A Queer Guide To Getting Tattooed

You’re doing it! You’re taking the plunge! You’ve said goodbye to the hopes and dreams of living up to your mother’s standards for you, and you’re ready: you’re here, you’re queer, and you’re going to get a tattoo! If you can figure out where the hell to start, that is.

Look, getting your first tattoo can be stressful. And you want to do it right — right meaning, in a way that you won’t someday be 35 years old and regret that sparrow some rude cishet guy named Kenny outlined on your hip at 18, awkwardly placed like it’s flying directly into your junk (her name is Lola, she is my showgirl – and in truth, I regret nothing, but I’m also a demon).

Tattooing is hardly rare these days but it can still be hard to know where to start. From choosing a design, settling on a style, pinning down an artist and understanding the fundamentals of tattoo etiquette, there’s actually a lot to consider… especially for those of us who are marginalized and don’t want to be treated dumpy at the tattoo shop. It all may seem daunting, but remember: tattoos are forever (mostly), and your body and comfort deserve the effort!

And anyway, fear not! I’m here with a quick little guide to the basics in finding artists that fit your queer needs and navigating the truths or falses, and dos and don’ts of all things tattoo in the name of lightening your load. So settle in, I’ve got you covered.


What Tattoo Should I Get? // Where Should I Get It?

Hopefully, if you are already on the hunt for a local shop or artist, you’ve got at least some semblance of an idea in your head around what you want to get and for all of our sakes, hopefully you’ve thought out whether that idea is culturally appropriate or not.

Now, I can’t tell you what you should get or where on your body you should get it. We all get tattooed for different reasons. But I can tell you that if you’re feeling stressed about your tattoo’s size, and are needing it to be as small and as hidden as possible, it might be one of those things you should think on a little longer. A smaller or more hidden tattoo is still a tattoo, and it will be on your bod forever! Do you actually want it that way? Or are you feeling hesitant? Does your design make sense small/on that part of your body? Does your artist work well with small designs? Is your artist advising against your preferred placement?

Most artists have their own policies around where on the body they are comfortable tattooing, as well as what types of tattoos they are comfortably tattooing on folks. It’s not likely that an artist is going to agree to give you a sick throat piece if your body is a blank canvas. Tattooing is a commitment. And tattoo regret… Well, it happens.

If you’re wondering if it hurts, my simplest answer is: sure! Needles dragging skin is a generally uncomfortable sensation. Some areas of the body are more sensitive than others, but everyone’s different. Generally speaking, bony areas and parts of the body less often touched can be pretty spicy! Some people love it. Some people hate it. My vibe? All pain is temporary. Your vibe? Who knows?!

My best advice regarding preparing for your first tattoo is to research! Find an artist whose work you admire, and to have some level of flexibility. A good tattoo artist will have expertise in knowing what will work best for your skin and desired placement, and will listen to you. Don’t allow yourself to be pressured into an artist’s vision that doesn’t align with yours.

Finding an Tattoo Artist // Scheduling

In a quick polling of queer friends online, by and large the number one thing that folks told me they wish they’d known or had help with before getting tattooed for the first time, was finding (or prioritizing) a queer or QTPOC artist.

The tattoo community is massive, but like a lot of communities, it’s ripe with scummy white cishet dudes with bad politics and behavior. And frankly nobody’s got time or money for that shit. Fortunately, there is a big and beautiful queer tattooer community changing the tattoo game for queer folks everywhere. It takes some digging, but there’s no denying it — queer tattooers (QTTRs), and most notably queer tattooers of color, are changing the game in tattooing and it’s so damn exciting.

Beyond working with a tattooer with respect and ethics surrounding your queer identity, my general practice is to recommend you set a standard for your artists’ portfolios. A major issue in the tattoo industry is the prioritization of thin, white bodies. Racism in the larger tattoo community is rampant. As is fatphobia, transphobia and ableism. It’s infuriating on about a million levels, but there is a large community of QTPOC tattooers making moves and noise in the industry. Instagram accounts like Radical Tattooing, run by QTPOC artist @jaybaby.tattoo, feature inclusive artists across the world as well as tips and information on everything from tattooing dark skin to community dialogues around experiences with whiteness in tattoo spaces.

