Tattoo veterans: Give me an inkling
April 2, 2010 6:21 PM   Subscribe

This is going to be my first (and almost certainly only) tattoo. Questions about tattoo devirginization follow.

So I'm doing it. Getting a tattoo. I have several related questions, so I guess I'll lay them out in order.

(a) What I want is an exact copy of this design -- not the tattoo artist's approximation, or interpretation. How does that work? Do they somehow trace it onto my skin, then break out the needle?

(b) Does it somehow annoy tattoo artists when a customer asks for an exact design? I really don't want a permanent feature of my skin slapped on by some sullen dude who resents the fact that I don't want his artistic genius informing the design.

(c) I'd like to scale the drawing down; I'm thinking about 2.5 inches in length. Would that be a problem with this design?

(d) For location, I'm thinking the inside of my left forearm, right up near the elbow. In other words, fairly discrete. Anyone see any problem with that?

(e) How much do you think that would cost, and 'bout how long would it take?

Thoughts, ideas, questions, ruminations, dire warnings all gratefully accepted.
posted by Alaska Jack to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (34 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: EDIT - As I hope would be obvious, "This" being the design at the bottom of the front cover, not the whole book!
posted by Alaska Jack at 6:23 PM on April 2, 2010

a) Yes. They'll copy it, transfer it to your skin and tattoo it.

b) Depends, but not in my experience. They're there to give you what *you* want.

c) 2.5 inches in length will make for some real small lines and features. A good artist should be able to find a happy medium where it won't be too large, but also won't lose important details.

d) No problem there.

e) This varies so greatly. Its real simple, so it shouldn't take that long or cost too much. Keep in mind that someone who would do this for $20 is probably not who you want to be tattooed by, don't haggle on a permanent skin adornment.

Have fun!
posted by ibechase at 6:28 PM on April 2, 2010

I'm not sure this would look good going across your forearm. You would really need to ask the person tattooing where he/she would think it would best be put. I am thinking that having the dragon on the forearm with the tail wrapping around toward your elbow, or fingers.

Your inside forearm isn't discrete, if you want discrete, get it done on your back or your shoulder.

Also, you need to find a tattoo artist you trust... and trust him/her.
posted by TheBones at 6:31 PM on April 2, 2010

The tattoo artist may have advice about where the piece should go, and what lines will need to be heavier/more emphasized. Take that advice. If you have an artist (or a shop) in mind, look at the artists' work - online or in the portfollio in the shop - because even when you're getting a custom piece done, you'll want to have an idea of what their natural style is. For instance, if they don't have any black- or greywork pieces that you like, you may want to consider a different artist.

(In my experience, a lot of people say "Oh, this is the only tattoo I'm going to get," but they're like potato chips - it's hard to stop at one. I now have three, and am contemplating a fourth.)
posted by rtha at 6:32 PM on April 2, 2010

c) At that size, you're going to lose a lost of detail. Linework, even the single needle stuff, spreads a bit with healing, and quite a bit more with age. FWIW, both the tattoos I have, I kinda with I'd gone larger.

e) It'll be quick, less than an hour, and probably cost whatever the shop minimum is. Tattoo prices vary wildly by location.

d) It'll show in tshirts. That OK with you? It's a fairly discreet position, as far as tattoos that aren't covered by jeans and a tshirt go.

b) It'll all depend on the artist. Don't be afraid to look at a bunch of portfolios and meet a bunch of artists.

a) They'll copy the design, then use a machine to make a transfer from that.
posted by mollymayhem at 6:33 PM on April 2, 2010

ibechase is exactly right. I've had two tattoos done from designs I took in, and both times they made the transfer, applied it, and tattoo'd it. In both cases they advised me on size, orientation, and color. Both artists were friendly and respectful; both claimed to like the art I brought, but that might just be good customer service.

I think your design would take less than an hour. My last tattoo was pretty small and simple and cost me about $70 plus tip.
posted by not that girl at 6:33 PM on April 2, 2010

Tattoo studios (at least the ones I've been to, and I have three tattoos) have a special printer that prints out a transferable temporary tattoo. They trace the artwork onto a piece of tracing paper, get your approval, scan it, scale it down or up if necessary, and print out the transfer. Then they put the transfer on your skin and wet it, and the temporary ink transfers to your skin. The artist should have you examine the placement of the tattoo, to make sure it's in the right place and facing the right way - important if your tattoo involves text! - then when you give approval, he or she will start the actual tattoo process.

