Tattoo prep for newbies?
June 1, 2019 11:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm prepping for my first tattoo. I have a question or two, and want to know what I might have forgotten.

(The last "help me prep for my tattoo" question is from 2012, so I'm asking this in case there's new info.)

So I've been considering a tattoo for more than a year, and then about 4 or 5 months ago really got to "Yes, I am doing this." And I:

-- Searched the internet and Instagram for tattoo artists.
-- Narrowed down my design idea and found artists who work in that style.
-- Queried a bunch of them (most of whom are so busy they don't even respond). But one did, and we talked via email about my design idea and how much it would cost. We made an appointment for August.
-- Then she had a cancellation and this is now happening next week. So it feels sudden that I'm turning my attention to it right this second, when I'd expected to be waiting longer. However, I've determined that I am a normal amount of nervous about the process, and not having legit second thoughts.

Does all that sound good so far? Expert tattoo people, is there anything in the above that sets off a red flag for you?

Questions moving forward:
-- I know to avoid aspirin, be well rested and well hydrated. Is there anything else I should know?
-- Body part is my inner forearm, below my elbow and above my wrist. Anything specific to that area I need to know?
-- My tattoo will cost between $400 - $500, depending on size, which we'll decide that day when I'm actually looking at her design vs. the length of my arm. Do I need to include a tip on top of this? I think she might be a co-owner of the shop but I can't quite tell from their onine presence. If yes, what amount or percentage, at that price point?
-- What else do I need to consider?

posted by BlahLaLa to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Eat something sweet beforehand. Besides that, you've got it covered. It's not so bad. It will hurt sometimes. Eventually it will feel like more of a scrape--sharp, vibrating, but not necessarily painful.

posted by Amy93 at 11:51 AM on June 1 [2 favorites]

- I have a tattoo in my inner forearm. As Amy93 said, it did hurt at first but stopped being painful. It just became more boring than anything. I don't recall having to do anything in particular in preparation. You'll have to keep it covered for awhile after. They'll probably have some specific advice about how to treat the area when you're done.
- Do you know what her design looks like? Don't be afraid to speak up if you're not thrilled about it when you do see it, considering it's going on your body forever.
- I always tip my tattoo artists 20-30%
- Good luck!! I'm excited for you. I haven't gotten any new tattoos in a few years but I still love love love the ones I do have.
posted by thebots at 12:04 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]

ALSO: aquaphor for 2-3 days, then regular lotion. Let it breathe. Try not to cover it while it's healing. It will be beautiful, get ugly again, and then it will settle and be beautiful. Slap, don't scratch. Full healing takes about a month but the first two weeks are the hardest.
posted by Amy93 at 12:07 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

Definitely tip. I usually do 20% but it depends on how much extra work is involved. Don't feel bad being picky about size + placement before you start. You're paying for that time, too, and you want to make sure it's how you want it. Some people are ok to watch it happening, some not. Some people like bringing their own music, some not. Sometimes the artist will play their own, and you can chat with them or not. Try not to tense your body up and if you feel anxious or worn down from any pain watch your breathing and you can zone out to help relax. But you'll be fine and feel great when it's finished. Oh and bring snacks/ask for break if you need one. Have fun!
posted by PaulaSchultz at 12:08 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

Inner forearm is one of the less painful places to be tattooed--you might keep this in mind when considering future tattoos.

Wear a loose-fitting, natural-fiber short-sleeve (or sleeveless) shirt to the appointment.

Yes, you should tip. For a $400-$500 tattoo, let's say a reasonable range is $50 minimum, up to about 20%--more than 25% would be generous, and not tipping isn't great, especially considering that you might want to get touch-ups, or more tattoos, from this person in the future.

Before you get the tattoo, the artist will most likely shave the tattoo spot. Most artists will use a stencil to mark where they'll place the tattoo--if the placement isn't ideal, now's the time to say so.

As they're tattooing, a good artist will check on how you're doing, whether you need to take a little break, etc. Be honest--you don't get bonus points for being extra-tough. For $400 or $500, you're probably in for at least an hour of work, probably more like two or three.

The artist will put a bandage of some kind over the tattoo (don't be alarmed if it's something like plastic wrap secured with medical tape), and they'll probably tell you to remove it after a few hours.

