Getting your first tattoo can feel like a major, daunting decision; after all, barring laser removal, this is something you'll have on your body for the rest of your life. But whether you're considering a chest piece or a sleeve, something big or small, we've got you covered.
Men's Health asked Dr Matt Lodder, a senior lecturer in Art and Philosophy at the University of Essex and author of Tattoo: An Art History, to share his advice for tattoo newcomers on the best way to pick out a tattoo design that's right for you.
Don't overthink it.
One of the things that first-timers get caught up in, Lodder explains, is the idea that whatever tattoo they get must have a deep, personal and profound meaning.
"A lot of people just really want a cool tattoo, and then think they have to rationalise it, like 'I have three flaming skulls; one's for my mum, one's for my nan, one'd for my dog,' when actually they just want a cool tattoo," he says. "If there's a lesson for the first-time consumer crossing that very threshold, I think it's much less about coming up with some cockamamie justification for the tattoo you want to get, and more about working very closely with an artist whose work you like."
"I'm not saying tattoos can’t be symbolically meaningful, obviously they can be. All images can be. But meanings change over time, too. What your tattoo means to you now may not be what it means to you in the future. It's a permanent reminder of a temporary idea; so naturally you should be careful about what temporary ideas you're memorializing."
It's a collaborative process.
If you've never set foot in a tattoo studio before, you might be under the impression that you have to present your own design to the artist, or pick something off the wall. The truth is, most artists will work with you to create a custom piece that you're both proud of.
"There are so many incredible tattooers, there's no excuse to get a shit one," says Lodder. "In every town, almost, there are amazing artists. If you're willing to wait a bit, and spend some money, and have a conversation with the artist, you’re going to have something great. It makes me really sad when I see celebrities with bad tattoos. Like, you have so much time and so much money! Ben Affleck's is a classic one. But then some, like Rihanna or even Sylvester Stallone, know how to do it properly; they go to world-class artists and get great work."
Be mindful of "trendy" tattoos.
Body art is like any other visual medium; it goes through trends and fashions. Some inevitably end up looking dated, while others eventually cycle back around. Take the '90s aesthetic, for instance. Bucket hats, thrifted shirts and middle-parts are back in among Gen Z, and so are the spiky tribal-style tattoos that were so wildly popular 20 years ago.
"Things start off very cutting edge, then 10 years later they’re mainstream, then 10 years after that they’re lame, then 10 years they’re cutting edge again," explains Lodder. "No-one wants their dad’s tattoos, like nobody wants their dad’s car, or music. But everyone wants their granddad’s stuff."
"If there's any warning here, it's to not get anything that's super à la mode," he continues. "If you're getting these micro tattoos, or brushstroke stuff, that will age in the skin terribly. If you get something really cutting edge, it will look shit as quickly as anything cutting edge does. And if you're lucky, it might look cool again in 10 or 20 years’ time."
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