As far as placement goes, I don't really think the inside of your forearm is discreet, unless you happen to wear long sleeve shirts all the time. It depends on what you mean by discreet. If you don't want people to see it unless you show it to them, then you put it somewhere that is easily and regularly hidden by clothes. That would likely be your back, your shoulder, your thigh, etc. If you want it to be visible but not glaring (ie, your forehead), then sure, inside forearm is fine.

Cost totally depends on the artist, the studio, and the detail and color you want. If you just want black outlines, that's cheaper than full color. I have three tattoos, as I said before. The one on my shoulder blade is about 2" wide by 3" tall, all black except for a spot of red. It cost me $75 and took about an hour. The one on my left pectoral is about 2" square, all black but with a lot of fill (that is, solid areas of black, not a lot of empty outlines), and cost me about $100. That one was more expensive because it was at a studio that is more in demand and the artist is more well known in the area. The one on my right shoulder is pretty big, about 5" wide by 4" tall, a full color skull & crossbones a la Jack Rackham. I actually didn't pay for this one because it was a favor owed to my dad by the artist, but I estimate that if I had paid for it, it would have cost in the neighborhood of $300.

I have a fairly high pain threshold. The one on my back and my shoulder hardly hurt at all. The one on my chest hurt like a bitch, especially when he got near my collarbone. If you are sensitive to pain, don't put it in places where bones are close to the skin.
posted by starvingartist at 6:35 PM on April 2, 2010

everything ibechase said.

Elaborating on e. a little bit:

Most reputable tattoo artists have a min-charge for breaking out a brand new needle, putting on gloves, and opening ink. Even if you want a mole tattoo that is 1 tiny dot, you will still probably have to pay this min charge. Good tattoo artists usually set that at $50-$70. If someone quotes you less, unless they you have heard they are excellent and have seen their portfolio, I would probably look for someone else.

Beyond the min charge, I don't think you're looking at much at all since it's very simple and small. I would look at spending no less than $50 and no more than $100.

Shouldn't take more than 30 minutes once it's traced onto your skin.
posted by ttyn at 6:36 PM on April 2, 2010

a/b: ibechase is correct. every time i've gone i've had an exact copy of what i want - except for once, when i had an easy straighforward idea (reset button). the artists were totally happy to copy my printout. i'm sure most would rather have you know *exactly* what you want rather than someone giving them vague ideas and forcing them to sketch out something they can't understand.

c. see if you can scale it down on your printer first. they put tracing paper over the design, and who knows if they'll have a scanner/copier to scale it down for you. freehand might alter the design a little based on the skill of the artist. i think i had one drawing blown up 20-30% without issue, but it probably depends on the place.

d. near the elbow? keep in mind that depending on your career and any future career, some places still frown upon showing tattoos, and a short sleeved shirt wouldn't cover that. i'm sure you've probably already thought of that. i'd do it higher up towards the shoulder but it's your arm and your happiness.

e. between 80-300 dollars and less than 1.5 hours is all i could tell you. ibechase is right, it varies.
posted by kpht at 6:37 PM on April 2, 2010

My tattoo is a line graph traced from a pdf pulled from a website. The guy at The Tattoo Factory in Chicago was happy to skrink the image down on their copier. He then traced it onto some velum and then onto the inside of my right arm below my elbo.w It didn't hurt to bad and it took about 40 min for me to pick out the design and get it shrunk right and about 20 min under the needle. It cost me and the fiance $80 I think. I love my tattoo.

On preview:

What rtha said. I want another one real bad after getting my first.
posted by Uncle at 6:40 PM on April 2, 2010

As far as how discreet it will be: I have a tattoo on my inner left forearm, up near the elbow. It's just black ink, about 1.5 inches wide, 3 inches long. I've had it for about 11 years. Some people notice it right away, my old boss didn't notice it for almost a year. I'm a girl, and I usually wear short or 3/4 legnth sleeves (so it's visible about 90% of the time).

I also vote go bigger. You're gonna lose a lot of detail when you shrink that.

Don't go for the cheapest artist, go for the best. Ask around. You won't care that you paid double the price when it still looks good 10 years from now.
posted by AlisonM at 6:40 PM on April 2, 2010

I agree with just about everything posted here, but would still like to add my own perspective (speaking as a guy with several tattoos). Go to a tattoo studio and ask them, politely, all the things you've asked us. "I would like this exact design at this size, here. Is that doable? If so, how much?"

I've only had to do it once, but I went in to a studio a few blocks from me to ask some questions. The guys were short in manner, somewhat abrasive, and didn't listen to my questions - so they didn't get my business. If you get that experience from some shop then just leave. There are probably plenty more that will gladly give you the customer experience you desire and deserve. These people are used to dealing with first-time questions.

