Due to my absurdly low pain tolerance, getting a tattoo was always one of those things I thought I could never handle. Still, I'd tell people that if I ever got one, it would have to be an octopus. By that point, the pain didn't matter. I needed that octopus on my body. That tattoo represented breaking free from my old inhibited personality and buttoned-up lifestyle and becoming a force of nature like that creature. Throughout the experience, though, I learned how to make tattoos less painful.
1. You should have a connection with your tattoo artist: You two are co-creating something that'll be on your body forever, so it's okay to be selective. In fact, you should be. A good tattoo artist won't just discuss the technical stuff. They'll have a conversation to understand your personality, your concerns, and what design fits you. Sue and I talked about all the changes going on in my life, and I can see them reflected in the wildness of my octopus, which makes me love it even more.
She recommends paying attention to little things like how smoothly the appointment scheduling process goes and how friendly the person who greets you in the shop is. Many tattoo artists will offer consultations before you get your tattoo, so take advantage of that. Make sure you're comfortable asking questions and voicing what you want.
2. You may regret sacrificing design for comfort: I initially considered switching to a simpler design, like just a few lines in an octopus shape, but Sue encouraged me to tell her exactly what was in my heart before bringing in logistical considerations. I described a fierce-looking animal with its tentacles wrapped around a ship's sails. Once I articulated that vision, I knew a few lines wouldn't do.
If you don't have a clear idea of what you want, Sue recommends going with something simple to minimize pain your first time. But if you feel strongly about a design, don't compromise it. In hindsight, most people don't regret putting up with extra pain for a design they love. They regret getting tattoos they don't love to save themselves a few minutes of pain. Plus, you can drastically reduce the pain (more on that later).
3. Some body parts are more sensitive than others: The most painful places to get tattoos are over bones and major organs, says Sue. Dr. Avaliani agrees: The less fat, the less cushion. So, if you're worried about pain, you may not want to emulate Ariana Grande's finger tattoos. The knees and chest can also be trouble. The arms, thighs, shoulders, and back are the easiest to tolerate, since the skin there mostly covers muscle and fat.
4. During the tattoo itself, talking helps a lot: Though the numbing cream and Ibuprofen helped, what really got me through the experience was telling Sue the story of how me and my partner met. The task of recalling all the details forced me to stay focused on something other than the pain. My voice would occasionally get louder, which was probably entertaining for the other people in the shop, but having that excuse to shout probably helped, too.
Some clients instead will count backwards from four, since it takes around four seconds to create each line, says Sue. Others will bring friends, though not all tattoo parlors allow this. Don't be shy - if there's anything that'll help keep your mind off the pain, go for it (as long as it doesn't distract your tattoo artist or move the body part where you're getting the tattoo).
5. You shouldn't get tattoos over birthmarks or moles: Doctors check moles and birthmarks for changes that could indicate skin cancer, says Dr. Avaliani. If you cover them up, it could become harder to detect signs of melanoma or other cancers, so you're best off leaving them visible, to be safe.
6. It's normal for it to get flaky afterward: When I first noticed the skin where I got my tattoo flaking, I freaked out and thought the whole tattoo was coming off. Don't worry - that's not what's going on. "As the tattoo pigment is incorporated in the skin, some of the skin cells shed off causing flakiness," says Dr. Avaliani. "The whole tattoo process is also irritating to the skin, so the skin is trying to heal itself." Your tattoo artist will give you a cream to minimize the itchiness.
7. If there's anything you don't like, speak up: I love my tattoo, but there's one little thing I'm not totally happy with. When Sue drew the design on a translucent sheet and held it up to my arm (which most tattoo artists do first to make sure you like it), I thought it was too close to my chest and not far enough out on my arm. I also suspected it would hurt more on my inner arm.
But, I went with it in the moment. It turned out it really was too sensitive there for her to completely finish, so we had to change the design a little, and the placement looks slightly off to me. If anything bothers you when that initial sheet is held up, say something. Don't feel scared of being too demanding or intimidated about being a newbie. The staff want to make this experience special for you. "We're really honored to be your first tattoo," says Sue. "We've all been there."
8. Your tattoo will probably change meaning over time: People always warn you to wait until you're really passionate about a symbol before getting your first tattoo, but if you really want a tattoo, it'll probably take on meaning over time, says Sue. On the flip side, even if you have a clear idea of what your tattoo means, that meaning could change. Mine took on a whole new meaning after reading about futuristic cephalopods in the sci-fi story, "Story of Your Life."
If you're not sure what to get for your first design, Sue recommends something like an animal that's rich in symbolism. Whatever the tattoo itself is, it'll become a relic of a time in your life - "a permanent reminder of a temporary situation," as Sue puts it. "If you get something that has layered meanings to it, over time, it becomes such a part of you that you won't regret it."
The writer is a freelancer
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