5 Things to Consider Before Getting Your First Tattoo

Getting your first (or any) tattoo is exciting, but there’s also a lot to think about! To help you out, I’ve compiled a list of things I realized only through having gotten tattooed; feel free to learn from my mistakes.

1. The pain might not be what you imagine.

Image via the author

Tattoo machines function by stabbing skin with a tiny needle anywhere from 50 to 3,000 times per minute. It is painful, but pain is relative; what’s unbearable for me might be a cakewalk for you. The initial pain often dwindles after a few minutes, but if you’re getting a really big piece, it might be helpful to take a gentle painkiller or muscle relaxer before your appointment. Just not aspirin or anything that thins your blood, because of the whole stabby thing. (Alcohol is bad for the same reason, by the way. And, you know, other reasons.)

2. Hire a licensed professional. Seriously.

Image via the author

If your friend wants to learn to tattoo, offer your support — not your skin! Yes, it’s vastly cheaper than art from a shop (more on that below), and yes, it might make a cool story to tell — but also, the only thing worse than getting a shitty tattoo is getting a shitty tattoo, and then hating your friend for it.

3. You get what you pay for.

Image via the author

This is true in many industries, but particularly so in tattooing. Prices and pricing structures (i.e. flat rate or by the hour) vary across the country and world, but it’s safe to say you can’t expect an entire back piece for $30 — especially for work that’s done skillfully and safely. Regardless of price, don’t let an artist tattoo you unless you’ve confirmed that a) their work is good, and b) that they’re using fresh needles (watch them get unwrapped), gloves, ink, and other supplies. A sterile environment is crucial to your health, and any artist worth their salt/your money should be happy to set up in front of you. Ask politely and respond graciously; as with discussing safe sex, no one needs to make it weird.

4. Do your research.

Image via the author

You might be able to just walk into a shop and get the ink of your dreams, but it’s generally best to pick a specific artist beforehand — and social media makes the search especially easy. If you want a portrait, get on Instagram and search tags to find an artist specializing in portraits; if you want a traditional, Americana-style tattoo, find someone who specializes in that. Talented artists book up quickly, so make your appointment ahead of time.

5. Don’t rush the process!

Image via the author

Just like waiting to find the right artist is worth it, not rushing the next steps to getting inked is equally important. Don’t let anyone pressure you into getting a tattoo you don’t want, or one in a place you don’t want it. If you want a design of a cat with its tongue sticking out to the right, say so; if the artist places the carbon copy on your thigh but you want it two inches higher, let them know (consider your job/future career, among other things).

Cover-ups are painful, and laser removal is worse; both are also more expensive than getting your tattoo right the first time. Research, prepare, and ask for what you need from your artist — then sit (or lay) back, and go with the flow.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Liselle "afronautic" Savitri

Liselle "Afronautic" Savitri is a Brooklyn-based freelance photographer, blogger and actress. She enjoys shooting film, and doing yoga. She spends time posting pictures of coffee and doughnuts on her Instagram and just started a travel and lifestlye blog titled Going With The Fro. Need additional advice? Have questions? Feel free to reach out! Afronautic [at] Gmail [dot] Com

Liselle has written 1 article for us.


  1. I just got my first tattoo in March and it is fairly large (my whole upper arm on one side). And honestly the thing that I unexpectedly was bothered by is all the noise. All of the tattoo guns in the shop made me uneasy. I am normally caught off guard by loud noises, so if they bother you too, I would recommend bringing headphones, or maybe earplugs just to dampen the sound. Otherwise getting a tattoo was great! Here’s a picture of my tattoo: http://imgur.com/a/F4jmi

    • That’s a beautiful tattoo!!
      I am right here with you about the noise. My tattoos never exceeded the 3 and a half hour mark but these noises just added to my overall stress (my body just kind of gives up after an hour and a half of tattooing and gets really weird. Too much stress imposed on my body). I don’t know what kind of noise I’d like to listen to while being tattooes though? What if the machine made a calming wave sound kinda noise … Anyways :p

    • So pretty! Ditto on the noise. I actually had one artist who let you pick a movie to play while she worked in case you needed a distraction / sound for that reason :)

  2. Great article. Just a heads up though, on the last paragraph there’s a duplicate word entry “than than”.

    P.S. Still procrastinating over what to get.

  3. and aftercare is super important! take what your artist says seriously. aquaphor is a great ointment to put on, but it’s pretty pricey. and be super careful about exposing your healing tat to the sun. it feels…not good.

  4. After 5 years where either timing(because of a bunch of travels), or the financial situation (the whole cunundrum about being a travel-loving student) got in the way, I’m finally going to get my first ink on Nov.7th. Those two tattoos have been planned long and carefully and I completely trust the artist doing them – and so do many other people which is why the waiting time was a bit long.
    The wait is killing me a little but at the same time I’m sure it will be worth it.

    My little sister and my mum, who are way cooler than me, got their tattoos before me (this year and last year respectively)and my mum didn’t even flinch during the whole 9 hour procedere. So let’s hope that high pain tolerance is a genetic trait.

