Last month, I experienced a media industry rite of passage: I was laid off. Newly uninsured, without a steady paycheck for the first time since I was 14 years old, generally pessimistic about my financial stability, and more or less sure I was spiraling into a state of complete emotional meltdown, I did what any logical man would do: I decided to get my first tattoo, the start of a full sleeve.
In the process, I learned a lot about the dos and don'ts of getting one, which I would like to share.
Finding an Artist and Picking an Idea
A slightly meandering path led me to the Instagram account of an artist named Victoria Do, who works out of Bang Bang in New York City, a shop named for its owner, who’s tattooed the likes of Rihanna, Justin Bieber, and Lebron James. I did not select Victoria for her proximity to the rich and famous (although I have always wanted to have something in common with Rihanna). I selected her because, during a FaceTime conversation, she peered more closely into her phone screen, as if her vision would sharpen my pixelated face. “Oh my God,” she said. “You were friends with my brother in college! You two took me to all these gay bars in New York when I was like, 16.”
My irresponsible past coming back to find me, I told myself, was a sign—this sleeve was not just the impulse of a man pushing 30 whose ego had been badly bruised. It was meant to be.
To be fair, the idea for my tattoo had been brewing for two years. My middle name is Francis, after my father’s favorite saint, Francis of Assisi. I’d later find out through some research that Saint Francis could have been a friend of Dorothy, if you know what I mean. Even though labels like “gay” didn’t really exist then (and he took a vow of chastity), it’s believed he was called “mother” by his followers, and had a “close friendship” with another man whose company he favored for long walks and hikes. After years of trauma from Catholic schooling, I found out my religious name had a homosexual subplot. All of this could amount to nothing, and it certainly isn’t how the Vatican sees things—but for me, it was too perfect.
“A loose idea is fine,” Do says. “It doesn’t have to be a solid subject matter, even, but it helps if you’re set on the meaning behind it and the style that you want.” Do immediately showed me different forms of religious art, ranging from Renaissance-style pieces to flatter, Byzantine designs. I learned pretty quickly that identifying tattoo ideas is not all that different from wandering into a museum and finding what resonates with you. Tattooing is a vast world—there’s line drawing, fine line, fine line realism, micro-realism, abstract line work, geometric line work, and a whole bevy of cultural influences to choose from. But you can also work more intuitively: use Instagram as your art museum, browsing different pages and combing through hashtags, saving the images and designs that speak to you. When you look at your saved images folder later, you’ll (hopefully) find some aesthetic consistency—and maybe even identify the artist you want to work with.
To extend the fine art metaphor, keep in mind that plenty of Western museums have caught heat for owning some of the most important artistic pieces of other cultures—art and artifacts that are now considered prizes of colonial invasion and pillaging. This kind of cultural thievery also extends to your ink: “Please try not to get tattoos that don’t belong to your own culture,” warns the activist, model, and ink enthusiast Munroe Bergdorf. “It may have seemed cool 20 years ago to get a dreamcatcher or a Native American symbol tattooed on your body, but choosing something that’s personal to you is a much safer bet.”
It’s also good to remember that the stuff you see on Instagram is an inspiration point for tattoo ideas—not something for your eventual tattooer to copy. The artist Chella Man started noticing that people were lifting his artwork from his Instagram page and getting tattoos done of his paintings and drawings, even tagging him in a photo of the finished result. “As much as it’s an honor to have my work on another being’s body, I do ask that I be compensated,” he says. “Please remember that artwork is real work, and deserves to be paid as such!” (As a compromise, he made a temporary tattoo collection that lasts up to two weeks—a surprisingly cool option if you’re wanting to dip your toe in the waters before fully committing.)
Hopefully, your social media browsing led you to discover some artists or studios that you’d like to visit or commission. In fact, Mars Hobrecker, a tattoo artist and the co-owner of Somewhere NYC, says the platform is where “almost 100%” of his clientele comes from. “Instagram has made it easy to find artists who work in a wide variety of styles,” he says. “But on top of that, it also allows people to get a sense of the artist as a person. Both of these things are important to pay attention to: You can find someone whose art you love, but who you feel is also aligned with your values.”
Definitely think about the artist diligently before you book an appointment: You’re paying someone to put their work on your body, which you will then wear for (conceivably) the rest of your life. Not to mention that you might be about to spend a whole lot of time right next to them, depending on the scale of your tattoo. Hopefully, you’re picking someone who you’ll be proud to say has been a part of altering your body.
