Tattoos can be a scrapbook of a person’s life. They tell us about the wearer’s loves, hates, hopes, fears, accomplishments, and regrets. They can be purely decorative. They can tell where a person is from or where they want to be. It may be done as a way of being “different” or “rebellious”, or fitting into a larger group identity..
Ideally, they are applied in an attractive way, by a knowledgeable artist, fitting the body and personality of the wearer, with an enduring personal significance and a timeless style that will not go out with the current trend. Tattoos of this type are seldom regretted and can be empowering points of pride for their owners. I don’t know one person with a good quality, appropriately sized, and personally significant tattoo they wish they hadn’t gotten.
For many, however, this is an impulsive act, one eventually regretted for that very reason. Often, not much thought is put into the design’s significance or its overall effect on one’s self-image. Too many times, tattoos are gotten because they are fashionable. The problem is, fashions change, and unlike other fashion accessories, you have to keep your tattoo.
This is why it’s important to know HOW to get tattooed. For many, this is a daunting and confusing endeavour, especially the first time. After all, it’s permanent. This idea alone can be nerve-racking enough. Most people never do anything permanent. Half of marriages nowadays are far less than that, and the idea of committing to an aesthetic seems far tougher than committing to a soul mate.
The first step is to know your self. What are you into? What do you hold dear? What do you desire? What do you believe? What types of imagery do you find pleasing, and what part of your body would you like to accentuate with a tattoo? These are good places to start.
Placement, scale, and flow, are paramount in importance. Good tattoos, in my opinion, should look like clothing or jewellry from a respectable viewing distance. A prime example is traditional Japanese tattooing. Another would be Pacific islander. Optimally, they should read well from across the street. If so, they will age well. Badgy, small, isolated tattoos look like melanomas and only get worse with time. These should be avoided.
Then you need to decide on the imagery. Good design references can be found anywhere; the internet, library, magazines, comic books, greeting cards, even wallpaper. This part is subjective. Look for TYPES of imagery you like, not necessarily specific tattoo designs. A good tattooist can then help you develop a basic idea in a beautiful finished piece, but he or she needs direction from you.
Next you need to find that artist… the one who can do the mental math for you, adding up your expectations and ideas to give you exactly what you never knew you wanted. Word of mouth is invaluable. If you see a tattoo you like on someone, ask who did it. Look a tattoo magazines and on the internet to find out about local tattooists. Once you’ve found a few prospects and located their studios, take some time to visit them and view their studios and portfolios.
The portfolio is key. How artists present their work speaks volumes about them professionally. Look for HEALED pictures of quality work a style that speaks to you. Look for consistent line work, smooth shading, and solid colour. A tattooist will most often put their favourite work in their book, so you can see what they prefer to do or specialise in. Do not bypass this step. If you neglect to look at a portfolio, you deserve what you get. If you ask and they say “Portfolio?”… run like hell!
So there you are. You’ve brainstormed for weeks, gone into all the local tattoo shops, perused portfolios, chosen the “perfect” artist, AND decided on a design (WHEW!). Now you’re ready to sign the waiver form and have your skin art dreams come true… right? Not just yet, there, Turbo! One very necessary part of the overall picture should be looked at before you should have ANY kind of invasive procedure done. It’s always a good idea to look at the practices of your chosen artist to make sure that this isn’t a decision you’ll regret. If you’d be so kind as to read on, I’ll tell you what you should know and look for to insure you’re getting a safe tattoo.
First of all, let’s discuss the risks inherent to this kind of procedure. Like any other activity that involves needles and blood, there is always the possibility of transmitting disease if proper standards are not met. Blood borne pathogens such as HIV and hepatitis are of greatest popular concern, with most people believing their biggest risk is “getting AIDS”. In fact, HIV is hardly a concern in tattooing, mostly because of the sheer volume of blood that has to be transmitted to infect someone with the virus. HIV is also relatively weak and survives for only short time when exposed to the environment.
