A guide to getting your first tattoo and beyond

alternately: Tatwho? Tatyou!

Tattoos: An oversimplified explanation

Your skin is made up of three layers

The Epidermis

The top layer of your skin. This is what sheds, peels, etc.

The Dermis

Connective tissue composed of collagen fibers, nerves, blood vessels, and more!

The needle deposits the ink into this layer of the skin — which means that it's basically just getting a really specific and pretty looking injury. The white blood cells in your body attempt to absorb and dispose of the foreign particles in the blood stream. However, tattoo pigment particles are too big to be eaten by the white cells, so they just hang out there.

The Hypodermis

Mostly made up of fat tissue — if the needle hits this layer, it's gone too far and this can lead to blowout, which we'll discuss later.

How does tattoo removal work?

My very rudimentary understanding is that the laser targets the pigment particles, breaking them up until they're small enough to get carried away by white blood cells.

A very brief history of an ancient art

Tattoos have been around for millennia — longer than any existing culture.

  • Evidence of tattooing is nearly as old as writing itself.
  • Sumerian cuneiform was used between 3400 and 3300 BCE
  • The oldest examples we have of tattoos on Otzi the Iceman were created between 3400 and 3100 BCE. He has ~61 tattoos!
  • There is evidence of ancient tattoo practices all over the planet.
  • Many of these practices had deep cultural and symbolic significance.
  • Tattooing in the USA

    Indigenous tattoo traditions

    Indigenous peoples in North America have been tattooing for generations, with one set of tattooing tools discovered in Tennessee dating between 3500 to 1600 BCE.

    When early European explorers arrived on the continent they made observations about tattooed Indigenous people, describing the markings and modifications on their bodies. As colonists introduced and enforced new standards for acceptable behavior and appearances, many tattoo traditions were lost and pushed to the brink of erasure — however, some have survived and are seeing a resurgence in the present day!

    A Yupik woman photographed in the early 1900s

    The photo on the left comes from this article, which has more information about Indigenous American tattoo revival!

    19th century forward

    Jacob Hildebrandt, with work that was likely done by Martin


  • Martin Hildebrandt, a German immigrant and the first documented professional tattooer in the USA, arrives to Boston
  • He tattooed Civil War soldiers and sailors, often as identification in case they were killed in action
  • There's almost no confirmed information on Martin's life. We aren't even sure who Jacob Hildebrandt or Nora Hildebrandt, a famous tattooed lady who later became a sideshow act.
  • 1891

  • Samuel O'Reilly patents the first electric tattoo machine — making tattooing easier and faster, which allowed the art to increase in popularity
  • His first, pre-patent machine was made from a modified dental plugger — he later modified Thomas Edison's electric pen
  • Most modern tattoo machines can control needle depth speed, and force of application which has enabled artists incredible precision with their work
  • Maud Wagner, c. 1907

    Early 20th century

  • One in ten Americans have at least one tattoo in some form or another
  • During the 19th and early 20th centuries, tattoos definitely were not considered acceptable and tattooed people even performed in sideshows ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 
  • Norman Keith Collins (aka Sailor Jerry) one of his flash sheets

    Mid to late 20th century

  • Tattooing experienced a "renaissance" during the mid-20th century as practitioners like Sailor Jerry, Ed Hardy, Lyle Tuttle, and more developed their craft
  • During the 1960s and 1970s, tattoos became a symbol of counterculture and resistance — the demographic of tattooed people began to away from bikers, gang members, and sailors
  • You, too, can have tattoos and be the highest paid actor in the world!

    21st century

    Tattoos are part of the mainstream

  • Millions watch TV shows like Inked, Miami Ink, LA Ink, and Ink Master
  • Celebrity tattoos are dime a dozen — you even have celebrity tattooers!
  • Around one third of all Americans have at least one tattoo
  • Some other interesting things to look into

  • Tattoos and the American military
  • Tattoo traditions around the world
  • Some places to start...
  • Filipino
  • Polynesian & Micronesian
  • Japanese
  • Cambodian & Thai
  • Taiwanese
  • ...and more — there are tattoo traditions on every continent!
  • Tattoo trends throughout the decades
  • Who has tattoos?

    Approximately one third of all Americans — but the proportion for each generation varies a lot!

    The vast majority of people do not regret their tattoos

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Does it hurt?

    Yeah. But probably not in the way that you're thinking.