A lot of artists will offer a free consultation to assess how much time they need with you and determine what you’re going to make together. At Bang Bang, I sat down with Do a few weeks before my appointment to show her reference photos, as explain how I wanted my first tattoo with her to be a part of a bigger sleeve. She responded by showing me examples of work she’d done and of others’ work she liked that she thought she could riff off of for my design. I didn’t know that even sleeves came in different styles—everything from a “sticker” vibe (lots of different designs strategically placed along the arm) to a “mural,” which is one, dense piece with multiple elements that goes from the shoulder to the wrist. I didn’t want anything too dense, so we agreed on a series of appointments over the span of a few months, and I listed different figures, characters, and symbols I’d like incorporated. I even showed her my grandmother’s rosary beads, which she draped over my forearm and wrist and imagined, right there, as the logical ending of my sleeve. Excited, I asked if I could see her design before the appointment, and she bristled. I had unwittingly violated a part of the tattoo code.
“A lot of times, people really want to control every bit of the process,” Hobrecker says. “Sometimes, it can be really powerful to just let yourself enjoy something. Relinquishing some amount of control is important. If you choose the right person, then it will turn out fine.”
A consultation is also a good time to iron out other key details: How big are you thinking? How much time will it take? What places are you open to getting tattooed? Do you want to leave the opportunity to build atop this tattoo with more designs? It’s also great to flip through their own book to become more familiar with their work—and, their clientele. The model and activist Yves is famous for his full bodysuit of tattoos—even his eyelids are covered—but he finds one piece of advice worth dispensing above all. “If you’re gifted with a dark complexion like myself,” he says, “see if the artists have tattooed someone of your skin tone before you book an appointment.” (Unless you personally know and trust someone, it’s probably best not to be their test subject.)
Do also recommends using the in-person consultation as a way to get an idea of the artist’s space. “We go through so much training to make sure everything is sanitary,” she says. “So make sure you look at the stations in the studio—if you see a lot of ink stains, you should second guess going there. It usually means the station is dirty. Also, all the artists should be wearing gloves, and everything should be wrapped, from the bottles they’re touching to the wires they’re using. If anything looks out of place, I’d consider going elsewhere.”
Finally, your consultation is where you’re going to find out about the least fun part of your process: The cost. If all looks like a go after your consultation and you want to book an appointment, you’ll most likely be asked to make a deposit on the total amount of the service. Prices for tattoos vary enormously—everything from size to style to placement can play a factor—but, Do points out, this isn’t exactly something you want to underpay for. “You should be comfortable making an investment,” she says. “For a good tattoo, artists create original pieces or commissions, so it’s unique to you and your body. Plus, you’ll have it forever.” Hobrecker points out that he’s never created the same exact tattoo twice—even if his clients ask for it. Getting something special and custom in any industry means the cost will be higher—but if price is a concern, you can always ask up-front for rates, and establish whether a particular artist or studio is in your budget.
The Big Day
From your consultation, you should know about how much time you’ll be spending in the studio, so prepare accordingly. Start your day with a hearty breakfast, and pack a few snacks in your bag, as well as a bottle of water (and something slightly more enjoyable, like coconut water). You should not drink alcohol the entire day before you get your ink done. “It will thin your blood,” Hobrecker says. “It’s a little freaky, but I can always tell if someone has been drinking beforehand. It just affects how the skin takes the ink.”
The day will start with your design being unveiled, which is basically the best part! Hopefully, you love everything, or only need minor tweaks to be made. I immediately loved the design that Do made for me—a picture of Saint Francis holding a dove, his hand emerging from a rectangular frame, as if he was stepping out of the artwork himself. Showing me the design on her iPad, she couldn’t help but feel like it was missing something—and finally, began pulling up examples of text tattooing she’d executed before. Quickly, I pulled up the Prayer of Saint Francis, and she got to work drawing in cursive above her design. In under an hour, she had taken the initial idea I wanted, and transformed it into something so much more meaningful. I was beyond excited—and grateful to have finally, in Hobrecker’s words, relinquished control.
It doesn’t always go this way. If the artist totally missed the mark and you no longer feel like the trust is present (it happens sometimes!), you may need to make a difficult decision. “Tattooing is a consent-based practice,” Hobrecker points out. “So you shouldn’t feel pressured into anything. It sucks, but you can say, ‘No,’ or ‘I’m not feeling it’ at any point, even if that means losing your deposit.”