Finally, when you go in, don't forget it's a tattoo studio (not a parlor) and the thing they use to make it is a tattoo machine (not gun). Most people would advise not slipping up and calling either of those things by the wrong name.
posted by komara at 6:41 PM on April 2, 2010

I've only had to do it once

and by "it" I mean "leave a shop because they were rude." Sorry, that didn't come out well.
posted by komara at 6:42 PM on April 2, 2010

Somewhere I have a Real Picture, but in the profile photo for my flickr stream, you can see the tattoo I have on my left forearm. It's about five inches from wingtip to wingtip. I knew I wanted it on my left forearm, but my tattoo guy was very helpful about advising where, and what orientation, and so on. He was very speedy - this one took about 45 minutes.
posted by rtha at 6:43 PM on April 2, 2010

I got my tattoo a few years ago. I had a friend design exactly what I wanted, minus one detail that my husband filled in.

I brought it to the shop about the size I wanted, and they were more than happy to oblige. Once the stencil was in place on my skin where I said I wanted it, I was asked if that was where I wanted it. Did I want it moved, even just a tad? It was perfect! But a good artist will happily move it five, six, ten times until it's in the exact place you want it on your body.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that not all designs lend themselves to being transferred to skin exactly exactly. I have a mermaid tattoo. I wanted a single color, line drawing --- nothing too fancy, but still somewhat detailed, feminine, and just overall pretty. My artist friend drew the mermaid at an angle where the head was up to the top of the left side of the page and the tail swooped down some to the right. The tattoo artists were actually really surprised at how good my friend's drawing was (my husband later pointed out that they probably get a lot of, "My friend drew this for me," stuff from people on a napkin from the bar the night before. My friend is actually an artist by trade), and the drawing looked great just as it was on paper. But despite how good even the tattoo artists thought it was, the one who did my tattoo suggested making it a little more up and down on my skin rather than at the same angle for many reasons that I don't remember but were really valid. I also wanted a light blue ink for the lines, but the artist said light blue ink is usually the first to fade and wouldn't be the best choice. He suggested, since I was going for so girly it hurts, purple instead. So that's what I got, and the artist I used being full of awesome, added some lovely white shading to it. I trusted the artist to know what he was talking about and took his suggestions on those points. I have exactly what I want, even if it was a little different from my original intentions.

So while, yes, you should be able to get the exact design you want, you may wish to listen to modifications of that design in order to make it appear the best on your skin. But those suggestions should include minor modifications such as mine and not outright changes in the entire design. A good artist will give you what you want, but be open to suggestions. Art that looks great on paper may not look so great on the skin. A good, experience artist will know this and will tell you as much, but then will tell you how to adjust it so that it will look good on your skin.

Also, I was asked by my artist, "First tattoo?"
I said, "First and only!"
He, the second artist, the guy finishing his half sleeve, and the shop assistant/manager laughed at me. My artist said, "That's what you think now!"
Nearly four years later, I'm ready to get my second! So beware!)
posted by zizzle at 6:45 PM on April 2, 2010

Bicep would be more discreet than forearm. Although I think it'd look best to one side of your abdomen, right above your belt line (assuming you don't have too much of a belly.
posted by nathancaswell at 6:53 PM on April 2, 2010

(a) The process is that they photocopy the design onto transfer paper, transfer the design to the skin, and then ink over the transferred design. Run screaming from any tattoo artist who indicates that (s)he'll work with the needle directly on the skin without a transfer step. ["Freehand tattooing" properly refers to drawing on the skin with a pen or marker of some sort, then inking; it does not refer to working on unmarked skin with the tattoo machine.]

(b) No. Nobody is going to complain about it. You walk in with the original design, you pay them, they go through the procedure mentioned above, you tip them ($20 or 5-10%), and you walk out. Everybody's happy.

(c) The number one complaint of people who've gotten tattoos (and don't regret the tattoo itself) is that they wish they'd gotten it bigger. A big, bold tattoo is a beautiful thing of which you can be proud. A little, timid tattoo just looks like you're ashamed of it.

(d) The inside of your forearm is not discreet. Other than that, I have no comment.