    Different areas hurt more or less for different people! For me, the inner bicep and near the elbow was a huge bummer but the ribcage was very tolerable.

    How much does it cost?

    A lot (a lot of the time).

    Do you regret any of your tattoos?

    No. But we'll talk about what to do if you do.

    What do your parents think?

    Not stoked, but it could be worse.

    What does it mean?

    That I like nature imagery, for the most part.

    Why did you get [insert] tattoo?

    The same reason you should (or shouldn't) get any tattoo — because I wanted to!


    What do you call the person who gives you the tattoo?

  • Tattoo artist
  • Tattooer
  • Tattooist
  • What do you call the place where you get the tattoo?

  • Tattoo shop
  • Tattoo studio
  • Not a tattoo parlor!

    What is the thing the artist uses to make the tattoo called?

    A tattoo machine — or a needle, if it's handpoke!

    Not a tattoo gun!

    Things that will probably happen after you get a tattoo

    You won't be able to get certain jobs.

    Not as relevant for this crowd, but there are some companies and industries that don't allow visible tattoos and others that don't allow you to have them even if they aren't visible (until last year, Disney employees weren't allowed to have dyed hair or tattoos).

    Here's Disney's Look Book

    An article about airline cabin crew tattoo regulations

    The taboo-ness of (visible) tattoos also varies a lot depending on region.

    People will ask you about them until you die.

    At least I assume so — I haven't died yet, but I do get asked a lot of questions.

  • Some people will use tattoos as a conversation starter in really weird ways — like to tell you that they want to get swole or to hit on you in the Personal Development section of Barnes and Noble 🧐
  • as long as it isn't a ⬆️ this ⬆️ situation, I don't mind (and actually really enjoy) talking about my tattoos

    You'll want more.

    They're addicting!!!!!!!!!


  • Content — what do you want to get?
  • Aesthetics — what artistic style do you want the tattoo to be done in?
  • Artist — who do you want to perform the tattoo?
  • Placement — where do you want the tattoo to go?
  • Timing — when do you want to get the tattoo?
  • Budget — how much are you willing to pay (factoring in a ~20% tip)?
  • Choose your own adventure!


    Flash is pre-drawn work by the artist. Usually, they'll indicate whether or not the piece is repeatable (these days that's less common) and what the price is.

    Nowadays, most flash is posted on Instagram.


    Just like it sounds — these pieces are drawn and done just for you! Typically they're more expensive and you book them further out.

    The process of getting a custom tattoo varies from artist to artist, but the good ones will work with you to create something that you'll love forever.


    What do you want to get tattooed?

    Your imagination and budget are really the only limitations! We'll talk about this a few times, but great artists can make your vision come to life in a way that you'll love and maybe couldn't have anticipated for yourself.

    A note on tattoos that are or consist of text

    Due to the natural aging process of tattoos and the human body, text can be unreadable after a while depending on the style and thickness of the lines.

    If you get a tattoo in a loved one's thin, graceful handwriting and it might bother you that the appearance will be very different in a few decades, consider working with an artist to come up with a design that will age better.

    These are an example of how text might age — consider also that the wrist is a super bendy and active part of your body!

    You do not have to have a design figured out before approaching your artist!

    They're tattoo artists — they can bring your vision to life! Pick an artist whose work you love (more on this later) and thoroughly communicate what you want.

    How to communicate your vision

  • Send over reference imagery
  • Especially if there's a piece of that artist's work that you like!
  • Note: It's generally considered bad form to send another artist's work over as a reference. Some people don't care, but best to err on the side of caution here and not do it.
  • A real life example

    Here's the actual inquiry and the references that I submitted for one of my tattoos:

    Design Concept: I'm obsessed with the desert dreamscape flash that you did and I would love one with the same vibe, but the ridgeline/silhouette of Leahi (Diamond Head) as the focal point. I'd also like some sort of tropical floral imagery and maybe incorporate the ocean/sea life (baby whale or turtle?), but with that I'm pretty flexible with whatever you're inspired by!

    The design

    The tattoo

    This is really hard to get a photo of because it wraps


    Obviously, the aesthetics of your tattoo are extremely important. Here are a few things to consider as you decide what you'd like your tattoo to look like:

    "Bold will hold"

    According to u/Poochie_smoochie, this piece is 13 years old with no touch ups

    There's an adage in the tattoo industry that "bold will hold" — meaning, clean (thick) lines, bold shading, and solid color lasts the best. The skill and technique of your artist (and how you take care of yourself) will have the most influence over how your piece ages, but this can be good to keep in mind as you pick out a design.

