8 Things to Consider Before Getting a Tattoo

Tattoos were once considered taboo in this country, something ne'er-do-wells and criminals got to mark themselves as outsiders in society. Tattoos weren't something respectable people considered for themselves.

That's changed, with something in the neighborhood of 23 percent of all Americans and 32 percent of people between the ages of 30 and 45 having at least one, according to a recent Pew Research Poll. Tattoos clearly aren't just for bikers, sailors or rock stars anymore.

I've had tattoos for more than 20 years at this point, and I've observed a few things that might be helpful to those contemplating getting their first one. I don't claim to be some "tattoo authority," but since the majority of the people I associate with are inked, I've noticed a few good rules of thumb over the years. Things to keep in mind before strolling into a tattoo parlor and getting that heart with "Mom" tattooed on your neck.

8. People Will Judge You. Yes, they will. Even with much more mainstream acceptance of tattoos, people will still make unpleasant and unfair judgments about tattooed people. To some folks, a tattoo will mark you as trashy, no matter what the circumstances of your life. Of course, the types of people who will actually hassle you over a tattoo are total pricks if they're not your own mom or something, so ignore them. Allow creeps like that to go through their joyless lives judging people they don't know. They are probably miserable on some level.

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You'll hear the same tired crapola like "Think what it'll look like when you're 80."

Yes, because the average 80-year-old's skin looks wonderful, and a tattoo would destroy that. The tools of tattooing have improved a great deal in recent years, and tattoos look better longer. You can also get them touched up, so there's no reason a person's older tattoos have to look like some hideous blue blob like the ones some older men have. I personally think old people with tattoos look as if they've led interesting lives. Who cares what their skin looks like at that age?

Others will judge a tattooed person in other ways. Trying to get certain types of jobs if you have visible skin art can be difficult. If you're in a very conservative field, expect to cover your tattoos if you manage to get the job at all. Things have mellowed a lot over the years, but expect that a tattoo still might close a few doors.

There's another potential downside to the way others might feel about your tattoos. Some people think that a tattoo erases any sort of personal boundary you have, and total strangers will accost you and ask to see your "work." I've had them just start rolling up my sleeve to see better. Without asking. I guess some people think that a tattooed person wants attention at all times. It's a creepy thing to think. 

Once taboo, tattoos on the hands are becoming more common these days.
Once taboo, tattoos on the hands are becoming more common these days.

7. Think Long and Hard About Getting Certain Places on Your Body Tattooed. Tattoo placement is key for many reasons, but as a good rule of thumb, it's probably best for most people to avoid getting tattoos on their face, neck or hands. In the past, a lot of tattoo artists wouldn't ink a person on any of those locations, but judging from what I've seen in recent years, that old rule must've been relaxed. I see a lot of people with neck and hand tattoos, specifically. That's pretty hardcore, and a person considering a tattoo in one of those places should think seriously about his or her lifestyle and future expectations. Having a tattoo of any kind might earn a person a certain amount of scorn from some people; having one on your face is going to get you a lot more flak. Unless you're making a living as a cool outsider of some sort -- a successful musician or artist, maybe -- then a face tattoo might make getting a "normal job" difficult. Something to think about before getting Yosemite Sam needled across your forehead.

6. They're Permanent. Always Remember That.

This is obvious, but tattoos should be considered a permanent body modification. Yes, there are procedures to get them removed, but they can be painful and expensive. So before you get a tattoo, it's just best to realize that whatever you get is going to be part of you forever, unless you get it covered later by another tattoo or removed with a laser. And from what I understand, laser removal isn't a perfect process.

Some people are fine with permanence. My own tattoos have become a part of who I am and a marker of times and places in my past. I value them for those reasons as much as I do as a form of self-expression or art. Other people just aren't wired in a way that makes them good candidates for a tattoo. A person who flits from idea to idea and trend to trend should probably think more deeply about getting one, because once a tattoo is on a person, it's not going to be easy to get rid of it, if he decides it's not for him.

5. Don't Get One on Impulse.

This is another of those "It should be obvious" rules of thumb, but suddenly deciding to get a tattoo, any tattoo, after a night of drinking with your buddies is a recipe for regret. Yeah, that piece of "Taz" flash hanging on the tattoo parlor's wall might seem like a great idea at 2 a.m. after a few rounds of Jäger shots, but when your buddies at work see it on your arm, you'll never hear the end of it. I've also always questioned the wisdom of people who want a tattoo really badly but don't have any idea what they want to get. Yet they head on over to the tattoo shop as if they're picking out a shirt to buy. Some things should be a little better thought out.

4. Don't Bargain Shop.

There's a time and a place to hunt for a killer deal and to save money. Having a permanent form of body art inked into your skin is not that time. The best tattoo artists have spent years honing their craft, and, understandably, they don't work for next to nothing. The artist who did a lot of my early work in the mid '90s charged about $200 an hour at that time and had a six-month waiting list. It was worth the money and the wait. Going to a tattoo shop that advertises $20 tattoos, or freebies of some kind? That's not a good plan. Ditto on some friend of a friend who operates out of his apartment and will work for free while he gets experience. Would you go to a dentist who worked under those types of conditions? Yeah, no thanks. Quality work isn't cheap, and cheap work isn't quality. It's also a good idea to find an artist who specializes in the type of tattoo that a person wants, and the customer should expect to pay a decent amount for that specialized work.

Haggling with a tattoo artist is also rude and is not going to do anyone any favors. I've met people who seem to think it's ridiculous for a tattoo artist to expect more than pocket change in payment for permanent body art, but have no problem spending $1,500 on a TV they won't own in ten years. Priorities. 

Tramp stamps will always get attention...
Tramp stamps will always get attention...

3. Trends Will Look Dated Fast.

I saw so many people getting barbed-wire armband and tribal tattoos back in the '90s, it was mind-boggling. While there's nothing patently wrong with those kinds of tattoos, they were a trend, and they're fairly dated-looking now. When I see someone with a tribal design on his shoulder these days, I always think, "Yeah, I remember 1994, too!" In any case, that's fine, and I'm sure a lot of those folks feel the same way about those tattoos as I do mine -- as marking moments in their personal histories. But a person who wants something really unique to himself might be cautioned against following the herd when it comes to the style of tattoo he ends up getting. That kanji character that means "Bliss" (you hope, since most people here don't speak Japanese) sure looked original back in '97, but there are likely quite a few people with that same design on them somewhere.

To be truly original, a person needs to consider truly custom work.

2. Try to Plan for Future Work.

This is a tough one for a variety of reasons, but tattoos tend to be addicting for a lot of people, and planning ahead for the possibility of more work in the future is a good idea. Some people decide early on that they want elaborate and cohesive tattoos that encompass their whole body or large parts of it, and that's a good way to go for a person who has a definite plan for his or her tattoos. Others start out small or get a bunch of unconnected art scattered over their bodies. That can be fine, too, until they discover that they want a space that's already tattooed for another design.

At least giving some thought to where a first tattoo is going is not a bad idea. Having a small design floating in a large space of skin can look pretty weird, and might get in the way of a better idea later. Some people seem to have a template of spots on their bodies for tattoos, and fill them up piecemeal -- they'll have the ankle tattoo, the shoulder, the often sneered-upon "tramp stamp" and so on. That's fine, but it can limit their options down the road if they want bigger pieces.

And one last bit of advice:

1. Don't Get a Significant Other's Name Tattooed on You. I can't stress this one enough. Getting the name of a person you're involved with tattooed on yourself is...inadvisable. My rule of thumb regarding name tattoos is that if it's the name of your child or you've been with your mate for 20 years or something, then go for it. But a person who wants "Jimmy's" name on her chest after being with him for two years is asking for trouble. Just my opinion.

Tattoos can tell you a lot about a person. I've heard that people get tattoos of the things they most desire in life, and if that's true, then be very scared of that dude with the Barney the Dinosaur full back piece. But regardless of one's personality or body art goals, it's almost always a good idea to give some serious thought to any tattoo that you're considering getting. Once it's there, it's not going to be easy to eliminate any regret that a tattoo might cause.


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