(e) Somewhere in the neighborhood of $100-200, and it would likely take about an hour.
posted by Netzapper at 7:24 PM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your skin is a medium. A good tattoo artist knows how to work with that medium. When you pick an image printed on 2-dimensional paper and want to translate it onto a 3-dimensional porous, flexible surface, there are going to be differences. A good tattoo artist knows how to work with those differences and make them translate well. Find someone whose style (not necessarily content) you like. Talk to them and listen to their suggestions. They may feel that small, fine lines on a sun-exposed part of your body won't age well based on your skin type, the size of the tattoo, or whatever. I'd consider it and think about it for as long as you need to.

Also, remember that it's body art. I have two rather large tattoos...there are parts of them I wish were tweaked a bit differently, but I also think there's no such thing as perfect. If those things changed, I'd probably find something finer-grained to pick on. The nature of humans perhaps. But then again, nobody is looking at The Last Supper and saying, "Gee, you know, it really bugs me how his right arm is all bent at the elbow like that! I wish it were just a bit straighter. And his shirt should be more vermillion!"

In other words, it's custom art, just go do it and love it...beautiful and imperfect.

Me personally, I am really, really glad I can easily cover up my tattoos. This has made career, travel to culturally diverse and/or conservatives places, and the sun things I can enjoy without much hassle. I'd really recommend considering never know what you'll get into down the road and you don't want to be getting ready for some spontaneous event and scrambling to find a Ross or a Walgreens so you can pick up a longsleeve shirt or a bandage and fake-injury story!
posted by iamkimiam at 7:37 PM on April 2, 2010

2.5 inches is too small for that design. It ought to be done size-as or even a bit larger, and curve around a limb.

Myself, I'd put the dragon wings up the back of a calf muscle and exten the dragon around from there.

Then, when you get the itch later, those mountains will make a dandy frieze a few inches above it!
posted by zadcat at 7:49 PM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Maybe this isn't as great of an idea as I think it is, but you could try getting a henna version to try out the location and scale. I think I've seen some tattoo studios that offer both henna and actual tattoos. Otherwise, I agree with the folks above. My little tattoo cost $60, the minimum for any tattoo, even though it might have taken all of 20 minutes from nothing to done. My only gripe: the edges aren't sharp, but I think that's the nature of tattoos.

One other thought: if you want something small in a place that could be visible, how about your wrist? You could cover it with a watch, or display it. Mine is on the underside of my left wrist, and folks at work didn't notice for a while (I'm a guy, and I wear long sleeve shirts most days). And I'm amongst those who have one tattoo now, but am thinking about what and where to get the second (and third =)
posted by filthy light thief at 8:29 PM on April 2, 2010

My only gripe: the edges aren't sharp, but I think that's the nature of tattoos.

That's the nature of tattoos.

A general rule of thumb is this: the finest solid line that you can get is roughly the width you'd get drawing on yourself with a regular disposable ballpoint pen. You can ink it thinner, but that's about the width that it's going to heal to.

And the edges of all tattoos are slightly fuzzy. If there's a blown-out "halo" around it all, then the artist probably didn't do a very good job. But you'll never, ever get print-sharp edges on a tattoo.
posted by Netzapper at 8:37 PM on April 2, 2010

Response by poster: These are all such great, well-thought answers! Thanks so much, all of you!

I'm not married to the location (inside of left forearm near the elbow). I guess I like that location because I pretty much always wear long-sleeve shirts at work, and even when I roll the sleeves up, I just roll them up to mid-forearm. So it would be easily concealable, but I could also easily show it if I wanted to. Also, I could see it.

I think I pretty much have the info I need. My next step will be to swing by a few studios (thanks komara!) and chat. But feel free to chime in if anyone has any further thoughts!

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 8:52 PM on April 2, 2010

You didn't mention if you're bringing a friend with you when you get the tat. I would. It's nice to have someone else's perspective, even if you don't take any of their suggestions. Also, the first one hurts, sometimes, and it's nice to have someone cheering you on. =)

And yeah, to the "first and only"... I've got six first and onlies.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:23 PM on April 2, 2010

As someone who has a forearm tattoo, I'd suggest finding a more discrete location. It's not a huge deal for me. My tattoo is pretty simple, like yours. But it's kind of a hassle for me to cover it up when necessary. For example, I always have to wear long sleeve shirts to job interviews, and I had to wear a sweater over my beautiful wedding gown in order to look respectable at my Catholic wedding.

As for your other questions, ibechase got them right. The cost for my basic black tattoo was $40, I think, but that was 10 years ago at a shop in a small town. I don't know what pricing is like where you live, but you should definitely go for quality over price. Get recommendations for a good artist, and pay whatever he/she charges. This thing is going to be on your body for the rest of your life, so you want to be sure that you're getting quality work.
posted by lexicakes at 9:27 PM on April 2, 2010

The number one complaint of people who've gotten tattoos (and don't regret the tattoo itself) is that they wish they'd gotten it bigger. A big, bold tattoo is a beautiful thing of which you can be proud. A little, timid tattoo just looks like you're ashamed of it.