My personal rule in selecting my own artists is to never work with an artist that doesn’t have a wide array of body types and skin tones featured in their portfolios. Tattooing is a really intimate experience, your tattooer will see and touch areas of your body, and leave their mark on you forever. Having an artist who speaks to you with respect (including an understanding of your name and pronouns), listens to you, seeks consent in their interactions with you and your body, is non-optional. You deserve an experience that makes you feel safe, seen, and cared for in your body. Queer tattooers are often open about their commitment to safety in tattooing queer and trans folks; it’s not often hard, with a bit of research, to find artists that align with you.

When it comes down to it, the thing to know about artists is that tattooing is not an all-encompassing trade. Tattooers have styles and specialties of their own, and they have boundaries around what they are interested in or feel capable of doing. If you’re interested in bold lined and brightly colored traditional tattooing, don’t book with a black and grey realist tattooer. It’s not their speed and it’s not going to be what either of you wants.

So you did your homework, you know what you want, and you have an artist in mind. All you need to do is schedule! Every tattooer has a process for scheduling. Some can be pretty lax (i.e. “shoot me a DM” or “here’s my number, text me!”) but most have some sort of scheduling practice in place. Most have periods of time blocked off and schedule for a set number of months to keep the books full. It’s important to follow the preferred instructions your tattooer of choice lays out for scheduling. Every tattooer you have ever heard of is fielding text messages, dm requests, emails, and walk-ins from people attempting to get around booking practices. Don’t be that guy! Following the guidelines outlined by your tattooer is not only a show of respect for their time, but it assures that your appointment can be kept, and prepared for.

Tattoo Etiquette

Much like any art or service industry job, tattooers are working under pretty tedious conditions. It’s a taxing job. Tattooing is hard on the body and costly in upkeep. Each individual artist’s livelihood is entirely reliant on the follow-through of clients! Respecting your artist, their time, and their commitment to the work they’re doing is a major must in getting tattooed.

1. Rates. This is not a garage sale. We aren’t haggling. I get it. Your design is really simple and the cost may seem steep. Ultimately – that’s a (hypothetical) you problem! Shop minimums exist to offset the cost of the time, space, materials, and effort of the artist. Don’t try to barter. It’s disrespectful and will get you pretty much nowhere.

Beyond shop minimums, an artist’s rate is an artist’s rate. Some artists will offer a flat rate for a design, but generally your artist’s fee is based around an hourly rate. Most commonly around $150-200 an hour. When you schedule, you will often be asked for a deposit that will go toward your tattoo, and is non-refundable in the event that you bail. Your artist should be able to give you an estimate of what to expect.

2. Showing Up. Showing up to an appointment may sound obvious, but if you ask any tattooer what the most frustrating thing about tattooing is, it’s the amount of no-call/no-shows they receive.

Life happens. And now more than ever, in-person anything requires flexibility. All artists have rescheduling policies in place for clients that not only allow the tattooer to fill that time and maintain income, but allow for the client to keep that deposit toward their tattoo. Please don’t be the person who bails on your artist with no notice. It sucks.

*In these here Covid times, I’ll add a quick disclaimer that canceling and rescheduling your appointment if you’ve had an exposure or are feeling sick is an absolute must!!

3. Tipping//Payment. Hi. You need to tip. Twenty percent. Just do it.

4. (Someone Else’s) Artwork. This one is tricky. On one hand it’s, of course, really sweet that you admire an artist’s work enough to want it on your body. But, baby, you have got to get permission! From the creator of the work, and the tattooer you want to work with. Tattooers are also artists. Some aren’t comfortable tattooing other artists’ work, and that’s fair. Not getting permission from an artist before having a tattooer ink you with their work is an insult to that artist and their work, even if your intentions are good. There’s no need to panic about this bit of etiquette, as it’s not really a problem if that’s what you want, but be upfront! Get the okay, and then go ham!

Your Appointment // Aftercare

As for the appointment in general, it’s all pretty straightforward. Your tattooer will lead you to their station, and go over your artwork with you. It’s always always always okay to say no, and it’s always always always okay to ask for changes — be it: size, the drawing itself, or placement. Don’t allow yourself to feel pressured by an artist’s wants. This is ultimately your body. A good artist gets that and wants you to be happy with the work.

