How to Get a Tattoo – Everything You Need to Know

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Before You Get to the Shop

You have completed your research, made your decisions, and are ready for your tattoo. Choosing the right tattooist was also a crucial part of your decision-making process. You’ve picked someone with whom you have rapport, and you have confidence in their artistic and technical skills. So let’s not leave anything to chance for the big day.

Tattoo Artist Working (Photo by Kristian Angelo / CC BY)
Tattoo Artist Working (Photo by Kristian Angelo on Unsplash)

Make An Appointment

The last thing you want is for your tattoo artist not to be available when you arrive at the tattoo studio. What if it’s their day off or they’re busy with other clients? Some tattoo artists can be booked for weeks in advance. So it’s best to make an appointment beforehand. While it may not be as spontaneous as some tattoos, a perfect tattoo rarely is.

Be Clean

Take a bath or shower to ensure you are clean and fresh. Avoid coming in your gym clothes or after doing any strenuous activity, as your tattoo artist will be working closely with your skin. Don’t give them any reason to rush through the process.

No Alcohol or Aspirin

It’s important to remember not to take aspirin or drink alcohol before your tattoo appointment. Both of these can thin your blood, causing excess blood and potentially hindering the healing process.

Tattoo in Progress (Photo by Jose Pinto at Unsplash)
Tattoo in Progress (Photo by Jose Pinto at Unsplash)

Besides, showing up to a tattoo artist’s place of work under the influence is simply inappropriate. You wouldn’t want someone to show up to your workplace in that condition, would you?

Also, you don’t want to miss out on any part of the tattoo experience. Looking back, you’ll be proud to have earned your tattoo the same way millions of people have for thousands of years.

Be Rested and Ready

Although you’ll be excited to finally see your tattoo idea become a reality, try to get a good night’s sleep the night before your tattoo.

Although most tattoo studios have bottles of water in stock for their customers, you can bring your own and possibly also a snack. If your usual time for a meal happens to be before your tattoo session, eat as your normally would.

Dress for Success

Ensure that you dress appropriately for the location of your tattoo, which you have previously discussed with your tattoo artist. For instance, if you are getting a tattoo on your upper arm, wear something sleeveless or with sleeves that can be rolled up high enough. If it’s on your lower leg, wear shorts.

Tattooing Under Arm (Photo by Tetiana Shadrina on Unsplash)
Tattooing Under Arm (Photo by Tetiana Shadrina on Unsplash)

If the tattoo is on your lower back, wear a shirt that you can lift and pants that can be lowered enough. Ladies getting a tattoo on their back should consider wearing a button-up shirt that can be worn backward and left open at the back.

Most tattoo shops have a bathroom where you can change your clothes, and they also have areas with varying degrees of privacy. Typically, there will be an area at the front of the tattoo shop for visitors, where they can browse through flash, maybe in front of the counter.

In the tattooing area, behind the counter, there will be some chairs and tables for tattoo clients. But there is usually an area that is screened off from the view of people in the front of the shop that offers more privacy.

If you have any doubts about what would be appropriate to wear, consult your tattoo artist.

It’s also important to avoid wearing clothing that will leave an impression on your skin, such as briefs or a bra, in the precise area where you plan to get a tattoo.

While dressing appropriately for the sake of your tattoo is important, you also need to be comfortable. You don’t want to wear anything that will restrict your breathing, for example, or make it uncomfortable for you to sit or lie down.

Also be aware that some tattoo ink might get on your clothes, although that doesn’t happen all the time. Some people who are undergoing a large tattoo over several sessions may have specific clothing designated for tattooing and may even bring their own towel or pillow for added comfort. However, for most people getting their first tattoo, these kinds of precautions are probably unnecessary.

Bring Your ID

Have identification with you, regardless of your age, as many tattoo shops may require you to sign a contract in accordance with local regulations. Although the contract may be brief, it is essential to read it carefully.

Neon Tattoo Shop Sign (Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash)
Neon Tattoo Shop Sign (Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash)

The contract will address issues of responsibility such as allergic reactions to inks, which are not the responsibility of the tattoo artist. It will also outline the legal age limit for tattooing, which varies in different areas. Essentially, the tattoo shop and artist will limit their responsibility to things they can control, such as providing a sterile environment and ensuring customer satisfaction with their work.

They cannot take responsibility for factors outside their control, such as how your skin heals. To sign the contract, they will need to verify your identity and age, especially if you appear to be close to the legal limit.

