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Angelina Jolie's back tattoo.
Angelina Jolie's back tattoo.
Getty Images

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The Complete Guide to Getting the Right Tattoo

Everything you have to know to get the perfect piece of body art.

Diamonds may be forever, but tattoos really last. Since they’re one thing that will genuinely be with you "‘til death do you part," any artist or collector will tell you: it’s worth shopping for tattoos with the care, budgeting and sense of personal style that you’d put in to choosing a wedding gown. While good body art can be beautiful, sexy, and deeply meaningful to the wearer, bad tattoos can give people the wrong impression about you—or turn your body into a perpetual #ThrowbackThursday. And, even worse, in the wrong hands they can be potentially dangerous to your health. If you decide to proceed with permanent art, below are some tips to ensure that you get something you’ll truly love forever.

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Better by Design

So you’ve decided to get a tattoo—congratulations! You’re joining a growing number of Americans (about 40% according to one poll.) Now seen on everyone from pop stars to bankers, tattoos have exploded in popularity over the last two decades. They've moved from being the mark of the underground to a mainstream trend… and that in and of itself can lead to problems.

Because they’re so readily available now, it can be tempting to just pop down to the closest shop and pick something off the wall. But remember, unlike a perm or harem pants, a tattoo is not something that you’ll grow out of or laugh off later. Instead you’ll want to pick out your statement piece carefully. This means avoiding getting your tattoo on impulse (e.g., they do not make great vacation souvenirs) or choosing something you saw in a celebrity magazine. According to New York-based artist, Sara Antoinette Martin, "things that are trendy don’t necessarily make the best tattoos." Your best bet is to treat the process like getting permanent couture for your skin—custom, personal and built to last.

Martin says she’s seen innumerable bird silhouettes, feathers and infinity symbols over the last couple of years.

Whether your idea for what you want is really specific or just a vague notion, choosing an artist is crucial. Your artist can walk you through the selection of a design or create a bespoke one for you based on your ideas. You can use some of the samples on the wall (commonly known as "flash") to guide you, but just be aware that they’re not originals so you might see them on others. One thing Martin specifically recommends against is coming in with designs pulled from Pinterest or Google. Artists don't like directly copying another artist’s work, and a designed grabbed offline may not be reproducible—or may be so trendy it becomes cliché. To wit, Martin says she’s seen innumerable bird silhouettes, feathers and infinity symbols over the last couple of years.


Rihanna's neck tattoo. Image: Getty Images.

It’s also important to listen to your artist if they recommend changes to your dream design. They want to make you happy for years to come, but a needle is not a magic wand: ink into skin is a very specific medium and it needs to be dealt with on its own terms. A good artist will help you adjust for the gap between what you have in your mind and what's physically possible. "People have come in with unrealistic expectations sometimes," Martin says, "A lot of the time I have to explain to them how to make the tattoo a tattoo that you’re happy with and that’s going to look good over time." For example, the size and location of a tattoo often calls for changes the client couldn't anticipate and in order to get good results "you have to compromise, so that the tattoos will have to be blacker or bolder or bigger than you were imagining."

Tattoo artists are also just that—artists—and as such have different concentrations, so they will not be offended if you consult with them and look through their portfolios before you book an appointment. You want to be sure their style matches the one you want: if you're looking for a photorealistic portrait, don’t schedule with someone who specializes in old school, Sailor Jerry-type designs, no matter how beautiful their work is. Ask friends (and strangers—politely and without touching, of course) for references if you see something you like. You can even check out a tattoo show, if you want to see a huge number of different books in one day.

"Places like your ribs, or the side of your feet, or the side of your fingers can be very difficult to tattoo and they can be a more painful spot, but it’s a trendy place for them to be right now."

Location, Location, Location

Once you’ve picked your masterpiece, there’s the issue of where to put it. As ever, the artist is the expert—listen to his or her counsel since he or she will know that the body itself varies widely in the way it takes ink. As Martin describes it, these requests can also come out of celebrity tattoo sightings. "Places like your ribs, or the side of your feet, or the side of your fingers can be very difficult to tattoo and they can be a more painful spot, but it’s a trendy place for them to be right now." This doesn’t mean work can’t be done in those areas, but that it might age quicker and become blurry. "The skin exfoliates at a faster rate there than on [the rest of] your body, so the tattoos break down and fall out of certain places." Joints in particular are hard to keep looking fresh and get a good line on, since "the skin is always moving." For a first piece, it’s perhaps better to choose more conventional or subtle location for your work. Also bear in mind the realities of time on the female body in particular; gravity, pregnancy and weight fluctuations can all take a toll on even the most expertly inked works.

Additionally, there is some controversy around artists tattooing anything above the collar or on the hands of new clients. It may seem like a good idea now, but lifestyles change. It might be an unfair stereotype, but Martin (who has them herself) says that having highly visible tattoos "changes the way you look and how people perceive you... It doesn’t matter how well done they are," also quipping, "You might have a good job now, but there’s a reason why they’re called ‘job killers.’" Ultimately, it’s important to reputable professionals that their clients are satisfied with the work and stay that way, so they will err on the side of caution with those requests. This is yet another skill artists need to have, Martin explains, insisting, "You’re putting a permanent mark on somebody. You have to be able judge whether they’re going to be happy with it down the road."


Lena Dunham's back tattoo. Image: Getty Images.

At Your Appointment

Once you’ve done your research, then you can book your appointment. You may be asked to leave a deposit to hold your spot and cover the cost of the prep work. Don't be surprised when you see the price of your work: a good tattooist can command from $150 to $250 an hour—or more. Remember that this is an investment in quality and something you will literally wear everyday for your lifetime, so the cost is worth it. "Cheap tattoos are not good and good tattoos are not cheap," quotes Martin, parroting an old adage. Additionally, like a lot of service professionals, artists only charge for the time they’re actually working (which often doesn’t include drawing, prepping and consulting), so if you change your mind or need to reschedule, let them know ASAP, so they can have the time back to reschedule with other clients.

As for your own prep, make sure you’re in good shape going in to the chair. That means not showing up hungover (and especially not drunk or altered in anyway), and being rested, showered, and well fed. Martin regularly sees fainters—especially nervous first timers, those who have marathon sessions without having had breakfast, or people who come in dehydrated from being out the night before. "It’s important to feel good if you’re going to go through the long session of a tattoo" says Martin. "Basically your body goes through trauma," she explains, so be prepared for the experience.

Ultimately, choosing each element of your tattoo carefully is about getting exactly what you want.

Finally, you’re going to want to take it easy afterwards and pay careful attention to the after-care instructions for your new ink. Following the post-tattooing rules is vital to keeping your new art clean and protected from the sun as it heals. And of course, as with any professional service, always be polite, mindful and tip generously.

Writing Her Own Love Story

Ultimately, choosing each element of your tattoo carefully is about getting exactly what you want. For writer Liesa Goins, who is shopping for an artist to create her first visible tattoo (she has one design on her back that’s hidden by clothing), going through these steps has made her feel more confident about the prospect of venturing out in to the world with new ink. Before researching her upcoming art, she spent a bit of time deciding if she could even be "the sort of person who has a visible tattoo." Once she was sure that she was, and that she didn’t want to "pick something off the wall," and that she was "interested in working with someone who will help me figure out where it will look best", all of the pieces started to fall in to place. Goins says she's excited about the whole process, and not even worried about the pain. All of which will likely add up to an outcome that she can live with happily ever after.

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