Questions People Ask About Tattoos

I am a tattooed person. For me, being tattooed is very much a part of my personal identity and expression — the same doesn’t hold true of all tattooed people. It’s not just because my tattoos have meaning, because they are visible parts of myself, because they are works of art, but because there is something more complicated for me about being connected to a very old tradition that’s been practiced in numerous forms in numerous cultures. As a visible participant in that culture within Western society, there’s a predictable set of attitudes I encounter, but also a set of questions, some of which tend to repeat themselves over and over again.

Oddly enough, I actually don’t mind talking about my tattoos, for the most part, and many of these questions stem from natural curiousity, interest, and intrigue for those who are considering tattoos of their own for the first time. That said, sometimes it’s helpful to have those questions answered and collated in a neat place for your reference, rather than having to go ’round asking tattooed people, as charmed as they might be to help you out.

Did it hurt/will it hurt? 

Not really, but my pain tolerance and neurology are different than yours. For the vast majority of my tattoos, the tattooing process mainly felt like being scratched. Repeatedly. Which is basically what tattooing is. Sometimes long sessions have stretched the boundaries of my tolerance and it starts to feel less like scratching and more like burning. The only time I actually experienced pain was when I was getting my fork and spoon and developed really fascinating referred pain behind my left knee, but even that was more of a tingle.

Will it hurt you? Possibly, depending on how your nerves are wired and where you get a tattoo. I don’t recommend starting with feet, elbows, or kneecaps, three notoriously unfun places. Remember that tattoo artists aren’t actually sadists* who enjoy torturing their clients and that they want the experience to be comfortable for you. No one will look down on you if you request breaks or ask to split a session up. Make sure you’re hydrated (no seriously, hydrated skin is happier skin) and that you’ve eaten something before a session.

Is the shop clean?

Probably a whole lot cleaner than your kitchen after your incredibly meticulous German housekeeper goes over it. Shops are very scrupulous about cleanliness, for two reasons. The first is that they want their clients to have a pleasant experience, and they definitely don’t want to promote infection and cross-contamination, which are no fun for anyone (and could ruin your tattoo!). The second is that it’s the law. Most states have extremely rigorous standards for tattoo shops when it comes to equipment and sanitation, given that they are pushing needles into the skin of their clients. They use autoclaves on equipment, disposable needles (both to prevent the transmission of disease and to ensure sharpness, which results in crisper images and hey, side bonus, less pain), and other infection controls.

Many shops have their autoclave in a spot you can see it. You can ask to see the testing and cleaning records, if you want, and a good shop won’t mind providing those. You can also watch your artist doing setup — note that reusable equipment will be taken out of sealed autoclave bags with indicators (indicator tape often turns striped after heating) showing that they’ve been subjected to high heat treatment, and that one-use equipment like razors and needles comes out of sterile packaging, while ink is dispensed from bottles into single-use cups. Seriously, tattoo shops are very particular about working conditions.

Should I bring buddies?

Probably not. Some people like to go with a single friend, who should be instructed to sit in the corner and be quiet. Peanut gallery comments are not helpful. If you have friends who want to support you, tell them to hang out at the coffeehouse on the corner until you’re done, or tell them you’ll text them while you’re wrapping up so they can come get you. (If you just finished a big session you might not feel like driving, for example.) If your friends are rowdy and annoying, they’ll get kicked out of the shop, and you might too.

Should I take painkillers/drink before going to the shop?

No. Some painkillers can act as blood thinners, which is bad when someone is poking you. Alcohol is also a blood thinner, in addition to an intoxicant — most artists won’t work on clients who clearly don’t have the capacity to make informed decisions about tattoos. If you’re really worried about pain, talk to your artist beforehand about options for managing it, but you might actually be surprised by pain levels when you actually sit down and get started.

How much will it cost?

Great question! That depends on the shop. Most charge by the hour, and set a minimum of an hour to a half hour of tattooing no matter the size. Whether your tattoo is the size of a quarter or a half-sleeve, it requires the same setup work including laying out equipment, drawing, setting up a transfer, etc etc; in fact, most artists really hate doing small tattoos because of the labour involved and the low payoff, and also because they’re often not very fun projects — hey, they’re artists, they like to enjoy their work.

Ultimately, you get what you pay for. Something like a full sleeve can cost thousands of dollars and a body suit can run into the tens of thousands, depending on who you work with. You need to think about this when planning tattoos because they are a financial commitment, and you need to not argue with your artist about the price. Learning to tattoo is an intensive and expensive experience, and artists deserve to be compensated for their training, experience, skill, and aesthetic abilities. If you want a cheap tattoo, get one, but don’t be surprised by what you end up with.

Sometimes an artist will cut you a break — that’s more likely to be the case when you’re working on a project with multiple sessions, when a session runs way over for reasons out of the artist’s control, or when you’ve established yourself as a regular at a shop. Don’t expect it or ask for it. Be aware that some shops also charge extra for tattoos in certain areas because of technical difficulty and, sometimes, because they frankly hate those placements and no one really likes to do them.