At that point, you'll wash the tattoo with mild, unscented soap (Dial's a common recommendation). Depending on your age, immune system, etc., the new tattoo will probably be sensitive for a few days after--keep it away from bright sunlight, keep your bedding clean (cotton's probably best), etc. Plan to take it easy, physical-activity-wise, for at least a week or so.

For the first few days, use thin layers of something like Aquaphor. Don't be alarmed if you see excess ink 'weep' out. After a few days, it'll start to scab. Don't scratch, don't pick, don't try to moisturize the scab away--just use light layers of moisturizing (again, unscented) lotion (I like Lubriderm).

Or, just listen to the artist's instructions about aftercare--they're probably better than mine.
posted by box at 12:10 PM on June 1 [6 favorites]

instead of scratching it when it itches, and it will certainly itch as it heals, give it a whack with a basic plastic flyswatter.

and yes, definitely tip.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:17 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]

Yes. Always tip your artist.

Eat a good meal a bit before hand. Bring a drink. Also consider bringing a sugary or carb snack like some fruit.

It will hurt most getting close to your “ditch” (inner elbow) and a bit toward your wrist. Otherwise inner forearm is one of the easier places. However being your first tattoo It will take a minute to get used to the sensation. Each artist also tattoos differently.

I would describe it as your skin being turned raw with a dull knife. FUN! But manageable. Sometimes it goes numb.

BREATHE!!! You gotta take slow deep breaths. Don’t clench up or hold your breath. It makes it hurt more and makes you light headed.

Don’t be afraid to ask for a breather OR to tap out and finish it during another session.

Consider bringing a friend with you. Especially if you may want to not drive home.

Your forearm is an area that will swell like crazy and you may look like Popeye for a few days.

Different artists recommend different healing methods and use different wraps when you leave. Look into some of them.

But gets some unscented anti bacterial soap, aquaphor, unscented lotion (I use aveeno or cetaphi) and NON STICK gauze pads and tape.

I personally prefer if they use the non stick absorbent pads and then wrap it really well to help the swelling. I leave that wrap on overnight then gently wash it and re wrap with fresh plastic wrap or non stick gauze pads. I prefer the non stick pads to sleep in as they are breathable. I keep it wrapped for a couple days then do lotions and ointment. (Changing the wrapping and washing it twice a day.)

Don’t soak it. Don’t keep it out in the sun without sunscreen and it needs to be healed pretty well before you can smother it in sunscreen.

Don’t pick at it. Don’t scratch it. If it itches, slap it lightly.

Again, a lot of the specific healing stuff will vary from person to person because our bodies are all different. So get yourself supplies to try a few of them.
posted by Crystalinne at 12:26 PM on June 1

Forearm is not too bad. Everywhere hurts, but it's bearable. You will be fine. Eat a good meal beforehand, bring some candy or fruit or donuts or something like that.

Do what your artist says for aftercare.

Tip about 20%.
posted by so fucking future at 12:59 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

There's a debate as old as time about whether it's better to cover it with saniderm for as long as you can keep it on (usually ~5 days) or dry heal (without covering it at all after the initial plastic wrap comes off). It's kinda just a personal preference, but be aware that people have very strong opinions about it.

A lot of artists only accept cash, so you might want to take out the maximum you might pay with tip in advance so you're not stuck searching for an ATM, or ask the artist what she accepts.
posted by quiet coyote at 1:16 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

Also, no pot (will make you focus on the tattooing) and no alcohol (thins your blood). If you need to get up and move around to release your adrenaline mid work, that’s fine. When I had my backpiece done, my artist made me jog around the block as my leg kept involuntarily kicking her.
posted by MountainDaisy at 1:23 PM on June 1

You may feel sore and/or tired afterwards, so don't make any plans for the rest of the day after getting your tattoo, if you can manage it. Drink plenty of water and eat a good meal afterwards, and get some rest.

Also, your tattoo may 'bleed' ink and ooze plasma for a few days. This can ruin your bedsheets, so put old sheets you don't care about on your bed. Select your outfits with care for a few days, too: nothing that will stick to your skin, nothing that oozing ink might stain too badly.
posted by halation at 1:28 PM on June 1

Our artist uses Tegaderm and advises, leave it on until it falls off and then follow the aftercare instructions from there. If yours does, follow the instructions... it'll look AWFUL and gooey and terrible, but every single piece that my wife and I have had done where they've used Tegaderm has skipped much of the really gnarly peeling stage and looked fantastic, FWIW.