  5. Thanks for this guide! I’m looking at getting my first tattoo in the near future/when I have money for it (I don’t expect it to be that expensive because it’s small, but still, it is far down on the list of Things To Spend Money On).

    • (I know I am super late to this article/comment party but) SAME. I was actually getting kind of excited about the potential of it because I thought I was in an okay place financially, but then I signed up for a class and now my car needs worked on and my friend wants me to join a gym with them so it looks like it’s getting further away every second, but I have literally no idea about how much these things cost, and I also just want to get a small tattoo for my first one, but I have no clue what kind of money to expect to have to put towards it, especially if I want it to be good (like she said above, you get what you pay for). Like, should I be thinking $30? $50? $100? Anyone know?

  6. I’ve been dancing around the idea of a tattoo for a long while. I want to get a butterfly on my left upper back (shoulder). One wing white, one blue – it’s body glistening in rain drops. I spent most of my adult life in Japan where white butterflies signify death/endings and lead travelers to the spirit realm. The blue brings to mind the Zen Koan of a single butterfly wing flutter causing a hurricane across the globe. It symbolizes the enormous power of our actions and choices in creating or eliminating the suffering of ourselves and others. A gentle rain is where I had my spiritual awakening seven years ago in the Alaskan wilderness.

    I know people get tattoos for all different reasons. I’d like to think that for me, my first one means something special ^___^

  7. I’m not opposed to tattoos but I honestly cannot think of anything I want to be tattooed on my body. I see stuff that looks awesome on others but I just haven’t been inspired.

    • I always felt this way too, and never thought I’d get one. But then last summer I had an idea for something that I wanted that had a lot of personal meaning to me (imagery that symbolizes memories of my brother). And now that I have one, I feel like it “broke the seal” and I have ideas for several other pieces I’d like to have done :)

  8. Along with #4: don’t get a tattoo in a language you don’t know!

    It’s SO awkward to see a person with a fucked-up text tattoo in a language you can read and they obviously can’t. I’ve seen people with words written in the wrong direction, or with illegible lettering, or where I was like, “That’s not a word though?” and it’s like, how do you tell someone their ink is wrong?

  9. The only names you should have on your skin are your kids and your parents and siblings. Not even your husband or wife. Unless they died. Then its ok.
    Remember no regerts!

    DO NOT DRINK CAFFEINE BEFORE OR DURING THE INK PROCESS. You may end up shaking and then its ruined.

  10. I also recommend starting off small if you’re unsure of how you’ll feel about something so permanent on your body – it was definitely really helpful for me, and introduced me to the process of getting a tattoo, taking care of it, etc., so that when I was ready for bigger ones (I have two half sleeves now and a couple others) I felt a lot more prepared and comfortable, since these definitely can’t be covered up!

  11. 1) When talking to your artist when they’re about to design your tattoo for you: make a Pinterest board or a folder of examples for them. Make sure to include some examples of what you don’t want as well. For example, I have a huge botanical drawing on my arm, and brought a bunch of pictures of carrot tattoos with me to this meeting, so I could explain the kind of image I was looking for. This helped my tattooist tons.

    2) Don’t feel like you have to talk to your artist all the time when they are working on your tattoo. They’re concentrating really hard on making your skin look awesome and keeping up chitchat for 4 hours while doing so is hard, for both parties. Maybe you have something in common and talking is awesome, or maybe silence is preferred for concentration. I like to watch Netflix on my phone while my artist is working and having the occasional chat. (I don’t like silence, because I overconcentrate on the funny stuff my body is doing, so I like watching Netflix instead. My artist likes silence, so we’ve found something that works for both.)

    3) Eat well beforehand, bring snacks and listen to your body. Let your artist know if you’re feeling shaky, queasy and know what works for your body if this happens. I like taking a food break with my artist when we’re halfway and share food. (I’m a chef, she loves food.)

    4) If you agreed to do the tattoo in one session and it’s not working out for you because your body isn’t having it anymore: tap out and plan a second session. Take note of how long you could take it comfortably, keep that in mind, and plan a second session to complete the work. Your artist won’t be able to work the way they want if you’re doing poorly. However: While they’re working, keep them informed of how you’re doing so they can plan what to do at what point accordingly, and so they’re not surprised when you want to tap out. I know I have trouble sitting for more than 2,5 hours in one session, so I won’t plan 4 hour sessions. Know yourself.

  12. In regards to choosing an artist and planning your design. You should know before hand if how flexible you are before you meet. Are you choosing this artist because you like their style and want them to design something for you? Or do you already have a piece of art chosen and you need to find some one good at fine lines, VS realistic portraits. I have started working with several artists who I suspect were trying to build their artistic portfolio, but weren’t upfront about that, who kept trying to completely redesign my art. It’s one thing if they are talking about a design not working for the tattoo medium and another if they are just using your body for their own marketing.

    It’s like having another healthy relationship in your life: both people should be honest, open, and respectful listeners

Comments are closed.