    To color or not to color?

    This is totally up to you, but some things to consider:

  • Some people are allergic to certain colors (red being a common allergy)
  • Black is the easiest color to get lasered off
  • Color tends to age differently, especially if you have a lot of complex shading — this means you'll probably need more touch ups if you want to maintain the appearance of your piece
  • Artistic style

    As with most art forms, there's an extremely diverse range of tattoo styles. Most artists specialize in a particular style, but some are good at several.

    Trad(itional) & Neotraditional

    Also known as: old school, American traditional, Americana

    This is the style that is probably most associated with tattooing. Hallmarks of trad tattoos are bold lines and saturated colors — especially red.


    The main difference between neotrad and trad tends to be a broader color palette and range of subject materials in the former. There's a different "feel" to them but as with any artistic school the line can be kind of blurry.


    They're realistic. A lot of portraits fall into this category.




    Don't get a tribal tattoo if you aren't a member of that community!

    Orinii Kaipara, the first news anchor with a traditional Māori face tattoo (moko kauae for women, ta moko for men)

    Batok, the traditional Filipino tattoo

    Keone Nunes giving kakau, the traditional hand-tapped Hawaiian tattoo


    Blackwork + Geometric


    ...and more!

    Tattooing is an art — so the styles and genres are vast. If you can dream it, you can probably do it! The trick is finding the right artist to execute your vision (or theirs).


    Choosing an artist is by far the most important part of getting a tattoo. Who you choose is far more influential than any other factor because that informs the style and quality of the work!

    Finding an inspiration and artist

    Instagram is pretty much where the whole tattoo industry lives these days. Some artists will still have a physical portfolio book that you can flip through to see examples of their work, but these days it all mostly happens on Instagram.

    Some ways you can find inspiration and artists:

  • Search #[yourlocation]tattoo
  • If there's an artist whose work you like, look at who they follow
  • Look at a lot of tattoo content on the internet and let the algorithm do it's thing 😎
  • Never ask a tattoo artist to replicate another artist's work

    This is considered a pretty big no-no — most reputable artists won't agree to it.

    Handpoke vs. Machine

    Some artists do both, some specialize in one or the other.


    Also known as stick and poke

    Handpoke tattoos are generally gentler and take longer to apply than machine tattoos.

    If your friend is doing tattoos in their bathroom with something that looks like this, they're probably handpoked (and you probably shouldn't get one unless you don't care what the outcome is)


    Machine fasters are faster and more painful than handpoke. The number and thickness of the needles determines the width of the lines (and the ultimate look of the piece)

    Some things to consider

    What does their portfolio look like?

  • Does their style reflect what you like?
  • It sounds pretty obvious, but the work in their portfolio reflects what they probably want to do more of. Your vision doesn't necessarily have to align with that, but it can help you get an appointment faster if you want something that they're excited about.
  • Do they have healed pics? Can you find examples of their work that are more than 6 months old?
  • Do they display a variety of body types on their page?
  • For pre-drawn designs, do they give some examples of what those pieces could look like on a variety of skin tones?
  • How can you tell if they're good?

    Look at photos of their healed work!

  • Do you see blowout?
  • How clean are their lines? Look at the thickness as well as the straightness
  • YMMV depending on styles — the standard for minimalist vs. ignorant is very different here but the most important thing is consistency.
  • What styles do they specialize in?

    Pick an artist that is strong in the style that you like. Don't go to a trad artist if you want minimalist linework!

    How to book

  • Follow the artist's instructions — everyone does it differently. Definitely don't DM them, you'll probably never hear back.
  • Put down your deposit
  • WAIT 😭
  • Show up on time!!!!
  • You probably will not see your design until you arrive for the appointment. This is why communication and picking a good artist is so important — you need to trust them to execute!

  • You will be able to make changes to the design on the day of!
  • Placement

    There are many questions to consider when choosing the placement of your new piece:

    Where do you want it to go?

    This is the most obvious and important one. If you have your heart set on a certain placement, that's great! Do that — but also consider the following points ➡️

    How will it look with other things around it?

    If you're planning on getting more tattoos (especially large ones) then you'll want to be intentional. The biggest canvas on your body is your back!

    What will it look like when you're wearing clothing?

