow them to the letter to prevent infection. You have carved into your flesh, which exposes you to bacteria. There are some variations in care advice, but it generally consists of repeated daily washing and drying and application of a moisturizer. Under no circumstances should you allow your tattoo to be covered with plastic wrap during the bandage phase. Yes, people can see it without exposing it, but it can create a bacterial breeding ground.

3: Avoid Alcohol

Drinking a little bit to take the edge off might sound like a good idea, but don't do it. Alcohol thins the blood, making you bleed more during the tattoo process. This blood pushing out makes it more difficult to push the ink in. So, not only could it mess up your design, it might also impair your judgment just enough so that you make a decision to get something you regret later. With a little liquid courage, the cute little dolphin on your ankle can easily become an angry shark on your forearm. And it won't make it hurt any less.

4: Check Your Spelling

Check your spelling with any tribal or foreign letters, it might mean something other than what you think.
Check your spelling with any tribal or foreign letters, it might mean something other than what you think.

Nothing shouts hipster literary genius like a little Eastern philosophy tattooed across your back. And a few lines from Confucius on the nape of your neck definitely gives you some street cred. Japanese characters are beautiful, and there's nothing wrong with getting something from a different culture that you find meaningful. Just make sure you don't choose fashion over form and pick something simply because it looks neat. You really need to know what all those symbols mean before permanently etching them into your body. Take our advice: That African tribal symbol may look groovy planted on your bicep, but if it means "one who lies with goats," the joke is on you.


5: Location, Location

Where you get your tattoo is just as important as the design, especially depending on your lifestyle. So when planning the location, you need to consider your wardrobe, and then decide when you want your tattoo to be exposed. As a tattoo virgin, take doing your face or head off your list. Save that for when you've had several tattoos under your belt. If you work a corporate job that prohibits tattoos, it's probably wise to skip forearms, ankles and necks, as well. Tattoos on certain parts of your body will get more wear and tear, so they need to be touched up more frequently to keep them looking good, which means mo' money. And if you don't have a very high pain threshold, choose a meaty part of your flesh because tattoos on the bone hurt like the dickens.

6: Get a Bid

Here's something many tattoo virgins fail to consider. A good tattoo from a respected artist costs lots of money. You need to keep this in mind when designing your tattoo. Size and detail are the two most important cost-determining factors because it means one thing — time. The longer it takes, the more expensive it is. A small tattoo in a single color typically costs between $100 and $300, and it goes up from there. Find a good artist with a solid portfolio and ask about prices beforehand.

7: Design Challenge

Location of the tattoo is almost as important as the tattoo itself. As a tattoo virgin, leave the face alone.
Location of the tattoo is almost as important as the tattoo itself. As a tattoo virgin, leave the face alone.

Tattoos are forever, unless you want to engage in an expensive and painful removal process, so be sure you choose something you'll love for years to come. Take your time, scour tattoo parlors, books, magazines and the internet for ideas. Make an inspiration book and narrow it down from there. Your design doesn't have to have significance — it can just be something that you think looks cool. When choosing colors, consider what will look best with your skin tone. And don't forget about the price — the larger and more detailed, the more money you'll part with.

8: Size Isn't Everything

Aside from the costs involved with a large tattoo, there are a couple of other things to consider, and time is one of them. A large, full back tattoo of an American eagle could take weeks worth of visits, depending on how many hours you and your artist can go in one sitting. And don't forget that more time equal more pain. So if you're a tattoo virgin, you probably want to keep it on the small side with something that can be completed in single visit that's a couple of hours or less. If you decide that life as a walking piece of art is for you, then you can always add to your collection later.

9: Go With a Friend

Just like most things in life, getting tattoos is more fun in pairs. This could explain why going with friends to the tattoo parlor is long-standing tradition. Your tattoos don't have to be matching to make it an occasion. It's just good to be with someone who has your back when someone else is carving on it. Even if your buddy doesn't want her own tattoo, see if she'll come along for company and support. Plus, it never hurts to get a second opinion.


10: Prepare to Suffer for Your Art

Depending on your pain threshold and where you get your tattoo, the discomfort can range from "it hurt a little bit" to "I passed out in the chair from pain." Keep this tip in mind as you approach the hot seat. You're going to have a temporary version of your tattoo to serve as a guideline for the artist. This is your last chance to look it over and make sure it's want you want and where you want it. While the artist may not be too thrilled and you may have to pay a nominal fee, backing out at this stage is allowed and encouraged unless you're 100 percent committed to moving forward.