Show Me the Money

Don’t forget to bring your money when you head to your tattoo appointment. You may have already discussed price with your artist. But if not, before your tattoo artist gets started, they’ll look at your design and figure out the price based on factors like the size and location on your body. Keep in mind that some body parts may require more time and effort from the artist, so the price might vary.

Most tattoo shops accept cash, but it’s always a good idea to ask if they also take checks or credit cards. Make sure to bring enough money for the tattoo and any tip you might want to leave if you’re happy with the final product. It’s possible that the artist might ask for payment up front to ensure that you have enough money to cover the cost.

Be Punctual

It’s important to arrive on time for your tattoo appointment as a courtesy to your tattoo artist and to ensure you have enough time for your tattoo session. Keep in mind that there may be other clients scheduled after you, so being on time helps everyone, including you.

However, it’s also important to prepare for the possibility of waiting, as the tattooing process can be unpredictable. Some clients may require more breaks or prefer to take things slowly, while others may be able to sit through the entire session without a break.

The Big Moment Arrives

You’ve arrived at the tattoo parlor for your appointment, clean and dressed for success. As you may suspect, tattoo artists have a typical process that they follow from the moment a customer enters the shop until they leave.

Tattoo Artist in Shop (Photo by kevin turcios on Unsplash)
Tattoo Artist in Shop (Photo by kevin turcios on Unsplash)

Knowing what to expect, the order of events, and the duration can mean the difference between a nerve-wracking experience and a fulfilling one.

It is important to note that the following process is meant to be a general guideline, as it can vary depending on the location and the artist you choose. However, in its broad outlines, this will give you an idea of what you can expect during the tattooing process.


When you arrive at the tattoo shop, your artist will greet you and confirm the details of your tattoo design, including the placement and colors. They’ll also check your ID, have you sign a contract, and take your payment. At this point, the artist will make preparations for your tattoo. You can watch them as they work, browse through flash designs, or observe other clients getting tattooed.

Confirming the Design

If your tattoo design doesn’t already have an outline, your artist will create a simple black and white version of it. This outline will be drawn or traced onto paper and then held up against your body to help you visualize how the finished tattoo will look.

It’s important that the area where you’ll be getting your tattoo is free of any ink or temporary tattoos.

Tattoo Stencil (Photo by 
 Ettore Bechis / CC BY)
Tattoo Stencil (Photo by Ettore Bechis / CC BY)

Once the outline is finalized, your artist will transfer it onto special transfer paper, essentially creating a duplicate of the design. This transfer will be used later as a guide for the artist to create the final tattoo.

Prep the Workspace

During the preparation phase, the tattoo artist will take steps to ensure a clean and safe work environment. They will start by wiping down the chair or table with a disinfectant and may also use Saran wrap to cover these same areas.

They will also sanitize the surface where their equipment rests and put down Saran wrap, especially over anything sensitive that could be affected by liquid, such as the power supply for the tattoo machine.

Tattoo in Progress (Photo by Levi Stute on Unsplash)
Tattoo in Progress (Photo by Levi Stute on Unsplash)

Once the work area is ready, the tattoo artist will put on sterile latex gloves that must be worn at all times when touching your skin or anything that will touch your skin. If the artist needs to step away to answer the phone or grab more ink, they will need to put on new gloves each time before resuming the tattooing process.

The tattoo machine itself, sterilized or disposable tubes and needles, and a disposable razor will be brought out to the work area. You will then be invited to take a seat or lie down, whichever is appropriate for your tattoo placement.

Prep the Skin

Before the transfer can be applied, your skin will be cleaned with alcohol using new tissues or cotton balls and then shaved gently to remove as much body hair as possible.

Next, the artist will wipe down the area with alcohol and apply the outline of your tattoo design using the special transfer paper pressed to your skin. When the transfer paper is removed, it leaves behind a purple outline on your skin that your artist will use as a guide to create the outline of your tattoo. It is not permanent.

Stencil Transfer on Skin (Photo by Sarah-Rose / CC BY)
Stencil Transfer on Skin (Photo by Sarah-Rose / CC BY)

You should check your design in a mirror, using a hand-held mirror and the ones on the wall if it’s on your back. This purple outline is a close approximation of how your finished tattoo will appear on your body.

If you want something changed about location, size, or the design, now is the time to let the artist know. Double check any lettering in your design to make sure it’s correct.

After confirming the transfer outline with you, your artist will ask you to assume the position again.

Prep the Inks

The next step involves the artist setting up their inks on a new paper plate or sterile tray. The inks for your tattoo are stored in sterile plastic bottles with conical tips, and the artist will dispense the inks from these bottles into new and disposable plastic caps.

