Tattoos last forever, or at least as long as your body lasts, which is pretty much forever in human terms. For a lot of people (your boss and your grandpa), this is the main reason not to get them. For other people (you), this is what makes them so great. Your pets and your parents will die, your house will get bulldozed to build a superhighway, your friends will move to New York City. But your tattoos? Barring a full-body burning accident, they will be with you through the whole scary, sublime thing, until you are sitting in your easy chair, unable to pee without the help of an in-home care assistant. Until finally, you lose consciousness and stop existing. How comforting to know that a) your memories will be written on your body no matter how badly your brain disintegrates and b) your in-home care assistant will have something pretty to look at while he's pulling down your pants for you.
I have 6 tattoos and I know an amazing tattooer, so I consider myself enough of an expert to educate you on the process of getting art permanently inscribed on your skin. To fully commit to this project, I decided to go get a tattoo and, while it was happening, interview Derick Montez, who works at Picture Machine Tattoo. He's the guy who has given me 3 of my tattoos and who is, in my opinion, the best tattoo artist of all time ever. Derek isn't even 30 yet but he apprenticed with well-known graffiti and tattoo artist Mike Giant and is a great visual artist in a bunch of different mediums, beyond being a respected tattooer. So, without further ado, your step-by-step guide to getting a tattoo you won't regret for the rest of your life:
Before your tattoo:
1. Research! This is THE MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL THE STEPS.
Getting a good tattoo requires some actual preparation. According to Derick: "The biggest mistake I think someone can make is not doing research on the artist that they get tattooed by. Tattooing has become such a popularized trend... more people are tattooing now, more than ever, but just because someone gets the idea in their head that they want to be a tattooer doesn't mean that they have the proper training or the proper techniques. It's just like anything else: if you have the money, you can open up a shop, but that doesn't mean you know what you're doing."
So look at portfolios online. Derick says: "Most reputable shops have portfolios -- what you're looking for is consistency in work... you want to make sure the photos are clear, recognizable, readable, because a lot of times people just put up garbage photos... tattoos that are still wrapped in plastic. If you can find healed photos of peoples' tattoo work, that is a lot better."
I know he's right because this is exactly how my ex-boyfriend found Derick: obsessive internet searching to find the perfect tattoo artist for his first tattoo. I do not have this kind of patience and my first 3 tattoos are a testament to that (I still love them, but they are nothing compared to Derick's work), so I am very grateful that someone finally did the research for me. But you shouldn't be so lazy! Do the research yourself! You won't regret it!
2. Don't price shop.
Would you look on Craigslist for the cheapest babysitter? Maybe, this isn't a parenting lesson, but the point is, if some guy says he'll give you a tattoo for 40 bucks, walk away. Instead, be ready to pay as much as it takes to get high quality work. Pick cheaper shoes or buy your rice in bulk if you want to save money, but when it comes to art that will be on your body until you die, don't expect to pay less than $100 before tip, and a lot more if you are getting something large or adding color.
3. Check out the shop in person.
When you find someone you think you like, go into the shop and meet the artist in real life before you actually get anything done. First, the shop should be clean. Check for work on display and see how you feel about the aesthetic in person. Then, go with your gut. My first tattoo, which I got when I was about 20, was the result of something halfway between a whim and a manic compulsion, when I decided I needed a tattoo and jumped on the bus that went to the part of Portland rife with tattoo parlors. The first one I went into was clean enough, but something about it gave me the heebie jeebies and I got back on the bus and got off at a smaller, friendlier place, where I ended up getting a tiny star below my left hip.
Derick put it this way: "Generally, if people are going to take the time to answer your questions and not be a dick, they have confidence in their work... you should never really feel pressured to get tattooed right then and there."
(Side note: You can always start small and come back for something bigger when you are ready. Three years after I got that star, the same artist gave me the outline of Oregon with a heart in it. Sometimes slowly building up to a bigger piece is a good idea.)
If you do your research and find a really great tattooer, you are 90 percent of the way to getting an awesome tattoo. The rest of these things will become a lot easier, because a good, professional tattooer will be looking out for you -- they want your tattoo to look awesome since it represents them. Remember though, this is your body and ultimately you make the decisions. So for better or worse, the end result is your responsibility.
4. Spend some time thinking about the design.
Obviously, this goes without saying but I am going to say it anyway: don't get something you really will regret. Disney princesses, an Aryan Brotherhood clover or anything else that might get you killed in prison, misspelled Chinese idioms, your on-again, off-again boyfriend's name. These things ruin lives. Pick something with personal meaning or something you think is beautiful. Go in ahead of time to talk to your tattoo artist about the design. My last 3 tattoos started as just ideas and I pretty much gave Derick free reign to do what he wanted, since he knows a lot more about tattoos and making beautiful things than I do. I am very happy with the results.
Day of the tattoo:
5. Don't be drunk.
I'm not going to explain this to you. You know better. Also, a good tattoo artist will not tattoo you if you are drunk.
6. Eat something before you go.
No one wants you to pass out. Eat dinner! Bring along some candy to chew on if you are getting something big done.
7. Don't come in with a posse.
Derick: "I think a mistake a lot of people can make is coming into a tattoo shop with a whole plethora of friends. I've watched people come in, know what they want, and through the opinion of 4 or 5 other people end up getting something completely different or going against the advice of the tattoo artist."
Derick has a lot of great tattoos and he says: "Whenever I've gotten my tattoos, I've done it all by myself... just so I know that whatever I'm getting is all on me."
Bring a friend if you are nervous or if you just want the company. But don't bring a pack. You did your research, remember? This is between you and the person putting it on your body. It doesn't really matter that your friend with no tattoos thinks it would look better in orange on your left kneecap.
8. Make sure it is really what you want.
The tattoo artist will put a transfer of the tattoo on your body in the place you want it before he actually starts in with the needle and ink (in this case Derick actually drew on me, but usually it starts with a transfer). Make sure you like the size and the placement. This is not the time to be passive. Listen to the tattooer (not your friends) but remember: your body, your choice.
9. Accept that this will hurt.
Yes, it will hurt. It is needles poking your skin deeply and quickly. But if it didn't hurt, would it mean as much? Plus, now instead of being the person asking their tatted-up friend, "Oh man, did that hurt?" you will be the person answering, "Yeah, it wasn't so bad."
After the tattoo is done:
You did your research and you got an awesome tattoo! So tip! At least 20 percent and always in cash. Let me repeat that: always in cash. So make sure you have enough BEFORE YOU GET TO THE TATTOO PARLOR.
11. Follow the care instructions.
Derick: "People should really treat their tattoo like they got a flesh wound."
True story: I played a soccer game right after I got my Oregon tattoo. Due to the stretching caused by running around and sweating, when the tattoo healed, the border of the state and the heart in the middle had dots of bare skin. I had to wait 6 months and get the whole thing redone. Not only did it hurt about 50 times worse than the original tattoo, now it is raised like a scar while the rest of my tattoos seem flush with my skin.
So, what more can I tell you? If you do your research and pick a tattooer whose aesthetic you like and who gives you a good feeling in your stomach and you get a tattoo that won't force you to join a white supremacist gang in prison, and then you take care of it, you will end up with a piece of art on your body that no one can ever take away. Good luck!
P.S.: Do you have a tattoo artist you love or any tattoo tips at all? Write about it in the comments! Share the wealth!
All photos by Emmanuel Hapsis.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED