Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Tattoos....
But Were Afraid To Ask!

By Michelle Delio

Many of today's tattoo artists have had formal art training, and have also served a rigorous apprenticeship with another tattooist to learn the technical aspects of the medium. But lurking in the shadows is the dreaded scratcher. The scratcher is an untrained tattooist who, for whatever reason, has decided that he has a great artistic gift to share with the world. The scratcher may work out of a studio, but often works from his home, the back room of a bar, or even your basement if he can persuade you to let him set up shop there. He rarely bothers about sterilizing his instruments, or changing his needles between customers. He's often had no training in tattooing, having purchased equipment through the mail. He may spread disease and certainly scars people for life. Beware the scratcher.

But, somewhere in between the dark world of the scratcher and the brightly lit sanitary studio of the professional tattoo artist is a shadowy world, populated by tattooists that have managed to scrape up enough money to establish themselves in a shop, and are working according to sterile procedure. Yet the tattoos they apply are badly executed, the outlines run from thick to thin, the colors are badly chosen and splotchy, and the actual artwork - well, suffice to say that perspective, proportion, and well thought out composition is not a consideration in this shop.

The first decision that you must make, after the big one of actually deciding to get a tattoo, is that you will not settle for anything less than wonderful work. Banal, boring imagery, uninspired colors, and badly drawn imagery has no place in modern tattooing.

You are responsible for choosing a professional who is capable of rendering a beautiful work of art on your skin. You are also responsible for choosing a design that will bring you joy and make you proud for the rest of your life. You may have to travel to get work from the artist of your choice. You will certainly have to invest some money in the project, not enough to feed a small nation, but good tattoos do not come cheap (and cheap tattoos are not good). Getting a tattoo is a big decision so take the time to educate yourself before you get inked, not after.

Finding Your Tattoo

Getting a tattoo is the most permanent commitment that many of us will ever make. And if you're thinking -- "but I can always get it removed" -- then you are definitely not ready to get a tattoo.

We live in a disposable society and tattoos are decidedly permanent. That's what makes them scary, and that's what makes them powerful. Making an irrevocable choice is good for the soul.

If you put energy and thought into choosing your tattoo design, it can become much more than just a piece of permanent jewelry. Properly chosen tattoos confer blessings on you. Ask yourself "What am I willing to commit to forever?" "What do I aspire to?" "What gives me strength?" Thinking about the answers to these questions can help you decide on the image or images that will compose a very personal tattoo. You'll also learn something about yourself in the process.

You may want a custom tattoo, something created by the tattooist just for you, or you may find just the image you want in the flash designs hanging on your tattooist's studio wall. Flash designs are often altered slightly for each person anyway so you'll still have something of a unique piece.

When it comes to tattooing your imagination is your only limitation. But a word of caution; although any image can be tattooed, some translate more successfully into the medium than others. In general, a big, bold image will look better on your skin than a overly detailed small piece. And if your artist urges you to go bigger with a design, listen to him. Those big pieces often have an impact that the little ones lack. American tattooist Walt Dailey sums up the "bigger is better" issue by saying "A beautiful, big, fierce bear head design just looks like an angry hamster's face when you shrink it down."

There are many different styles of tattooing. Here are a few of the most popular:

Do try to be practical when choosing a tattoo design. Getting the name of your current love on your arm is almost always a sure route to a cover-up. And, hard as it may be to believe, the band whose music turned you on when you were 18 may not have the same effect on you when you're 40. Your infatuations will often fade much quicker than tattoos do. Pick something that's a little open ended. On the other hand, some of the best tattoo collections I've seen have been almost like a personal scrapbook of the wearer's life. Perhaps they aren't dedicated deadheads anymore but that "Keep On Trucking" tattoo reminds them of a wonderful period in their life.

Here's a true story from which you can draw whatever moral you want. Despite all my warnings to others that they should never, ever get a name inked on them. I have my fianc‚'s name tattooed on my shoulder blade, But adding a permanent symbol to my body of what I hope will be a forever and beyond friendship was important to me. I was terrified for about a week after I got the tattoo, especially during our first post- tattoo quarrel, but I don't regret getting the piece. Sometimes you just have to follow your heart.

Finding your tattoo artist

Tattoos are created by placing colored pigments in between the permanent base layer of your skin and the constantly changing top layer. The pigment becomes bonded to the skin cells and is visible through the translucent outer layer of your skin. So applying a tattoo properly takes much more than just the ability to draw pretty pictures. A professional tattooist is an artist, a technician and a craftsperson.

If the ink is placed too deeply into your skin, your body fluids will cause it to "Blow Up" (spread and lose definition). If it's not in the skin deeply enough the colors will "Fall Out" (fade or actually disappear) just a few months after you get the tattoo (don't confuse color falling out with the healing process of a new tattoo. It's normal to have small pieces of skin flaking off during the healing process, much as skin peels after being sunburned.)

So obviously selecting the artist who is going to apply your tattoo is one of the most important decisions you'll ever make. Once you get a tattoo you'll never have unmarked skin in that area again. Hopefully you'll have enough healthy self esteem to think long and hard about whose hands you'll be putting your skin in.

First off, you want to get tattooed in a tattoo studio that is as clean as your doctor's or dentist's office. With extremely rare exceptions, you do not want to get tattooed in someone's kitchen, a bar, or in the middle of a field at a biker's meet. Sterile conditions can be met at outdoor rallies, such as in self-contained mobile tattoo studios, but not if the tattooist is working in a tent and has positioned himself, for example, close to the drag race track. Use your common sense and if sterile conditions can not be maintained in your artist's place of work, go somewhere else.

Everything that is used to apply your tattoo should be sterilized or disposable (and if it's disposable it should be disposed of after use). For example your artist should not be dipping his needle into a big bottle of ink, he should have poured enough ink to complete the work at hand into small disposable ink containers, which will be used only for you. Vaseline and ointments should be taken from their containers with disposable sterile spreaders, not a swipe of the tattooist's fingers. Sterile, disposable gloves should always be worn. New sterile needles should be used for every tattoo.

All non-disposable equipment should be sterilized after each use with an autoclave. Ultra-sonic cleaning does not sterilize equipment. It should only be used as a method of cleaning the equipment before it's placed into the autoclave.

Having found a tattooist who works clean, you now want to see actual examples of his or her work. Photo albums will most likely be provided in the studio for you to browse through. The more cautious or paranoid among us will dwell on the fact that photos can be stolen or bought and will want to see examples of the artist's work in the flesh. An easy way to accomplish this, without demanding an artist produce live clients, is to attend a tattoo convention and simply ask owners of wonderful tattoos who did their work. Tattooed people are always happy to talk about their tattoos, if the person who is asking has a good attitude and a sincere interest in the art, and will be glad to recommend artists that they are satisfied with. Don't be shy, even if you don't have any tattoos yet. You'll be respected for taking tattooing so seriously.

Also take into consideration the type of tattoo you want. Artists have their specialties, specific styles of tattooing that they excel at and love to do. Yes, a good tattooist can usually put on any style of tattoo you might desire and do a more than adequate job of it. But why not see if you can find out who originated the style you're interested in or who is doing the best work in the style? Some artists love to work in tones of black and gray, others have a wonderful sense of color. Terrific tattoos are born when both artist and client are enthusiastic about the piece.

Tattooists have an expression "You get the tattoo you deserve". That translates to mean that attitude counts. You don't have to be best friends with your artist but you should both treat each other with respect. You have a right to have your important questions answered, and not to feel pressured into settling for a piece that's not quite right for you. On the other side, remember your artist is a business person and cannot devote hours to discussing a proposed piece with you. Most artists are happy to work with the client, if they know the client is serious about getting work. And, once you've picked your artist and design, and you're sitting in the chair getting tattooed, resist the urge to be an art director. If you've made your wishes clear, and by this point you should have, quizzing the artist about technical aspects of the tattoo process will only irritate him.

Keeping your tattoo

Once it's on your body it's your responsibility. Think of your brand new tattoo as a new pet. You have to feed it (with healing ointments) water it (keep it clean) and walk it (expose it to air). And, unlike a puppy, no matter how much it begs you must not scratch it!

Actually the above is a somewhat poor attempt to make the aftercare process a little less boring than it is. Shortly after you get your new tattoo you'll notice the skin in the area of your new acquisition will be a little bit irritated and sensitive, rather like you'd spent a few hours out in the sun. Emotionally you'll be feeling very charged up. This is a direct result of the endorphins which your body releases in response to any stimulating experience, like that little energy jolt you get when a loud noise startles you. The way you feel after getting tattooed can be summed up, rather crudely, as the "fuck or fight" syndrome. So please remember to make love, not war!

Okay, you've got you new tattoo home. Now what? Nothing. Leave the bandage on for exactly the amount of time specified by your tattooist. No peeking. You've got the rest of your life to look at it.

In anywhere from four to ten hours after you get tattooed you'll be able to take off the bandage. If that time coincides with the period that you'd usually be sleeping, or is close to it, leave the bandage on over night. This will give your tattoo, and your sheets, a little added protection.

When the time comes, take the bandage off gently. If it sticks use only the amount of warm water that it takes to unstick it. Then, using your hand, not a washcloth, and some gentle unscented soap, gently rinse the tattoo clean of old ointment and all the other yucky crusty stuff that might be there. Pat dry (gently!!) and lightly cover the tattoo with a small amount of healing creme (I use one with a mild antibiotic, such as they sell in drugstores for healing cuts). You don't want to slather the tattoo with the cream, use just enough to keep it moist. During the day, reapply the cream when the tattoo starts feeling dry and tight. Wash it again in the evening. After the first week I switch to using a non-fragranced lotion for dry skin instead of the healing ointment. I also expose the tattoo to the air as much as possible to speed healing. And I take my vitamins, extra B complex and Zinc seem to help my body heal faster. The tattoo may develop a light scab, and may peel slightly. It will itch and you must not scratch it or pick at any scabs that might form. Keep your hands (and anybody else's) off it, except to wash it and apply the ointment. It will heal in about 10 days to two weeks.