    This may sound weird, but bear with me! For many tattoos, this isn't much of a concern but it's worth thinking about just in case. Mainly think about how things will look like partially covered — does the meaning of the phrase you're getting change significantly if it's partially covered by a sleeve?

    Good artists will help you think through this, but you should always do your own prep.


    A guy I know got a simple tattoo of cherries on his outer upper arm. When he wears a short sleeve shirt, it covers everything but the bottom part of the fruits and looks... testicular 🙈

    How comfortable are you with people asking you about it?

    If it's something that you don't want to talk about much, then you probably don't want to place it somewhere super prominent. The only tattoos I have that don't get commented on/asked about regularly are the ones that you can't see.


  • Do not get a tattoo right before you do something or go somewhere that involves sun exposure and/or time in the water!
  • Sun and water are the enemies of good tattoo healing — more on this later.
  • Tattoos get itchy as they heal, so also avoid getting one before an important event where you...don't want to be itching 😳
  • I had to convince a friend of mine to not get a butt tattoo right before his wedding for this exact reason
  • Budget and Pricing

    Tattoos are expensive — and for good reason! They take an immense amount of skill and practice to perform.

    There are typically two ways of pricing tattoos:

    Flat fee

  • This is the most common way to price flash and small work that takes less than an hour
  • Sometimes artists will price bigger (usually flash) pieces at a flat fee
  • Hourly

  • This is usually how custom pieces, especially larger scale work, are priced
  • Some shops have an hourly minimum
  • Some artists will also have a minimum
  • ex: their rate is $200/hr with a 2 hr minimum — whether your tattoo takes 30 min or 1 hr 59 min, you still have to pay $400
  • Don't forget to tip!

    As with other service industries, tipping is common (but not always expected) in tattooing and ~18-20% is pretty standard. Many shops operate like hair salons — the artists are often contractors who are renting space and need to pay shop fees on top of their own costs.

    How do you pay?

    Typically, using cash or via Vemo/Paypal.

    When you book, you'll send them a deposit — this is usually nonrefundable and covers drawing time.

    Tattoo day!

    Setting yourself up for success

    Take care of your skin in advance! That means moisturizing, sunscreen, and if you want to go the extra mile shaving the area the night before — especially if you're getting work done in a hairy zone of your body!

    What are tattoo shops like?

    A lot of tattoo shops nowadays look like art studios or galleries.

    And they tend to smell like doctor's offices.

    Black Serum

    I took this when I got my Diamond Head tattoo!

    Seventh Son

    What if you want some privacy?

    Almost every shop will have some kind of screen or privacy barrier that you can use when you're getting tattooed.

    What if you can't do it all in one session?

    You book another one! Typically, your artist will tell you if you need more than one but it really depends on the piece and your own pain tolerance.

    Artists should be checking in with you to see how your pain level is and you're allowed to take breaks whenever you need to. If your session is scheduled for six hours and you're in so much pain that you need to stop after four, they should be willing to accommodate that.


    Wear sensible, loose fitting clothing

    If you're gonna get a thigh tattoo, don't wear jeans unless you really wanna go pantsless.

    Eat a light meal

    You don't wanna pass out while you're getting tattoo.


    Put some lotion on and drink some water!

    Get a good night's rest

    It'll help you heal and make it easier to sit for the tattoo!


    Come inebriated

    Even if it does help with the pain, it can make your tattoo come out poorly for various reasons, one of them being that alcohol is a blood thinner and it can also compromise the body's healing process.

    Show up late


    Move around a lot

    Tell your artist if the position they put you in is unsustainable, but the more you move around the more messed up things can get.

    It's done! What next?

    Your artist will probably take some photos of your new piece and bandage it up. There are a few ways that this can happen:

  • Using saran wrap (and a bandage, sometimes)
  • Just a bandage taped on
  • Saniderm (also known as Tegaderm, Second Skin, Tatu-Derm, etc.)
  • Whatever your artist does, it's extremely important to follow their instructions. What you do will vary a lot based on what method they used, but if they tell you to leave it on for 6 hours and then take it off, do that. If they say leave it for at least 3 days, do that.

    Why bandage?

    A healing tattoo is an open wound. You don't want to expose it to the ~outside world~ and get it messed up immediately.

    Why Saniderm >>>

    Saniderm (and all of its friends) is a breathable, gas permeable medical grade bandage. Because it's breathable, you can wear it for multiple days (but follow your artist's instructions) which can make the healing process a lot simpler and cleaner.