One thing that's not been mentioned yet: you never notice how much you bump into your inner arm on a daily basis (getting dressed, putting on bags, sitting with your arms on your legs typing like I currently am [see also, my wrist tattoos, whoops]) until you effectively have a large wound there (source: my inner arm tattoos :p). If you're at all clumsy, like me, you'll want to be more mindful of your movement for a week or so, until they're less tender, and (try) not to bump into things more than you can help.

A couple of folks have mentioned sun. You're going to want long sleeves outside for a week or two (see also, the large piece on my inner inner arm). Again, large wound + sun = hurts, and sun's not good for your ink, either.

You won't be able to go swimming / hot tubbing for a week or two afterwards; check your aftercare sheet for your artist's specific recommendation.
posted by joycehealy at 1:31 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]

Aquaphor is the default recommendation for tattoo aftercare but it does have lanolin in it, so an allergic reaction is possible. Best to buy it and test beforehand just in case. Personally I get rash of little tiny raised bumps on my tattoo and on the skin around it when I use Aquaphor. Some people get this from putting too much on but I get it even when I use a tiny bit. So don't freak out if this happens, just scale back or switch moisturizers. I prefer coconut or olive oil (tattoo artists have mixed feelings on those but they work for me and I have a lot of tattoos).

Or your artist might use Second Skin, in which case this is all irrelevant. Second Skin is super easy to care for.
posted by 100kb at 1:44 PM on June 1

I like green soap for cleaning (diluted with water) but Johnson and Johnson First Aid wash works well too, and then Aquaphor for the first 4-5 days then unscented Lubriderm. I leave mine wrapped for 2 hours then unwrap and clean gently. Remember to pat dry after a shower. I take 4 ibuprofen prior to and after a session. No Tylenol or aspirin. Lots of water. Wrist hurts but the inner elbow is god awful. I have synthetic sleeves for my arm because I live in a sunny, hot area and I refuse to wear long-sleeved shirts for 3 months out of the summer while my sleeve heals. Always tip. Don’t swim for several weeks to a month (ask me how I know, and how much money I had to spend after a tattoo got infected because I *had* to go surfing that afternoon).

Source: full sleeve on left arm, two giant rib pieces, working through full sleeve on right arm now; inked since 2008.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 2:12 PM on June 1

You might be over-thinking this in anticipation. I got a tattoo in that exact location with zero prep on a whim with about 60 minutes notice (no regrets!) It wasn't painful -- in fact, I really enjoyed it. I did nothing special beforehand, and I used Aquaphor after. My skin is dry, and I applied goop about 27 times a day for a week because the tattoo itched.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:48 PM on June 1

When I got my forearm tattoo, my dog kept trying to lick it because I assume my leaked plasma is delicious? Generally, if you have animals you should try your best to keep them away from it when you are healing. Animal hair (sort of like human hair I guess) can carry a lot of cooties, and it is very easy for animals to transfer bacteria to humans via saliva.
posted by BeeJiddy at 5:41 PM on June 1

I like coconut oil for tattoos while they're healing. My tattooist who put me onto this pointed out that food-grade means safe for your skin. If that's not what you go for, get something really basic. Whatever you do, do not use aloe - it can negatively impact the color.

And yes, definitely tip.

Good luck!
posted by bile and syntax at 5:42 PM on June 1

Yes tip, make sure you have something in your stomach before you walk in the door. I’ve got tattoos were you’re getting tattooed, it hurts less than most everywhere else, but the closer you are to the inner elbow the more sensitive it gets. If they go over the crease in your inner elbow (elegantly referred to as “the ditch”) that will be extra painful and take forever to goddamned heal. Heads up.

Other practical stuff- the artist will probably only set up once you get there- so tack on an extra hour or two of time for what you’re expecting to spend at the shop that day.

If you’re trying to decide between a little bigger or smaller- always go bigger.