Truer words have never been spoken. And I'd agree with the advice that forearm tattoos are not totally discreet, even if you normally wear long sleeve shirts to work. Vacations, travel, and pseudo-casual situations (like a warm-weather conference location with your boss) are all places where you might wish you had either the option of hiding it, or of it being so big and in your face that you can show it with pride. Small and semi-hidden is often not very ideal.
posted by Forktine at 12:31 AM on April 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've got a tattoo on my wrist that multiple people have somehow missed for YEARS. As in employers, future brother-in-law, friends and family. That said, forearm is not discreet as almost any position you put your arm in, it will show.
posted by geek anachronism at 12:56 AM on April 3, 2010

I LOVE your tattoo idea. [And want to steal it, as have been looking for cool dragons forever] If you're interested in discreet tattoos that can be larger maybe you should think about having a white tattoo. I have two of them and love them. I have olive/tanned skin and they look like brandings.

And FWIW the one I had done down my left forearm was relatively painless until tattoo man got to my wrist. Half an hour of work on my wrist area felt like I was being scissored/stabbed etc. Watching the needle seems to work better than looking away in my experience.
posted by honey-barbara at 3:50 AM on April 3, 2010

My own tattoo experiences:

yes to "I wish I'd gotten it bigger". I have an eensy-weensy ladybug on my right upper arm, and all I can think when I see it is "all that valuable tattoo real estate, and now I have to work a ladybug into future designs."

long, straight lines hurt more than shading. It felt like a razor blade being dragged down my arm (which I suppose is, essentially, what happened).

You'll SAY you'll only get one. I am currently contemplating #3.
posted by Lucinda at 5:57 AM on April 3, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks Honey-Barbara! The Hobbit was the first book I ever read, when I was six I think. My dad, a boat captain, read the first two chapters to me then left on one of his trips, so I struggled my way through the rest of it. Then read and re-read the Lord of the Rings about a jillion times. Also I am currently reading the hobbit to MY kids.
posted by Alaska Jack at 9:56 AM on April 3, 2010

For my part: I have had a tribal lizard tattoo for three months, in this exact location. Every response I've had thus far has been positive. I would not consider the "discrete" aspect significant.

My 'tat took 45 minutes and cost $80 plus tip. (I tip heavy because I expect to come back.) Scaled down to the size you're contemplating, it would be less than that.

And, yes, my tattoist worked directly from a transferred image of the design I created. An artist who works freehand in this medium is a dope.
posted by SPrintF at 10:00 AM on April 3, 2010

An important factor to remember in size of tattoos is that the smaller they are, the less likely you'll still see the same level of definition 10+ years down the road. 2 1/2 inches is awfully small for that tattoo, and I wouldn't put it on my forearm if I was seeking to look discrete. I definitely agree with the advice that you don't want to go to the cheapest person who will do it. I also refuse to get tattooed by someone who isn't nice to me. A good artist will explain why your ideas might not work, and give you solutions to offset that.
posted by Zophi at 12:08 PM on April 3, 2010

For what it's worth: I have a dragon down my right forearm, about 5 inches long and the width of my wrist. I've had it since 1996 and people I've known for years still ask me if it's new. It's not exactly small and certainly not hidden, but for some reason no one ever notices it.

You're on to something when you say "Also, I could see it." Out of the 5 I have, this dragon is definitely my favorite, probably because it's the only one I can actually see well.
posted by Eumachia L F at 4:05 PM on April 3, 2010

I think that is a great idea for a tattoo. I have thought about getting that same exact dragon before. I don't have any experience with tattoos, just wanted to say that it would be great if you could put up a picture once its all done :) Good luck!
posted by MaHaGoN at 9:09 PM on April 3, 2010

you could try getting a henna version to try out the location and scale

I realize this is a bit of a derail, but for the record, working with henna is very unlike working with tattoo needles. One isn't a substitute for the other; as a general rule, if you can't picture a design on ceramic, it isn't a likely candidate for henna. (Though the reverse isn't necessarily true; there are tattoo artists out there who do spectacular mehndi-inspired work.)

If you want to experiment with the placement of a design, it's a lot less trouble just to try an ultrafine Sharpie.
posted by tangerine at 1:56 PM on April 9, 2010

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