Hepatitis, a disease that attacks the liver, is of a lot more concern, being a much heartier pathogen that requires a much smaller amount of body fluid transfer, though it should be mentioned that, according to the US Centres for Disease Control, there has NEVER been a documented case of Hepatitis OR AIDS caused by a tattoo.
However, there’s always a first time for everything, and nobody wants to be it, so it’s always a good idea to take universal precautions. Remember, too, that there are many other diseases out there that you can receive through contact with infected blood, such as tuberculosis. That’s not all, though. We also have to take into account the plethora of different bacterial and fungal infections that that are just waiting for the opportunity to fester inside your brand new tattoo. So be careful… the hide you save could be your own.
The first step in this process is to ask about the studio’s universal precautions… a set of practices used with each and every client to prevent infection and disease transmission (hence the term “universal”). Do they use new needles? Do they wear latex or comparable exam gloves while working?
Do they use an acceptable hard surface disinfectant on all their tools and work surface in between tattoos after doing away with all disposable items (razor blades, ink, ink cups, Vaseline, plastic barriers, rubber bands, etc)?
How do they sterilise their non-disposable equipment? These are the questions that you should have answered BEFORE getting tattooed or pierced… as well as any others that come to mind. Remember, it’s YOUR health, and it’s your responsibility. Do it for yourself as well as for your friends and loved ones. You don’t want to end up an amputee Typhoid Mary, do you?
As far as sterilisation goes, their are three commonly used methods… cold chemical, dry heat, and autoclave sterilisation. An autoclave is a device that uses steam, heat, and pressure to kill all known microorganisms and the spores with which they reproduce and is the preferred method of sterilisation, especially for equipment that has come into contact with possibly infectious body fluids.
Chemical and dry heat sterilisation are considered adequate for non-contaminated items (those that have not come into contact with body fluids) or items that cannot be sterilised in an autoclave, but aren’t the most effective practices because the steam pressure of an autoclave (what these two methods lack) is what kills reproductive spores and gets into all the little nooks and crannies of the equipment.
Autoclave sterilisation takes place when clean, dry, individually packaged items are processed at 15 pounds per square inch and 250 degrees Fahrenheit for twenty minutes at temp and pressure (though this is the most common standard, these figures vary… more heat or pressure can decrease necessary exposure time).
The next thing you should try to do is watch the tattooist work. Usually this isn’t a problem and most good tattooists will actually appreciate the fact that you care enough to ask. Things that you should look for include, “Is the work area clean, organised, and well lit?”, “Does he wash his hands between clients?”, “Does he refrain from touching things like doorknobs, lights, the telephone, or radio with dirty gloves?”.
Increased confidence can be had with an artist who also uses plastic barriers on their power supply, tattoo machines, spray bottles, and work surface, because they cut down on gross contamination with blood and ink, therefore making clean-up between clients easier and more thorough.
Great care should be taken to prevent cross contamination, which occurs when possibly infectious material from one client comes in contact with a surface and the tattooist touches that surface while working on the next, thus “cross-contaminating” from one client to another. Keep in mind that the care the artist takes with his cleanliness is a good indication of the level of care he’ll take in the execution of your tattoo. There’s no such thing as a good, dirty, tattooist.
If you bear these things in mind and keep you eyes peeled, asking any and all questions that come to mind, you should be fully capable of deciding whether or not your decision to get tattooed will be a good one. There are few things in this world more satisfying than having a brand-new, beautiful tattoo… except not having to worry about getting sick from it.
If you need any other reason to go through all this hassle, just close your eyes (I’m waiting…) and imagine an oozing, festering, two week old fungal infection in that same tattoo and the resulting scar that will be there once it FINALLY heals. All it takes is a little time and common sense to avoid making a decision you’ll regret. Isn’t it worth it to insure your health and that of your loved ones?
About The Author: Caine is a professional tattooist of 7 years with 10 years of experience with the industry, working at Inu Tattoo in San Diego, California. Online portfolio and FAQ can be viewed at WWW.BONEDEEP.NET, firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo: Jeff Brown