It’s okay to be vocal with your artist. Let them know if you need breaks, or to reposition. Tattoos may not always be comfortable, but it’s not meant to be a torture session! Please be considerate around Covid precautions in place by the shop, and let your artist know if you have any accessibility needs. For example, I have leg spasms from time to time; tattooing has actually been shown to make those spasms a bit worse during my sessions. I always let the artist know that they may have to be on guard for that and hold my leg down accordingly. There’s likely nothing that you could say that would entirely surprise your artist, so be respectful, but advocate for yourself. Your artist wants you to be comfortable!

After your appointment is finished, your artist will give you aftercare instructions and send you on your way! It’s fairly simple from there on out. Keep it clean and dry but moisturized. No picking!

And that’s about it! If you post your tattoo on socials, tag your artists! They love that. Know that following general etiquette isn’t just a kindness, it’s the key to having a good experience with your tattoo. And hey, while no one can guarantee that you’ll feel that forever love about that forever ink, you’re a lot more likely to if the memory isn’t a bad one. So cheers to you and your tattoo! And sorry to your mom!


Here Are Some Rad Queer Tattooers to Follow on Instagram and Get You Started!

Ricki Proper, @apropertattoo (Chicago, IL)

Jaylind, @jaybaby.tattoo (Houston, TX)

Jun Osaki, @ajunkysock (Minneapolis, MN)

Oba Jackson @omoori (Wilmington, DE)

Alli Shelly, @alli.shelly (Minneapolis, MN — Wheat Ridge, CO as of June 2022)

Jade, @jadedrawsshit (Los Angeles, CA)

Traddy Daddy, @blvck.trad (Hudson, MA)

Christina Hock, @xinaxiii (Los Angeles, CA)

Jude le Tronik, @judeletronik (Seattle, WA)

LOKE DA LIGHT BEARA, @loke.one (Salt Lake City, UT)

Ray, @bombchelle (Seattle, WA)

Aryanna, @redlittlethread (Philadelphia, PA)

Sema, @sema.tattoo (Brooklyn, NY)

SANYU TATTOO, @sanyutattoo (NYC, NY)


Before you go! It costs money to make indie queer media, and frankly, we need more members to survive 2023As thanks for LITERALLY keeping us alive, A+ members get access to bonus content, extra Saturday puzzles, and more! Will you join? Cancel anytime.

Join A+!
Related:

A. Andrews

A. is a totally complete incomplete paraplegic and thirty-something hanky-in-the-pocket cartoonist weirdo!

A. has written 69 articles for us.

29 Comments

    • Cas Loll in Silver Spring is amazing. She used to be at that circusy themed shop on H St NE, years ago, then was at Bethesda, but recently opened her own solo practice. I’m super into their work. https://casloll.com/

      Pretty sure Susan Bahney-Doyle at Globe Electric is openly bi? (Hopefully I’m not misremembering!) Either way, at least she identifies as a woman and is a dream to work with. http://globetattoodc.com/

      Both artists have small/solo practices, only one person at a time, in a super chill environment.

      • My partner got their tattoo at Globe Electric! I agree Susan is amazing, but so amazing that she’s consistently booked up :(

        The POC thing is mainly because I’m looking for someone who is comfortable tattooing on brown skin tone and what will age well, but I’ll check out Cas! Thank you!

        • Yeah, all of my Susan tattoos I’ve had to book way in advance! :(

          I don’t know if you know Imani Brown, though I’m now struggling to find out how to even talk to her about tattoos these days. I’ve had a few friends with brown skin tones that’ve had tattoos with her that have aged beautifully.

          Since Pinz-N-Needlez left the city recently (and are now just north of Baltimore), that’s sadly all I have crammed in my brain. If you think of it and do find someone, though, let me know? Somehow this comes up in conversation a LOT!

  1. Thanks so much for this guide! I’m currently saving up for my first tattoo. I wonder if you queer tattooed people can advise me: my biggest question/worry is what do I do if I tell the artist what I want and I don’t like what they draw? How much am I allowed to ask them to make changes? I worry about being the world’s worst customer and it’s making me really quite anxious!

    • You can definitely ask for changes. My artist gave me the design to look at a couple days in advance so I could give feedback. I ended up asking for the design to be like 10% smaller, and that was fine!

    • it’s going on your body forever! you can be picky!

      that being said i find that 1) having a specific idea and 2) bringing reference images is key. like i have a shoulder piece that pixelates and i had trouble describing the effect i wanted, so i found some google image hits that had the ~vibe~ and went from there.

