Tattoo Advice From Someone With A Lot of Tattoos
I hadn’t even thought about counting the number of tattoos I had until an icebreaker at a company event. Like plants, apparently they can get out of control pretty easily.
It turns out, I had 55 and was just as surprised as everyone else. It’s closer to 70 now and feels like a good time to put tattoo ink to paper on some of the questions, conversations, and perspectives that come up about them.
I have big tattoos and small tattoos; on sensitive areas and not. I’ve gotten tattoos in the US, UK, and in the back of an apartment in India. I have good tattoos and bad tattoos, some placed well and others not. I’ve been asked about the tattoos a million times and wrestled with family and workplace impressions. There’s a lot to cover given the breadth of The Tattoo Experience, so let’s get started.
The Basics — Meaning, How Much $, Does it Hurt?
What do they mean?
There are two reasons to get a tattoo: because they look cool or to commemorate a particularly meaningful experience.
Much like that stuffed animal from childhood is no longer your favorite toy, the tattoo you choose today will lose it’s meaning over time. This is where most people get hung up — they believe it to be about meaning.
Recognizing this will speed up the process because once you know the why, the rest are simply logistical problems (when/where).
Portraits of a family member/friend/pet, a symbol of unity or reminder of bonds, or an emblem your military unit used during a 6 year stint in Afghanistan. This tattoo may be intended to permanently tie you to this relationship or event.
It’s a Trap!, $125, NYC, Kings Avenue
How Much Do They Cost?
Pricing a tattoo is a highly subjective financial transaction; but it’s not a negotiation. You should be familiar with shop minimums, which is the minimum price to get any tattoo by any artist at a shop. I’ve seen people pop in and get a tattoo in less than 2 minutes and it costs $150 because that is the shop minimum (see TRAP above).
The city/neighborhood in a city where you get a tattoo matters.
In 2022, a shop minimum in NYC (Manhattan or Brooklyn and parts of Queens) is $150 — $250 (most will be $200). Ten years ago, it was between $100 — $150. In NYC, the most expensive area in NYC is SoHo/Nolita and it gets progressively cheaper as you move farther away from the cost epicenter.
A majority of the cost will be difficulty, size, location.
If your tattoo is deemed to be ornate enough to surpass the shop minimum, we can roughly quantify the cost such that the total cost will be:
- 80% attributable to difficulty, size, and location.
- 10% is the neighborhood/city/popularity of shop
- 10% is the artist’s interest in your business (Are they a recurring customer? Would it be fun to do this one?)
- ADD 25% on top of it all if the tattoo is niche or by famous artist
Rules of Thumb on Pricing -
- Larger tattoos cost more than smaller tattoos. (size)
- A tattoo on the hand will cost more than one on the chest. (placement)
- Color will cost more than just black and white. (color)
- A good relationship with the artist affects price. (relationship)
- Popular shops in pricey neighborhoods will charge more. (location)
Werewolf, $250, Christian Cervantes, Magic Cobra, NYC
You should ask for an estimate from the artist prior to getting the tattoo and compare multiple quotes. It’s not a good feeling to be surprised at the cost afterwards but what you are getting is an estimate, not an exact price. Tattoo artists work under a tipping structure. You should tip ~$20 per hour.
Does it hurt?
Generally, yes, it does.
The factors that most influence this are:
- how long it takes,
- the placement of it and,
- the degree of thin/thick lines + filling.
Personally, I found the abs/ribs to be the most painful, but a 4.5 hour tattoo on the calf was equally difficult to sit through.
Over-the-counter salves/topical numbing agents have been completely useless, but I’ve seen a spray used by an artist that can numb the area. They’ll make that determination, not you!
Placement, and The Artists’ Discretion
Change, Boston, $225
When you’re scheduling or asking for a quote, you’ll be asked what you want to get, where you want to get it, and how big you want it to be.
Something you get on your back is not for you. It’s something you say to others. Something you get in your chest/torso is also not for you. The arms and front of your thighs are for you.
When you show up for the tattoo, the artist will have a print out that they stick to your skin. This allows you to look at it in a mirror and decide if you like it or not.
I found an image of a terrarium that signaled my love plants and went to a great artist with the hopes of it having a 3d/popping effect. When he finished, it looks like a flat, 2d picture of a terrarium — which it is. The artist explained how visual depth is difficult to achieve which taught me to defer to the artist’s recommendations. He knew this ahead of time, but we didn’t have a relationship where he felt comfortable advising me.
You don’t have to be certain on these things, in fact, I’ve learned to defer to my trusted artist on size, placement, and even the actual tattoo itself.
The takeaway is to listen to your artist’s recommendations. This is going to be difficult, because it goes against the idea in your head. It’s like buying a car and the sales-person says you should get blue instead of red, what? But you end up loving it more than you would the red.
The general consensus is that the more you pay, the higher quality to expect. I find this to be untrue. Instead, the longer an individual has been an artist, the better the quality. If the artist is excited about the tattoo, it will be even better quality as they will take more care to realize it.
The top 3 worst quality tattoos that I have are the ones that the artist recommended I do not get.
Link, $400, White Rabbit, NYC
What was your first tattoo? What’s your favorite tattoo?
First Tattoo, $80, Chicago
These questions support the general sentiment that tattoos are Important Decisions and carry gravity.
The truth is — any amount of additional consideration for a tattoo is unlikely to yield a decision which future-you is more pleased.
A tattoo is the equivalent of your my little pony or ninja turtles bedsheets from childhood — indicative of a time and place in your life. If it is your intent to identify an image that will be Forever Meaningful and Relevant, than please allow me to inform you that you may not wish to do it in the form of a tattoo.