After the unveiling, your artist will print stencils to paste onto your body. This can actually be the most frustrating portion of the day. Since I was getting a sleeve Do was painfully meticulous about the placement of the stencil, asking me to raise my arms, bend, and turn at different angles before erasing it and trying again. It was tedious and a little anticlimactic, but she was clear that it was absolutely necessary: “You don’t want a crooked tattoo for the rest of your life, do you?”
Then, of course, comes the pain. In all honesty, tattooing starts off as more of a dull ache or stinging, but builds to a crescendo the longer you’re seated in the chair. Yves, who has tattoos from his head to his toes, insists that every single one has hurt. While every person is different, there are some near-universal truths about where you’ll feel pain the most: “My palms, my butt, my head, my eyelids, and my stomach,” he says, “ with my palms being the worst.”
Tattooing itself is extremely detail-oriented work—your artist will be up close and personal with whatever body part you’ve chosen. Naturally, different artists have different processes—Hobrecker, for example, likes to chat during the experience. “I love talking to people—it’s the best part of my job,” he says. For her part, Do alternated between chatting and intense periods of concentration. Unfortunately, I somehow fell asleep for the first two hours of the process, twitching periodically, threatening to ruin her precious work. (I, as you may have gathered by now, am a nightmare client.)
After my nap, I distracted myself with a book, then listened to a podcast. “You’ll be either sitting or lying down for a while, so bring things to keep you company,” she advises. “Download a movie on your phone or iPad, bring headphones, a book, a television show, whatever.” When you get the sense your artist is in the zone, you can always give them a heads up that you’re going to listen to music or zone out for a bit. While politeness is key, sometimes the best way to distract yourself from the pain is by getting your mind (and ears) off of it completely.
A lot of the other patrons of Bang Bang brought friends with them to watch the process, and this is something that definitely divides artists. If you do want a pal with you, stick to one friend only, and make sure they are prepared with entertainment in case you and your artist need to build your own rapport. I found that I was able to better immerse myself in the experience alone. I love my friends, but I can’t imagine anyone weighing in on what my body should look like.
For longer appointments, there will inevitably be breaks. I ordered us some lunch and we sat and ate together, scrolling through our phones, until we were ready to get back to it. At a certain point during my eight-hour visit, the pain started to become a little too much. I spoke up, Do sprayed the area with Bactine, a pain-numbing spray, and we made it to the finish line without incident.
(I feel it should probably go without saying, but some of the same dynamics we read about workplace harassment in the news these days can absolutely happen in the tattoo chair. A female tattoo artist who would prefer not to be named told me about a male client of hers who insisted on an upper thigh tattoo, then proceeded to rub around his thighs in an apparent effort to excite himself during the service. So just heed this advice above all: If you’re going to book a tattoo, don’t be a creep.)
After your ink is done, your artists will seal the deal, literally. While Bang Bang abides by a cellophane wrap for two hours followed by a soap water rinse, other artists are migrating to something called “second skin,” or Tegaderm .“It’s a type of bandage that’s been used in hospitals for ages,” Hobrecker says. “We bandage all of our clients with it and recommend they leave it on for three days—it’s waterproof, breathable, and your tattoo’s still getting air. This allows the tattoo to start healing from the inside out.”
No matter which method of recovery your artist has chosen, nothing will quite prepare you for what happens next. You have a fresh wound. And your beautiful tattoo—which may currently look immaculate and crisp—is about to itch like hell, potentially scab over, and basically molt and shed for the next couple of weeks. After-care is, therefore, absolutely essential.
A lot of artists recommend Aquaphor for the first couple of days off healing. Since I’m opposed to the stuff (petroleum jelly isn’t exactly an environmentally friendly ingredient), Do suggested I use coconut oil as a replacement. My favorite is still Shea Moisture Extra Virgin Coconut Oil. I apply a thin layer to the area anytime it feels dry or like it’s itching, and make sure to wash the area extra gently with soap and water during showers, being very careful to use moderate temperatures and get in and out as quickly as possible. “You don’t want to keep it locked in moisture for too long, so wait two to three weeks before exposing it to salt water,” Do adds. Even submerging it in a bath before a couple weeks’ time is a little risky.
$4.00, Shea Moisture
Most professionals recommend you skip the gym for a minimum of three days—or up to a week, depending on where you’re getting tattooed. (My trainer, GQ’s very own Joe Holder, was none too pleased about this.) I recommend booking your appointment on a Thursday, so you have the weekend to recover, and the rest of the week to get your exercise in.