    • my recommendation is to be well acquainted with the artist’s work, and to find an artist who tattoos in a style you like AND that you want. a lot of artists will even list their preferred styles, art subjects, etc. don’t ask an artist who specializes in super realistic superhero tattoos to do a delicate floral piece, etc (some artists will tell you if what you want isn’t a good fit for them). if you’re aligned with their style and they’re aligned with your idea, full blown “I don’t like this art” is unlikely. For me, I also try not to be too picky about like, the littlest details. I trust my artist as the experienced pro and also the artist – she generally knows better than me what will look best and fit best over the specific body part.

    • Here is the story of how I got better at this, though I still worry about being the world’s worst customer too after lots of tattoos! When I got my thigh piece, the first design was not what I had in mind, and I did my best to awkwardly communicate some changes. When I saw the second design, I involuntarily gasped and beamed, and the artist said, “THAT’S the reaction I’m going for!” Tattoo artists want you to love your tattoos! I very much agree with Emily’s recommendation above: if you get to know an artist’s work and you want something in keeping with their style, you’re more likely to be happy with the collaboration.

  2. I went to the same cis het male artist for 15 years and was pretty happy with him. Then, I tried a new artist – a woman who works with a hand-help tattoo needle – and the difference was astonishing. I’ll never go back tothe guy with the machine.

  3. Cool article! Just missing a few cheeky things on actually getting the tattoo:

    – hygine! Things to ask: do they have an autoclave (medical sterilization machine) at the studio? Do they wear disposable gloves and mask for sessions? Do they use disposable needles and check HIV status?

    – quality! When you check their portfolio are there any ovb red flags such as spelling mistakes or disfiguration? Are there clean lines, or is there sign of the ink “bleeding” into other areas of the skin? What do their tattoos look like healed vs. brand spanking new?

    – pain! What’s your pain tolerance like for sustained, stabbing pain? Very different to a dull sensation like bruising or impact injuries, so keep this in mind if you think you have a high pain threshold. Areas with extra padding like your thighs, upper arms, and butt – will be less painful if you’re not sure. Also go for something smaller if you’re uncertain, that way if you hate it, it’ll be easier to finish. Areas closer to nerves/bone and where the skin is thinner will be much, much more painful: think hands/feet, ribs, neck. And your back! Your back is not for first timers folks, there are lots of nerves and organs really close to that skin ;)

    – BLOOD SUGAR! YOU HAVE TO EAT! You might think you have a really great constitution, but you don’t wanna be that human passing out on the table. Eat something substantial beforehand – this will also help you bleed less! Also bring some candy with you for the event of dizziness during or after your session.

    – Prepare a playlist! I rocked into my first tattoo with nothing more than the cash in my pocket, it can be great to have a distraction or way to pass the time (thank you technology!) while you’re getting stabbed ;) so bring those headphones and crank those tunes! Or bring a switch and play some animal crossing, no judgment here.

  4. Any recommendations for how to find/contact artists without using Instagram? I don’t have an Instagram account, I don’t want to get an Instagram account (they will link it to your Facebook whether you want to let them or not), and I find artists whose work I love but then they just seem to be on Instagram and their books are closed. Should I be bookmarking them and setting a reminder to go through all the artists every two weeks or something to see if any of them open up? How long do artists usually give for customers to book each time they open up?

    • some artist have websites and mailing lists that you can sign up for. You can also check to see if there are Black/poc and or queer owned stores in your area. walk ins might not be accepted but you could definitely visit and ask for a consultation.

  5. This is awesome! One comment on pricing — it’s not ok to haggle but it’s absolutely ok to tell an artist your budget in advance. “Hey I have this idea/like this flash piece, I have a budget of $400, do you think that’s doable?” I think it’s way better for both artists and you to have an idea of what you’re expecting to spend so there aren’t any rough surprises on the day of. I have done this and had artists charge me less than my budget, so you aren’t boxing yourself in. (Also, I make sure my “budget” is actually 20% than what my actual budget is so I can tip them!)

  6. If you are in Toronto I am Black dark skin (fenty 470) person with lots of tattoos (some in color!) I’ve got stuff from @soft.point, @humblebeetattoo, @_kobrah, @bekmurrell and @maddmoll. They are all on instagram!

    I also recommend @lindsyapril and @ek.tattoos (also on instagram)

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!