Do not soak your new tattoo. You can shower but keep it out of the direct spray of water. I cover my new tattoo with ointment, a little heavier application than usual, before I get into the shower. Don't swim for at least a couple of weeks, and don't sunbathe. You have to let your tattoo heal and settle into your skin with as little trauma as possible. I also make a point of wearing old, soft clothes over the new tattoo, things that have been washed often enough to have the excess dye removed. A fresh tattoo is an open wound - treat it with care and common sense.

Getting rid of your tattoo

If you've got a horrible something or other decorating your skin, or if the person whose name is in that banner on your arm just ran off with your best friend, it's time to consider your tattoo removal options.

If you like being tattooed but just don't like the particular tattoo(s) that you currently have, consider getting a cover-up. Years ago, artists had stock designs that they used to cover offending tattoos. These pieces usually had heavy fields of black; black panthers, black clouds with lightening, etc. Peacocks were a favorite also, you could hide a multitude of sins in those heavily shaded tail feathers.

Nowadays we don't believe that the only way to cover a tattoo is with a large dark mass. But you need a skilled artist for a cover-up job, unless you relish the idea of eventually getting a cover-up over your cover-up ( I know someone who has had the four cover-ups, one right on top of the other, and he's still not happy with the piece!). You will need a custom piece because it will have to be designed to fit over and obliterate the existing one. Cover-up work is demanding and exacting so you will also pay more for a cover-up piece then you would for the same sized tattoo applied on virgin skin.

Choose somebody with a good design sense, who can work out an image that will hide the old tattoo, and still give you a beautiful new tattoo to be proud of. Your artist may ask you to come back after the new piece is healed so he can go over it again and intensify the color.

Reworking a tattoo is another repair method. This means the artist doesn't cover the old tattoo but just works with it to enhance it. Perhaps you went to a scratcher and now the color in your floral piece is faded, or the outline on your arm band is jagged? If you're basically happy with the piece you might just need some corrective work. The best example of reworking a tattoo that I've ever seen was done on a portrait piece on my friend's arm. The tattoo in question was a portrait of his wife who ended up leaving him in a particularly nasty way. He didn't have the tattoo covered up, no -- he had it subtly reworked just enough to turn the lovely portrait of his wife into that of a screaming, crazed demon who still had, very recognizably, the wife's face.

Any reputable tattooist will also fix any skips in color or the outline that may be discovered shortly after the piece is healed. But if you picked and scratched at it during the healing process and literally stripped the color out of your skin, don't expect the tattooist to perform this service for free. If you were conscientious about your aftercare routine and still notice a problem, go back and ask the tattooist about it.

If you're really unhappy about being tattooed, or have one of the rare pieces that can't be covered up, you can investigate laser removal. Its pros are that it can remove almost any tattoo, with very few incidences of scarring or hyper-pigmentation, and is relatively painless, it's usually compared to having a rubber band snapped against your skin. Unfortunately, it's very expensive.

Dermabrasion has also been used for tattoo removal, which is sort of like having the tattoo sandpapered off your skin, as have chemical peels and acids. My feeling is that treatment with a ruby laser is the way to go. Check with a plastic surgeon for a more in depth discussion of your options and recommendations about who should do the procedure. And if the doctor has a lousy attitude about tattoos, go somewhere else.

Of course, if you remember to think before you ink, you'll never have to worry about the expense and pain of getting rid of an unwanted tattoo!

Last but not least: Does it hurt?

Last year I was at a party with a few friends and a bunch of people I didn't know. During the course of the evening one large burly man lifted the sleeve of his t-shirt and exposed a fairly new, and rather unimpressive, tattoo. He then proceeded to entertain his audience with a terrifying tale of how agonizing the process of getting this little blip on his arm was. One of my friends, a born troublemaker if there ever was one, couldn't resist lifting my sleeve and showing my upper arm, which is completely sleeved and saying "Gee, Michelle said it didn't hurt at all."

The point of this story is not what a brave person I am (my pain threshold is normal and getting that tattoo on my arm really didn't hurt much) nor what a sissy the other person was. It's a caution to you not to believe what others may have to say about their tattoo experiences. By and large, getting tattooed is mostly just plain annoying, rather than out and out painful. There are areas that hurt more than others, and I wouldn't suggest your getting a first tattoo on your ankle, rib cage or spine. Areas located close to bones hurt more. Well padded bits hurt much less. To feel the difference pinch your upper arm between your fingernails, and then pinch the top of your hand. Actually I've found this pinch test to be a fairly good indicator of the sensitivity factor of any area where I might wish to be tattooed.

The bottom line is that I have never gotten a tattoo that hurt horribly or I certainly would never have gone back for another (and another and another). And whatever small irritation I experienced during the tattoo process was more than adequately compensated for by the joy and pride that my tattoos bring to me every day of my life.

Originally published in "Tattoo -- the exotic art of skin decoration" (Carlton Books/London St. Martin's Press/USA.