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Step by Step--What to Expect When You Get A Tattoo

Updated on October 13, 2008

Applying a tattoo stencil

1. If you are getting a custom tattoo done (as opposed to using the flash provided on the shop walls), bring in pictures. Nothing is worse than a customer whose description of their desired tattoo sounds like a category for the game 20 questions. If you want an orchid, find a picture of an orchid that you like and bring it with you. Sure, most tattoo shops have plenty of ready-to-go flash for you to pick pictures from, but don't rely on the perfect design being on the wall when you arrive at the shop.

2. The tattooist will shave the area to be tattooed, wet it with rubbing alcohol, and apply the stencil (or draw the design on with a pen). Yes, they must shave you, wherever you are getting the tattoo. Even your wrist.

3. The tattooist should use a sterile needle, tube, and be wearing gloves. This is important! Sterility should be hospital grade; yes, it's a tattoo shop, but tattoos are bloody work. Studies have shown higher rates of hepatitis in people with tattoos than in those without; this is largely because sterile procedure in tattoo shops is often not up to par. Tubes should be sterilized in an autoclave. Gloves should be used at all times. There should be no possibility that anything that tattooed or touched anyone else's body fluids will even come close to you when you are getting tattooed unless it has been thoroughly sterilized.

4. You will be rubbed with Vaseline-this helps lubricate the skin so it is easier to draw lines with the tattoo machine. You will hear a piercing, buzzing sound as the tattooist hits the foot pedal that runs the tattoo machine's motor (much like a sewing machine), and then you will feel a sharp, usually painful sensation as the tattoo begins. Everyone feels something different, but the general consensus is, yes it hurts, and the degree of pain depends upon where on the body the tattoo is applied and each person's personal tolerance. Often, the outline hurts more than the shading, but even that is open to debate. In short, you won't know until you do it.

5. Any time your tattooist touches anything but you-if he or she answers the phone, grabs a bottle of rubbing alcohol to wash the area, anything-the gloves should be removed, thrown away, and new gloves should be put on.

6. Your tattoo will take anywhere from 5 minutes for a little star to several hours for bigger pieces. Endorphins will kick in, and, though you will probably never be comfortable, you probably won't be in excruciating pain the entire time either.

7. Your tattooist will clean the area with alcohol and allow you to check out the finished piece. It won't look as good as it will when healed, but you'll get the idea. You will then be bandaged with, depending on the size of the tattoo, gauze or even cellophane wrap for bigger pieces.

8. Aftercare instructions vary. The best healing advice I have found is to leave the bandage on overnight (this prevents scabbing, which prevents loss of ink during healing) and wash with soap and water in the morning. Wash with soap and water a few times a day, and do not use creams or antibiotic ointments. Leave it alone, keep it out of the sun and out of the ocean or swimming pool. When it starts to get dry and flakey, use a little unscented lotion.

9. Your beautiful, healthy tattoo is perfect! Not keep it out of the sun to prevent fading or use high SPF sunblock if going to the beach. Love it-it's a part of you, and take care of it. It'll be with you a long time!

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