The artist may also use Vaseline, which is placed on the palette with a sterile wooden tongue depressor, and the caps are dabbed in it so that they stick to the palette.

Tattoo Ink (Photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash)
Tattoo Ink (Photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash)

The cap of an ink bottle is then removed and wiped with a tissue before the ink is squeezed directly into the small cup on the palette. Generally, the artist will put down enough cups to get enough ink for the entire tattoo, if it’s a small one.

The tip is wiped again, and the cap and bottle are replaced. The palette with Vaseline and inks will be placed close at hand on the work table.

Prep the Tattoo Machine

Once the palette is set up, the next step in the tattoo process is to load the needles into the tattoo machine. While the dispensing of inks may not be visible to the client, the artist should perform the most important part of the sterilization procedure in front of them: opening the autoclave bags.

The tubes, which the needles will be inserted into, are first removed from their autoclave bags and fitted into the opening in the tattoo machine. It’s worth noting that many artists have specific tube styles they prefer, and they often own their own tubes, matched to their machines. Additionally, they may purchase and manufacture their own needles as well (soldering needles to the bars).

Tattoo Machine (Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash)
Tattoo Machine (Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash)

The needles are then removed from their autoclave bag and inspected by the artist using a loupe. They are then inserted into the tubes and attached to the machine.

The machine is hooked up to the power cord, which usually includes a footswitch for the artist to turn the tattoo machine on and off, hands-free. Finally, the machine is turned on.

The tattoo artist may adjust the power supply as needed, and you’ll hear the machine make a distinct buzzing sound, but not so loud that a normal conversational voice is easily heard above it.

Having Second Thoughts?

Once the machine is running to the artist’s satisfaction, they will dip the business end of the machine into the first ink cup, generally black to create the outline. They’ll let you know that they’re about to start.

When it comes to getting a tattoo, different tattoo artists have different approaches when interacting with their clients. This is why it’s important to take some time to consider which artist is the right fit for you.

If you’re getting your first tattoo, you may require more time than a repeat customer. The artist may offer you a moment to reconsider the tattoo before beginning or simply ask if you’re ready to begin.

Tattoo Artist Dipping Needles in Ink (Photo by Akram Huseyn on Unsplash)
Tattoo Artist Dipping Needles in Ink (Photo by Akram Huseyn on Unsplash)

Feeling nervous or anxious before getting a tattoo is natural, and it’s perfectly okay to let your artist know if you’re feeling this way. They have helped many people through the process of getting their first tattoo and are there to make you as comfortable as possible.

It’s not uncommon for clients to experience anxiety. Your tattoo will likely be on your skin for the rest of your life.

However, if you’re experiencing serious second thoughts, it’s important to listen to your gut instinct. If you feel that you’re making a mistake, it’s better to stop before the outline begins.

Tattoo artists have seen this happen before, and they understand that getting a tattoo can be a big deal. You need to feel good about what you’re doing, even if you’re nervous at the time. If you need to cancel, do it before the outline begins. Remember, there’s always another day.

Starting the Actual Tattoo

Assuming that you and your tattoo artist are both ready to proceed, the tattooing process will begin with a small line of the outline, followed by a check-in with you.

It is important to try your best not to move during this time, but also to remember to breathe normally. This first bit of the outline will give you a sense of the pain level you can expect for the rest of the tattoo.

Tattooing pain has sometimes been described as a stinging sensation or a rubber band being snapped against your skin. Different parts of the body have different pain levels, and everyone has different pain tolerance. It is, however, a pain that the vast majority of tattooees would described as manageable or moderate.

Tattoo in Progress (Photo by Thomas Despeyroux on Unsplash)
Tattoo in Progress (Photo by Thomas Despeyroux on Unsplash)

Many first-time clients are relieved at this point, when they find that the whole tattoo thing is something they can do. But there will also be a small percentage who have to grit their teeth and start a breathing exercise to manage the pain.

Your tattoo artist will continue working, taking brief breaks only to add more ink or to change needles for different parts of the design. Longer breaks will be necessary to change ink colors, which is achieved by rinsing the needles in clean water in a small disposable cup.

You’re Getting a Tattoo

During the tattooing process, it is important to remain still. Breathe normally, but do your best to sit like a rock.

Most tattoo artists are comfortable chatting with clients during the process, but they may ask for quiet when working on more delicate areas of the design–like the eyes on a pinup girl, for example.