The healing process is grrrrroooosssss. First it gets slimey and weepy for a few days, then it gets scabby and itchy for a week or more, then glassy for maybe a month give or take before it settles into what it’s going to look like. Pay attention to the warning signs for infection. They are even grosser than normal healing. Some color might “fall out” meaning there could be a spot or two were the color will disapear. The tattoo artist will let you know about a free touch up after it heals (take her up on it, also tip after that).

That’s all I can think of. Enjoy.
posted by Blisterlips at 6:43 PM on June 1

Your thoughts are not raising any red flags for me (several tattoos).

I agree with other comments:

- Eat beforehand. Bring sugary snacks (lollipops) and beverages (gatorade). Keeping your blood sugar up is important - people can and do pass out from low blood sugar getting piercings/tattoos.
- Tell your artist immediately if you feel lightheaded or nauseous or not ok.
- Pay in cash. Yes, tip. 20-25% ish.
- I get bumps around my healing tattoos - this is normal and itchy. Don't scratch them. I have sent pictures of the bumps to the artist to make sure they were normal - feel free to do the same if anything looks weird to you. A good artist (which it sounds like you have) will want to know if you have any questions or problems afterwards.
- I kept them covered the first 24 hours or so, and I didn't have any problems with ink "weeping" onto bedsheets or towels. Or maybe I did, but they all washed out no problem.
- First tattoo, I would bring a friend. It's a lot of excitement and adrenaline, and it can be painful, so the distraction and the ride home is fine.
- Healing: each artist recommends something different. I've healed mine "dry" - so washing in the shower with gentle unscented soap, patting dry, then nothing, no lotion, no nothing. This may or may not be what your artist recommends - listen to them, not me.
- Stay out of the sun and water (pool, ocean, baths, etc) for a few weeks. Sunscreen majorly after - tattoos will fade.

Good luck and enjoy your (first) tattoo!
posted by Ms Vegetable at 7:04 PM on June 1

Just in case you're like me and "loose-fitting sleeves" somehow describes none of your clothes, I stumbled on using SPF shirts for fisherpeople. Specifically Free Fly brand. They fit the bill so well! Aquaphor seems to wash out of them pretty easily. You'll need to wash them after each sleep because they'll get gross overnight.

Once you're healed, they double as SPF protection to keep your ink crisp!
posted by Drosera at 5:05 AM on June 2

Yes, TIP. The only way I wouldn't tip is if they explicitly say they are a tip-free shop.

Make sure you get sleep the night before, and make sure you don't go in hungry. Bring a protein bar if you're worried about getting hungry mid-session.

Follow whatever aftercare advice the tattoo artist gives you. The shop I go to posts the following aftercare advice:
Remove bandage after 2-6 hours. If bandage sticks to tattoo wet the area with lukewarm water and slide the bandage off.

Wash the area gently with mild, unscented soap and water (Dial, Dove), using clean hands and making sure to remove all excess ointment, blood and ink. Pat dry with a clean towel. DO NOT SCRUB.

Apply a VERY THIN LAYER of Aquaphor ointment 2-3 times a day for 2-3 days.

After that, apply a mild fragrance-free moisturizing lotion, until the tattoo settles into the skin (3 weeks to one month). Curel or Euccerin work well.


I've followed this to the letter every tattoo and mine all healed without peeling, flaking, excess itching, or anything else.
posted by Medieval Maven at 10:08 AM on June 2 [2 favorites]

I just wanted to emphasize: SNACKS. I mean, I overpack food for everything, and I like big tattoos (so they take a while), but I always bring snacks and lots of water. Take breaks if/when you need them.
posted by linettasky at 5:11 PM on June 2

You're going to want to put a towel down on your bed on the side where you're getting the tattoo. This will help you not ruin the sheets with whatever ointment you're putting on (e.g. Aquaphor), any weepiness in the first couple days (gross, but normal), and then the scabby, peely stage (Fruity Pebbles).

Enjoy your new tattoo! I just got tattooed in that same spot about a month ago and it wasn't bad at all compared to other places. The side of the wrist was probably the worst part, and that wasn't bad, just weird nerve pain.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:11 AM on June 3

Thanks everybody - it went great! It was so nonpainful that I legit kept falling asleep (the perfect amount of heat coming off the lamp helped - it was like lying in the sun on a beautiful day). And I love my tattoo!
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:27 PM on June 5 [4 favorites]

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