What Should My First Tattoo Be?
So you've finally decided to enter the tattoo community... congratulations! At 22 years old I was adamantly opposed to tattoos. I thought they were for egotistical narcissists. A few years later I came around to see that Tattoo art is just another beautiful form of expression for people that love art and self expression. What started out as one tattoo and a few symbols slowly turned into a partial leg sleeve. I want to offer a few tips that I wish I knew before I got my first tattoo.
I prefer to keep my tattoos discreet at this point in my life. There is still a stigma in America about having tattoos. This can affect your income if your employment is connected to the impression people have about you. Also, be ready to have the discussion with friends and family members, some of whom may take issue with your personal choices. Some people just don't care what people think about them... I'm guessing that's not you though—otherwise you wouldn't have read this far!
Knees to the toes
Neck & Face
Hands & Arms
The location of your tattoo is very important because it affects the visibility for both you and your observers. Some of your observers have moral objections to body art. Others will ask you about it or comment on it. If you are choosing a highly visible location, keep these things in mind. My first tattoo was on my ankle and I rarely notice it or appreciate it at as much as I thought I would at the time. The ankle is however highly visible to observers, so when I wear shorts I inevitably end up having to explain it.. It draws a lot of attention, which wasn't what I initially expected, because I didn't consider the importance of the location. Depending on your lifestyle and clothing you typically have three highly visible locations:
Slightly above the knees all the way to your toes if you wear shorts and sandals as often as I do.
Neck, face, and behind the ears—chances are if you are considering these locations you don't care anyway.
Obviously hands and arms but I've seen some cleverly hidden tattoos here (for example, tattoos on the inside of the arm can only be seen if you raise that arm—I plan on doing a snake that starts here, crawls on my back and ends up in the same place on the other arm) **Feb 2016 Update: Snake didn't happen, at least not over these words. I ended up with some color, see picture below.
The design of your tattoo may be a lot less unique than you think it is. There are over 7 billion people in the world so remember: You're special... just like everyone else! If you find images of someone else with a similar design that you had in mind you can learn from it. Yours will be different anyway because you may choose a different location or color scheme.
I also strongly discourage getting any words tattooed on your body especially for your first tattoo. Words may reflect what you're feeling right now but that may change in a decade or less. Also, people knowing other languages won't understand it. If they do speak the same language but can't clearly read it, then they will probably ask you what it says. The conversation can be fun the first twenty times but gets old really fast. I truly believe the best tattoos need no explanation. A good design stands alone and pleases the observer with no explanation necessary.
Also, an important aspect I never thought of until after my third or fourth tattoo is the overall appearance. What I mean is think about how your tattoo will look from 10+ feet away. Very complex images can look like blobs from a distance. Adding tattoos to surrounding areas can get tricky if you want a big impact for the previous one. Usually as the art work progresses you end up with a full sleeve that from far away just looks like, you guessed it, a sleeve! If you take the time now while your body is relatively bare to plan out any possible future tattoo locations you can achieve excellent results. Smaller tattoos can be part of a larger pattern so the image is great from far away AND up close. Tribal tattoos are an example of a design that is meant to work well from a distance. If you had a tribal outline that was filled in with more detailed images you would have a tattoo that works well from far away and close up!
You should exercise careful consideration when selecting the artist to draw on you. You may end up seeing them much more than you think you will. When I got my first tattoo, I was almost completely sure I'd get the one tattoo I thought I wanted and then maybe one more five years later. Instead I started a full sleeve on one leg with an artist I've grown to truly respect. When you find an artist that you don't mind being a walking advertisement for, you will let them draw all over you.
It's fairly easy to research your local tattoo artists on the Internet. Many of them have pictures of their work accessible on their website. The artist is so much more important than the shop they work at. When you find an artist you like, you will follow them wherever they go. You will likely have their cell phone number and may be scheduling appointments months in advance. Tattoo artists are often weird, creative people that live an abnormal life. Expect to be possibly sucked into their social circle!
Your brain is where you imagine the worst. The actual feeling of being tattooed is not particularly comfortable but you will survive! I think the bottom line is that you won't go through with the tattoo until you've actually picked a design that is really meaningful to you. Then it's merely an experience you must go through to put some artwork on your body. To be quite honest the shower the day after is more painful then the original inking! During your one to five hour session (if it's long enough) you will notice once you've used up all your adrenaline. You'll notice a sharp decrease in your pain tolerance as each touch seems increasingly unbearable. By this time you'll be arranging another visit or more to finish up your artwork. Likewise the artist may feel finger fatigue after hammering away at your body.
Apparently I heal relatively quickly. My healing time is obviously my experience only. If something seems wrong, contact your artist and/or a doctor immediately. I usually have an afternoon session and plan nothing else for that evening. I leave the shop wrapped up in plastic wrap and I take it off almost as soon as I get home. I usually take a shower and clean it with soap and water. This shower doesn't usually sting too much. Afterward I dry off and wear loose-fitting clothing, ideally something that will leave the new art exposed to oxygen. I treat it like any other flesh wound... I don't believe in bandages or special ointments. I'd rather let my body heal itself. If I have some other commitment the same night as my session I may just leave the plastic wrap on or ideally give it a wipe down with water only, allow it to dry COMPLETELY, then re-wrap. The wrap is there just to protect against infection and keep blood off your clothes. Allowing a wound to breathe in a safe, clean environment always seems to shorten my heal time.
The day-after shower is ALWAYS the worst for me! A tiny bit of soap and full rinse will help keep it clean. Everything gets better from here on out. After about 72–96 hours my skin starts flaking off in the shaded areas. Outlines are almost completely healed by this point. The tattoo may look almost unrecognizable at this point depending on how flaky it is. After a full two weeks the tattoo starts returning to the art you wanted.
Progress takes time
After it's all said and done just remember that tattoos don't last forever. You're lucky if your artwork stays clean and crisp after twenty years, at which point you may want to redesign it! The biggest fear I think people have about tattoos is the notion of permanence. This is important and should be considered in the design stage. Proper consideration forces you to discover what makes you YOU! The worst-case scenario is a design that seemed great at twenty but at thirty you feel like it doesn't represent you—that's OK! If you follow the above advice, the worst case scenario is it serves as areminder of who you were at the beginning of your life. That being said, go on and cover your body with expressions of yourself!