    Freshly Saniderm'd pieces

    Don't freak out if this happens!

    It's normal and won't harm your piece. Tattoos "weep" fluids and they're just trapped under the bandage — better there than staining your clothes and sheets!

    Healing 101

    Disclaimer: Listen to your artist's healing instructions above all!

    They know best about how to care for and protect their work so that you'll have a great looking piece for years to come. Everyone does aftercare a little differently, but these are the general steps that I follow:

    Keep it clean!

    What should I use?

    Unscented soap is best because the perfumes can irritate your tattoo — I tend to just use cleanser because that's what I already have and I don't feel like buying more stuff.

    When should I use it?

    Especially for the first week or so, it's critical that you keep that baby clean — it's an open wound! Wash it when you wake up and before you go to sleep with the hottest water that you can tolerate and then moisturize.


    But not too much. Rub some lotion on it when things are looking dry (or if you're having trouble resisting the urge to scratch it...)

    For the first week...

    There are special tattoo healing ointments and creams but Aquaphor is the way to go — it's tried and true!


    You only need a light layer of this! Do not slather aquaphor (or any ointment) on your tattoo — it needs oxygen to heal.

    Then switch to something lighter

    Again, lots of special products out there but I like to use whatever lotion I have around the house. As with the soap, stick to unscented products!

    Do not scratch or pick!!!!

    This is really difficult, but if you scratch your tattoo you can mess it up big time.

    Alternatives include scratching nearby or just straight up smacking yourself really really hard.

    No soaking!

    Avoid submerging your tattoo in water while it's healing. You can really mess it up or even worse, get an infection.

    So, no swimming, hot tubs, baths, etc. for at least the first two weeks while your tattoo is healing.

    Say no to the sun!

    Sun exposure is the enemy of tattoos — do not expose your fresh tattoo to the sun if you can avoid it.


    As your tattoo heals, it'll settle into your skin. The colors will start to fade over time — that's natural! Most good artists will offer touch ups — sometimes even for free.


    Brand new! Right before bandaging

    I don't actually have a lot of pictures of this one and I couldn't find one where it was only one to two months old

    Just before leaving the shop

    One month old, healed

    After a few months

    5 months, healed

    9 months, healed

    After a few years

    5+ years old, this pic sucks sorry

    2+ yrs old


    Now that you have an idea of what goes into making a tattoo...how much do you think my tattoos cumulatively cost?

    Some additional info that may help you form an educated guess:

  • I started getting tattooed at nineteen
  • I've had eleven tattoo sessions
  • None of my tattoos have required more than one session
  • Comment on your vote!

    $500 +

    $1000 +

    $1500 +

    $2000 +

    $2500 +

    $3000 +

    $3500 +

    $4000 +

    Things that can go wrong


    Blowout typically occurs when the needle goes in too deep and the ink spreads into the surrounding layers of fat. This can cause lines to look blurry — which can really ruin the aesthetic of line work.

    It can happen when your artist is inexperienced or when you're getting tattooed on a thin area of skin — like top of hands/feet, wrists, ankles, etc.

    What can you do about it?

    You have three options (and none of them are great, unfortunately)

  • Live with it
  • Get it covered up
  • Any coverup tattoo has to be significantly larger and darker than the original tattoo. Not all artists will do coverups.
  • Laser it
  • Depending on the blowout, you may not have to get the whole thing lasered! According to my YouTube degree, in some cases you can clean it up by getting just the blown out parts lasered off.
  • Allergic reactions

    Some people are allergic to various tattools — the ink, the bandage, gloves, etc. If you have any allergies, definitely let your artist know about them in advance so they can prepare.

    Unfortunately, some people find out about the ink thing the hard way but a lot of artists offer spot tests so if this is something you're nervous about then you can inquire about that!

    Unpleasant experience

    These days, most tattoo shops feel like art galleries and smell like doctor's offices. Tattooing is becoming a much more inclusive industry and newcomers have done a lot to make sure that the barrier to entry is as low as possible.

    Despite this, there will always be bad actors and the "old school" mentality does persist in a lot of places. You can never eliminate 1000% the possibility of a bad experience, but thoroughly vetting your artist's work and Instagram is a good start.

    Some other random tattoo related stuff

    Tattoos are protected by copyright law

    The client does not own the design of their tattoos.

    There have been several instances of video game makers (especially for sports games) getting sued and now they have to go through the process of licensing the artwork.