Tattoo Artist at Work Station (Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash)
Tattoo Artist at Work Station (Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash)

Your artist will let you know when the outline is finished, which most people find more painful than the shading.

Taking a Break Is Fine

If you need a break during the process, ask your artist, and they will wipe off the excess ink and body fluids and apply some Vaseline to your tattoo.

You can then take a break, check out the work in progress, and have some water or a snack, or a smoke outside.

It’s important to note that the position you are in during the tattoo process may not be the most comfortable, but it is necessary for the artist to get the right angle on your skin. Keep in mind that tattoo artists can also experience repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Transition to the World of the Tattooed

After the completion of your tattoo, your artist will likely announce that the session is finished. When you view your tattoo in the mirror, you may notice that your skin is slightly red and swollen. This is a totally normal reaction to the tattooing process, and you may also see lymph fluid and blood beading up.

At this stage, the colors of the tattoo often appear darker and have more contrast than they will when the tattoo is fully healed. The swelling of the skin contributes to this effect. Additionally, the ink will be present in the epidermis layer of your skin, which will eventually be replaced by a new layer.

Lower Back Tattoo in Progress (Photo by Giliane Senar on Unsplash)
Lower Back Tattoo in Progress (Photo by Giliane Senar on Unsplash)

Despite all the above, what you see in the mirror is essentially your finished tattoo, and it will likely remain that way for many years to come. If you have done your research and chosen a good design, body location, and artist, then you are likely looking at the perfect tattoo for you. No matter the size of your tattoo, you are now part of the tattooed community. Congratulations on your new ink!

Wrapping Up

After completing your tattoo, it’s common to want to take a look at it in the mirror. Don’t worry about looking too self-absorbed–we all do it.

Your tattoo artist will then proceed to dispose of any single-use items and remove the tattoo machine for cleaning and sterilization. If a Saran wrap was used to cover the area during the process, it will be removed, and the work area will be cleaned as it was at the beginning of the process.

After the completion of the tattoo, the healing process begins immediately, and so does aftercare. I go into all the ins-and-outs of aftercare in this article.

Tattoo artists often like to have photos of their work to showcase their skills and attract new clients. While an ideal time for a photo is after the tattoo has fully healed, it is rare for clients to return solely for a photo session.

Therefore, most photos are taken immediately after the completion of the tattoo. Occasionally, if clients return for more tattoos, there will be an opportunity for the artist to photograph the healed piece.

Newly Covered Tattoo (Photo by Sarah-Rose / CC BY)
Newly Covered Tattoo (Photo by Sarah-Rose / CC BY)

Your tattoo artist will clean your new tattoo with alcohol, which provides relief to the hot sensation caused by swelling. A final coat of Vaseline or other topical ointment will be applied, followed by a bandage.

The type of bandage used may vary depending on the tattoo and shop practices. Some tattoos, such as a large back piece, may be difficult to bandage with medical tape and a sterile pad, so a plastic cling wrap may be used instead. The purpose of the bandage is to prevent infection and promote healing, and any sterile bandage material that accomplishes those goals will suffice.

Aftercare is crucial for the healing of your new tattoo, and your tattoo artist will give you instructions on what to do and what to avoid. These instructions will be your responsibility to follow, as infection prevention is now in your hands. If you were informed that written aftercare instructions would be provided, you should receive them now.

You will also need to pay the full amount for your tattoo, if not already paid, and this is the appropriate time to tip your artist if you are satisfied with their work. It is also nice to express your satisfaction with the tattoo, if that is indeed the case.

Tattoo Happiness (Photo by Maks Styazhkin on Unsplash)
Tattoo Happiness (Photo by Maks Styazhkin on Unsplash)

Frequently Asked Questions

Where should a beginner get their first tattoo?

Some parts of the body are more painful than others. In general, try to stay away from bony parts of the body covered by little flesh (like the elbow, rib cage, or the breastbone). A location on the arm or leg is pretty standard for a first tattoo.

Can you take a painkiller before being tattooed?

In general, it’s not recommended, although people do. It’s almost impossible to predict how a drug might affect your body, particularly with respect to increased bleeding. And while we’re on the subject, make sure you’re healthy when you get your tattoo to increase the chances that it comes out exactly as you hope. If you have any long term health conditions, please advise your tattooist and consult your doctor.

Is $500 enough for a tattoo?

It depends completely on the size, complexity, and placement of the tattoo. Tattooists can charge by the piece or by the hour. The only way to know the price will be to ask your tattoo artist beforehand.

March 11, 2023