If you have a friend who works as a tattoo artist, don’t assume this means you get tattoos on tap. Her tattooing is a professional skill and she deserves to be paid for it. She may or may not offer you the ‘friend rate’ or a free tattoo now and then; don’t expect it and definitely don’t ask for it.

Where should I go to get mine/can I copy yours?

In answer to the first, it’s a bit complicated, because the question of where you should go depends on what you want to get. Fix an idea in your mind of what you’re thinking in terms of style, and find artists who work in that style. Look at their portfolios. It is absolutely worth traveling, being on a waiting list, or paying a premium to work with a really talented artist. For example, if you want an abstract or watercolour tattoo, you should go to Amanda Wachob. She is in ridiculously high demand. You will have to wait. Dots to Lines, a shop in Germany, produces absolutely stunning line art and pontillist tattoo work. Ask for recommendations while you research shops, and you’ll know when you find the artist that’s right for you.

In answer to the second, no. Tattoos are highly individualised (even flash looks different on different people). In the case of custom tattoos that have been drawn up for specific clients, this goes double — that tattoo represents a huge investment of an artist and client’s time (I’ve worked on designs with artists for months). If you’re inspired by a tattoo, that’s one thing, and you can bring in samples of work you love as examples of styles and themes you enjoy, but don’t copy.

How should I work with a tattoo artist?

Tattoo artists are professionals. Show up clean and on time for your appointment (brush your teeth, too, remember that you may be hanging out together for a while). Be aware that you will likely pay a deposit at the time of booking and you will forfeit if you don’t show. Make sure your car is parked securely (no one wants to hear ‘I need to take a break to feed the meter’) and that you have eaten and drunk before a session. Leave plenty of time for the session and be aware that it might run over. Be aware of shop policies in terms of payment — if it’s cash only, don’t be a chump and pull out your credit card at the end of a session.

In the planning phases of a tattoo, take an active role as you talk about what you want, the placement, and the size. This is important. This art is going on your body. If you feel like an artist isn’t listening or is pushing you into something you don’t want, it’s probably not a partnership that’s going to work. That said, tattoo artists are professionals, and they often have recommendations you should listen to, because they have experience with skin as a canvas. Don’t play ‘customer is always right’ when people make recommendations about the life and look of your tattoo. Establish a trusting relationship from the start so you can feel comfortable letting your artist take the lead with important details.

Tipping is conventional, although the percentage varies. Some people tip as high as 30 percent of the cost — remember, not all of the price goes to the artist, some goes to the shop (unless the artist owns the shop), and also, you want to establish a relationship with your tattooer. When we’re working on an extended project that requires multiple sessions, I also tend to give people things (in addition to, not instead of, tipping), like gift certificates to spas, food, etc, depending on the artist.

Hey, is my tattoo artist my friend now/can I ask her on a date?

No. Your tattoo artist is a professional person with whom you worked closely on a project. Maybe you will become friends, because life is cool! But professional boundaries are also cool, and your tattoo artist values them immensely. You might become known at the shop, you might be part of the client ‘family’ that artists and staff like working with, but you’re not a friend.

Also no. It’s actually super awkward to be asked on a date by someone you’ve just spent many hours in close bodily contact with, and it feels extremely weird. See above re:professionals, but also consider whether you’d ask your doctor on a date just because she had her arms elbow-deep in your chest during open heart surgery. It’s also worth noting that despite whatever myths you may have heard, tattooed girls aren’t ‘easy’ and tattoo shops aren’t dens of sin and sexual libations. They’re professional environments — and what goes on behind closed doors is usually tattoos in regions that people might not want to expose to everyone and their mother and/or complicated tattoos that require a lot of focus. Don’t put your artist in the awkward position of having to turn you down, and don’t ruin a great working relationship by asking for a date, because an artist may decline to work with you after that.

So, what about visible tattoos?

Well, strictly speaking, all tattoos are visible, but I know what you mean. You want to know if there’s a magical answer to the question of whether you should get tattoos that are readily visible in casual clothes, like, say, a short-sleeved tee and knee-length skirt or shorts. Like, say, the clothes you might wear to your job.

Here’s the thing: Some jobs, a growing number of jobs, are really fine with tattoos and don’t care. Others, like banking, are more conservative, and if you want to have a career in those industries, you are going to have to make certain sacrifices. Like not getting a giant sleeve that runs all the way down to your wrist. Which is really sad, but this is the way it goes — and eventually that, too, shall change.

If you’re working in a job where tattoos are acceptable, though, or an industry like publishing, think carefully. Ask yourself if you’re always going to be in that position, because if you’re not, your tattoos might become a liability. There’s a definite point of no return beyond which some career and social choices are going to be closed to you, which is again awful, but is also the current state of things.

This scratches the surface (haha) of the questions people ask me. Got more? Email me, and I might compile enough to write a part two.

*I can’t speak to the personal lives of tattoo artists. Some are undoubtedly sadists! However, in the shop, they’re professional artists focused on doing their jobs.