Don’t be fooled: this isn’t your typical “tattoo tips” post. I’m not here to tell you to eat a big breakfast, and I’m certainly not here to try and guess how much a tattoo will hurt depending on where you get it.
Less than a month after my 18th birthday—July 5th, 2017 to be exact (shout out to my artist Scott Barry from Visible Ink in Malden, MA!)—I went and got my first-ever tattoo. I’m a go big or go home kinda gal, so I decided to go with a fairly sizeable Phoenix tattoo on my right forearm. Before I got in that chair, I thought I knew all I needed to know about getting a tattoo. I had read all of the articles on Pinterest that told me to eat well beforehand, to not take painkillers, and to bring someone along for support.
My tattoo once it was complete
I quickly learned, though, that there’s a whole lot more to getting a tattoo than drinking a lot of water and getting your muscles to relax. No one tells you that—depending on the size and your pain tolerance—your body will go into a low-level state of shock. Your sugar will drop, and your tattoo might take a whole lot longer than expected.
While my experience was actually pretty pleasant, there were some things I wish I knew beforehand to prepare myself not just mentally, but physically, for what my body would go through while getting a tat. Now, I’ll share my newfound knowledge with you, readers, so you can go in with the real truth behind what it’s like to get a tattoo.
Consider this a tip jar. Topic: Stuff they don’t want you to know about getting a tattoo.
Well in Advance of Getting Your Tattoo
Check to see if you have any allergies
I am strangely allergic to one food item, and one food item only: Black food coloring. Before I got my tattoo, I asked my artist if there was any chance that there were any similar ingredients in the black ink, just to ensure I wouldn’t have a horrible reaction. While you might not have such a niche allergy like I do, if you have any worry whatsoever that you might be allergic to any ink color, just ask! Don’t do a crazy google search, or ask your best friend’s cousin’s boyfriend: Just ask your tattoo artists well in advance of getting your tattoo. People are most often allergic to red ink and are least allergic to black ink.
Know what colors fade
The lighter the color, the faster it will fade. Yellow and white are the quickest to fade. Keep in mind when considering how much of what color you want to go where on your tattoo. I purposely chose to color the Phoenix with darker reds and oranges. This minimizes the number of touch ups I might have to do in the future. Colors can fade as fast a year into having your tattoo, so don’t be concerned: it’s just got to do with the pigments of the ink.
Have reference images for your artists
If you’re going into a tattoo without having an exact photo you want to be copied onto your body, your tattoo artist might want some reference images to have an idea of what you want. This way, they’ll be drawing something you actually want, instead of going in blind and running the risk of having to re-draw. Pinterest is a great source for images—that’s where I got mine.
In-Preparation Just Before Getting Your Tattoo
Bring a snack
Like I said when your body goes into shock, your sugar plummets. You might feel a little lightheaded and dizzy, so arm yourself with a sugary snack to get yourself back on track. Luckily, my mom packed me some cookies to eat while I was getting inked (thanks, mom!). You can also bring hard candy (Jolly Ranchers are a great go-to) if you need something quick to pop in your mouth.
Bring a designated driver
They’re not just for when you’ve had one too many martinis! I definitely could not have driven after getting my tattoo, since I was still a bit woozy, and my arm was swollen and sore. It’s not a good idea to stress out the area where you just got your ink, and you could injure yourself, or exert too much energy. Call up your mom, your best friend, or your partner, and get them to come along! You could also call up a Lyft or an Uber if everyone else is busy.
Bring a sweater/flannel
If your body goes into shock to some degree, the chills will creep up on you real fast. Have something to keep you warm, since it’s not a good idea to start shivering while someone is trying to draw precisely on your skin. If you don’t keep warm, you could also end up getting nauseous—I know from experience. Keep a sweater handy, and put it on when you get cold. If you’re getting something in an area that would be covered by a bulky sweater, go for a flannel. You can roll the sleeves up, and it’s a lot easier to take on and off.
Keep in mind that your tattoo artist might take a break
This is the point at which my artist took a break
Honestly, you want your artist to take a break if your tattoo goes on for longer than an hour and a half. My tattoo took just under two and a half hours, and that’s relatively quick for as detailed a piece as mine. My artists took a break around the halfway mark of that to get lunch. During this time, take a break yourself! Get up and stretch, go to the bathroom, eat a snack, play some games on your phone. Just keep in mind that the pain might increase after the break. Your skin will have relaxed during the time off and will be “mad” at you when the needles return. Just breathe and remember—you’re halfway there!
After Getting Your Tattoo
Wear something that covers the tattoo when you go to sleep
Your tattoo will weep the first night: it’s just your body trying to make sense of everything you just injected into your body. To keep yourself from sticking to your bedsheets, wear an article of clothing that covers the area. In my case, I wore a long-sleeve shirt. When you wake up, you might find that your clothes are stuck to your skin. DON’T PULL. You run the risk of peeling off ink, or even skin in some cases if you yank the fabric off. Run the area under some cold water—this should loosen up the fabric and make for easy removal.
Don’t worry if your tattooed area swells
If you look towards the bottom of this photo, you can see that my forearm is hella thicc
My arm was swollen for about a week after I got my tattoo done. It felt a bit like a lead weight, so if this happens to you, I recommend taking it easy for a couple of days. Try getting your tattoo done during either a vacation or when you know you won’t be doing any intense sort of labor in the following days. If you can’t avoid having work or school soon after you get your tattoo done, do your best to lay low. Feel free to ice the area periodically, or take some ibuprofen once your tattoo has healed enough to the point that you won’t bleed.
Keep in mind that these tips stem from my own experience; depending on your weight, pain tolerance, and blood sugar levels, you might not experience some of the same bodily reactions as I did. However, I’d still suggest keeping these tips in mind and following them just in case any of these do happen to you.
I’d also like to stress that while, on the screen, it might seem like I had a horrible tattoo experience. In reality, though, I actually had a relatively painless and mellow experience. Saying that my body went “into shock” sounds scary, but I really just got a little cold and dizzy. This might not even happen to you at all. Remember that getting a tattoo is a beautiful and amazing experience, and the end result is worth the struggle to get there.