You also have to avoid direct sun for two to three weeks. “When the sun hits a wound or scar, it causes discoloration and further scarring. Your tattoo could also become lighter in certain spots, especially when it’s healing,” Do says. Hobrecker remembers one client who spent hours getting a large piece on their calf, only for it to fade into a Henna-like color after they spent an ill-advised day at the beach.
The healing process may yield a less-than-perfect tattoo, which is totally fine. You’re welcome to contact your artist for touch-ups, which they should be happy to accommodate. (Remember: You’re now a walking advertisement for their art!)
But, beware that the after-care process never really stops. Chris Salgardo, former president of grooming powerhouse Kiehl’s, now has quite the ink collection—one he is constantly maintaining. “I make sure that I always have sunscreen on them when I’m in the direct sun, and I always keep my skin moisturized,” he says. “Like everything else you want to preserve in life, tattoos need maintenance, too.” Salgardo also goes for touch-ups, since the ink will fade over time, “especially if they’re in color.” You should be well acquainted with a good tube of sunscreen and find a formula that works for you. Personally, I resist anything that leaves a chalky residue, so I’m a forever fan of Supergoop Glow Oil SPF 50. Sunscreen is your best insurance policy for a tattoo that ages well.
Speaking of aging, there seems to be a common refrain from tattoo skeptics that this is a decision we’ll regret massively when we’re older—but not a single tattooed older man I spoke to for this piece regretted his decision. In all honesty, the right tattoo on an older guy can very well be the difference between, “I’m your Father” and “I’m your Daddy.” (And come on: Who wouldn’t rather be the daddy?)
“For me, aged skin is aged skin. It really doesn’t matter whether it has ink on it or not,” says style icon Nick Wooster. “A good tattoo on aged skin is no different from good skin that ages.”
However, Salgardo cautions, “While tattoos look great at any age, you should expect to get them touched up over time, especially if they’re in color.” (Wooster now wishes he’d gotten his done only in black and white—the color has faded over time, despite his best efforts.)
And even though tattoos feel like they’re forever, they don’t necessarily have to be. For the past year, I’ve watched on Instagram as Bergdorf has undergone treatment for tattoo removal at the Pulselight Clinic in London, where technicians use a PicoWay laser to blast some of her tattoos. (Eventually, your body reabsorbs the ink and gets rid of it in stages, like waste.) The process, she says, “is about 10 times more painful than getting an actual tattoo, and you need to get it every two months until it’s gone.” It is also quite expensive.
When I ask her how I can avoid regretting my own tattoos, she insists “regret” isn’t the word she’d choose for herself. “I don’t regret them, but I’ve outgrown them,” she tells me. “I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve had an emotional breakthrough. I’ve not always felt at home in my body, but now I’ve grown a lot as a person. So I look at them now, and I see who I was before, and I don’t want that reminder.” Even as she’s embarked on her journey of removal, Bergdorf has added to her tattoo collection. One of her latest is the perfect insignia for this next chapter of her life: The word “GODDESS,” in rudimentary lettering, neatly drawn just above her breasts.
Tattooing can feel a bit like emotional catharsis— a decision to make something permanent to reflect a period of your life, whether that’s of intense loss, pain, heartbreak, or love. But permanence is a hard concept to grasp for any of us mortals, which is why it may be wise to think more than twice before making your commitment. “If you’re concerned about how your tattoo might age, I’d just say think further on it,” says the actor JR Bourne. “Maybe it isn’t the right one for this moment in your life.”
In fact, when I asked my friends about the tattoos they love the most, all of them pointed to something sentimental. For Yves, it’s the names “Cax” and “Justin,” which he had imprinted on his skin as a testament to “two dear humans I loved that unfortunately passed away. Adding them to my canvas helps me a bit with healing—even though they’re already a part of me, now they’re even more so.”
For Man, it’s the flipped words “I love you,” directly borrowed from a note he wrote to himself when he was just 12 years old. “For 18 years, I’ve tried infinitely to grasp my gender. Today, I understand my gender is outside of the binary. I am fully accepting and at peace with my body—this tattoo is my documentation of this realization.”
And for Wooster, who says his large tattoos were a contributing factor to his early street style fame, it’s the more modest ink etched onto his neck. Soon, Wooster will be celebrating his 60th birthday, as well as his 25th year of sobriety, which started on September 3rd, 1995. That’s the date he sees when he looks at his reflection to brush his teeth each morning—a constant reminder of where he’s been, who he was, and who he is now.
Originally Appeared on GQ