In fact, additional planning often has the opposite effect. It will add expectations and constraints that must be met for you to be happy and satisfied. If your tattoo plans have become multi-year engagements with many iterations of fine-tuning, that may be a sign that deep down you don’t want a tattoo in the first place.
Flower Snake (thanks, I hate it), $250, Magic Cobra, NYC
Consider getting a tattoo to be a Buddhist exercise in acceptance and relinquishment of norm-driven decision making and get what is calling to you now.
Or don’t. 🤷
What Should I Get?
Many tattoo artists have highly specialized styles and it would behoove you to familiarize yourself with some of them to shape your idea.
The styles I encounter most often are:
I’ll also save screenshots of drawings, images, and tattoos that appeal to me. If I get one, I contact the artist for permission to use their image. In almost all cases, it’s been no problem, but sometimes I have paid a small fee to use it.
Find what you love, let it kill you, $300, Invisible, NYC
Once you decide on an image or idea, you need to find someone to execute it! You have many options here.
- Ask your favorite artists on Instagram if they travel. Or, travel to them.
- Use Google/Yelp to find a local shop with good ratings. Use the shop website, Instagram, or book of tattoos to identify an artist who has created work that appeals to you.
- Find a shop that accepts walk-ins. Walk in and bring a digital copy of the image you want tattooed.
- If you see someone with a tattoo you like, ask where they got it done.
Scuba, $250, Boston
Note that when you contact a shop or artist for the first time, you may be asked to visit the shop to go over the tattoo with the artist. If you’re giving them an idea and not a drawing, they will have to spend time drawing it and regardless of whether or not you end up getting it tattooed, you should compensate them for this work.
Regret, $100 (shop minimum), NYC
You may regret everything up to, and including, the entire tattoo and everything about it. A person whom you respect may see it and dislike it which causes you to dislike it. To be clear, the likelihood that you will regret a tattoo is high.
My strong recommendation is to lean into your regret — find something to laugh about in your reckless behavior or naivete. I have so many tattoos that are so silly, ugly, or simply didn’t turn out the way I thought they would. In recognition of this, I got a tattoo of the emotion, regret.
Two more options remain if you regret a tattoo and want to back out of it — removal or a cover-up. I’ve never had a tattoo removed but the word is that it is much more expensive than the tattoo, it’s painful, and it leaves marks.
If you grew up with #2 pencils, this should make sense — trying to erase something usually makes it worse.
Cover-ups depend on the tattoo being covered up and worked out fine for me. I have had tattoos covered by new tattoos. Below, the candle stem covers three “icons” and the handle used to be a heart.
The Legend of Zelda, Cover-up, $65USD, New Delhi, India
If you have severe, immediate regret, as the result of the artist’s misinterpreted or poor workpersonship, you should discuss it with them first, then the shop to find out if you have any options to have it cleaned up.
Preparation and Healing
You do not have to do anything to prepare for a tattoo. However, I would recommend you do not lift weights/exercise that day. Increased bloodflow and pumped muscles that will be needled are not a good idea.
Chicago Dog, $275, Three Kings, NYC
The artist will shave the area, do not do this yourself.
There is no better way to heal a tattoo than by covering it with adhesive film immediately after the session. Ask your artist if they carry it and if not, bring your own to the session. You will keep it on for 3 days and the tattoo will heal without scabbing, retain vibrant color, and will not leak ink all over your clothes, sheets, and furniture.
If you don’t use the adhesive film, the artist will cover the tattoo with plastic wrap and tape to get you home. Remove it when you get home and treat it like an open wound.
Wash it by blotting, not rubbing, 2–3 times a day and lightly cover it with Aquaphor after each wash for the first few days. After that, continue to apply unscented lotion 2–3x a day, but you no longer have to go out of your way to wash the area — your daily shower will do. Remember to blot, not wipe over it because it will scab and wiping will pull the scabs, damaging the tattoo.
Continued care is essentially using sunscreen. If the tattoo fades, you may choose to have it re-colored. In 20 years, I had 1 recolored. Some colors stay better than others, there is no firm logic here.
Cultural Considerations — Work & Family
Regardless of how you feel about it, your prospective/current employer may have a different opinion on your neck tattoo. Call me old school, but I’ve largely refrained from getting tattoos that can’t be hidden by clothing. In a job interview, you will not see any of my 70+ tattoos. On the beach, you’ll see more tattoo than blank skin. I’ve never worked with anyone who has had a face or hand tattoo and I’ve worked in many corporate environments.
A finance startup, though, is still finance and it’s where I’ve received the most comments.
If you choose to get a tattoo that is highly visible, it is a statement or signal that, to employers, is one of rebellion. Whether or not you agree, if you anticipate a corporate career, I would carefully consider placement.
With that said, many popular placements will be visibile in short sleeves, rolled-up sleeves, or shorts. So long as the tattoo is not vulgar, then the same principles apply as when you are dating — once you get to know your colleagues and they get to know you, then roll up your sleeves and it will be an “oh, you have tattoos — ok”.
I generally don’t get vulgar tattoos, but I have some. They are not positioned to be visible in any work attire.
Skull, $300, London
It is not uncommon to hear that someone’s mother will disown them if they get a tattoo. Family still plays an integral role in shaping what is acceptable and not, please plan your personal trajectory accordingly.
My grandmother would make comments reflective of her prejudices. OK, grandma. In the end, this is a personal consideration.
- Collect tattoo ideas and figure placement
- Research potential artists and obtain quotes
- Commit and get it
- Care for it, a bit
Reckless, $100, Invisible, NYC
I hope this has been useful in your decision making processes and that you ultimately make decisions that work for you. Goodluck!