Friday, July 12, 2013

Some advice on getting inked

Yes, that is me getting tattooed at Black Orchid in Savannah, GA in August 2008

When I was younger, there was still a bit of a stigma about getting a tattoo. It was a taboo, done by salty sailors or scary bikers or punk rockers, and back then a woman with a tat was of questionable virtue. As I hit my late teens that all relaxed a bit, and while I was at Military Police School a lot of us went and got inked. I thought about it but didn't go through with it. They all got skulls wearing berets with daggers in their teeth, and that just wasn't my style. I wasn't sure what I really wanted in all honesty. Besides, the Drill Sergeants gave grief to the guys who went through with it, citing Destruction of Government Property just as an excuse to make them do pushups.

A year and change later I was in Germany, and a buddy of mine was getting a couple tats to commemorate his Army experience before he got out. He went to a very reputable and well-known artist, and I thought about doing it impulsively to say I'd been done by a well-known artist overseas. I almost got inked with comic strip icons Calvin & Hobbes dancing in sunglasses. I also wanted a logo from the band Depeche Mode included with it. Seriously.

Thankfully, his tats took so much time that when they were finished there was no time left for me and we went home.

Seriously, I almost had this as a permanent feature on my body.

I met a lot of guys in the Army with tats that made me wonder what in the blue hell they were thinking when they got them. One guy had Beetle Bailey sleeping in a foxhole on his arm. Another had a pale faded Mickey Mouse while still another had a sketchy Garfield. One guy even had a bantam rooster on his calf that he told people was the "cock beneath his knees".Seriously.

I shelved the tattoo idea for years. In fact, I was 36 before I got my first tattoo. I had just married Mrs. Wingman and she wanted us both to get inked. She already had four when we met so this was old hat for her. I fretted over what to get and after flipping through the books of pre-drawn art (known in tat-speak as Flash) I finally picked a simple Celtic tri-knot that went on my left bicep.

Once the seal is broken, so to speak, it's easy to get hooked on tattoos. Damned easy. I now have 8 in all. I went back and got another Celtic knot design above the tri-knot and then got a Celtic cross under it. Then I found a design online that I liked, a Celtic tribal that went on my left calf. After that I decided the time had come to finally design my tribute to Depeche Mode...

To keep the cost down I did it in three installments. Each session I did another portion of it, first the one logo I always wanted, then a second under it, and finally the words "enjoy the silence" from my favorite song, flanked by more logo art.

My final tat is a tribute to my Army time, a pair of crossed flintlock pistols (the symbol of the Military Police) superimposed behind the famous Gadsden rattlesnake. Instead of "Don't Tread On Me" it says "Liberty or Death".

The designs I picked are strictly for my own tastes. They probably aren't what you would pick. I sometimes wish I'd picked my first two a little more carefully in retrospect. It happens sometimes.

Nowadays tattoos are as common as earrings. TV is chock-a-block full of tat shows. The stigma is fading fast, if not pretty much extinct.

I'm not here to tell you whether or not to get inked. That is entirely your choice. I'm also not going to tell you what to get or where should you decide to get inked, either. Personal choices are just that; personal.

However, there are some helpful tips that I can give you that may ease your way into joining the ranks of the inked.

Think long and hard about even getting it in the first place. This is, for all intents & purposes, a permanent modification to your body. Yes, you can laser it off (an expensive & somewhat painful process that probably won't be covered by insurance, doesn't always remove it 100% & often leaves scarring) or there's Wrecking Balm, a fading & removal system that is a bit like a micro-dermal abrasion kit. It's gotten terrible reviews at Amazon, thusly Buyer Beware.

So consider it permanent.

Amazon was NOT kind to this product. Caveat Emptor.

Not every tattoo mistake can be easily covered up, despite what the plethora of cable-TV tattoo shows say.That will depend on size, location, coloring, shading, and scar tissue, if any.

Don't get it on impulse, especially after drinking. That leads to bad tats and Tattoo Regret. Go ahead and Google up "bad tattoos" and see what I mean. Think about the design and what it really means to you and whether it is something you would really want on your skin forever. Think also about whether the design is something you really can't show in dressy social situations. Skulls, scorpions, spiders, four-letter words, naked bodies and devils sometimes don't go over well at work, depending on your job.

Think about placement, too. Is it going to be somewhere that can easily be concealed for work (in which case the design may be less of a factor) since your employer, or future employer perhaps, could possibly be not exactly tat-friendly. If you're a lady and the tat might go on a leg where wearing a dress or skirt might show it off, that needs to be factored in. Think of how it will look with a wedding dress. Seriously, I would also avoid face and neck tattoos. Social stigmas may have relaxed, but really, not that far. White collar, finance type jobs still frown on visible tats.

No. Under no circumstances. This is just stupid.
Tattoos of people's names....

In a word: NO. Think twice about inking someone's name into your skin. Then think about it twice more. A boyfriend, a girlfriend, a spouse....sad to say it but those aren't necessarily "forever" arrangements. I make exceptions for kids, as your kids are yours forever. I can also make exceptions for memorializing those who have passed away. That's way different than getting a tat for the current person you're sleeping with, because six months down the road after they dump you, the next person riding you like a carnival attraction is gonna have to look at that tat every time they have you naked. That's bad juju, son. Angelina Jolie lasered off her BILLY BOB tattoo, and Johnny Depp turned WINONA FOREVER into WINO FOREVER.

Mrs. Wingman's tribute to her mom.
Words in your tats: Make damned sure you spell it the way you want it. These people are going to tattoo what you give them to tattoo; if you mis-spell something, so will they, chances are. This goes double if it is in a foreign language. Not all tattoo artists speak Latin. Great examples are all over the Web, chief among these being the infamous "Only God Can Juge Me" tats.

A tragic mistake

Great tat, bad spelling.

Picking an artist.

Wow. This can be a daunting task. Whenever I see some great ink on people I compliment them on their tat and ask where they got it done just to see who does what sort of work. Most people with tats are pretty open to talking about them, I've found, and everyone loves a compliment. I live in a state where tattoo shops were FINALLY legalized just a few years ago, so prior to that folks either had to jump the border into Georgia or North Carolina or get inked by unlicensed underground types in a basement. That led to a lot of REALLY dodgy tats here that rival prison tats in their quality.

Look, I do not trust people who tattoo at home, regardless of what they claim their skills to be. I only recommend a licensed professional tattoo artist with a health certificate on the wall. Most studios I've been to have been very clean and brightly lit. One shop I went to locally however looked like a dive bar, was located next to a strip club, was dimly lit, the only customer in sight was getting what looked like gang lettering, and they were outrageously priced. Needless to say, I walked.

Remember first & foremost, a professional tattoo artist is an artist first. They appreciate custom design work and like to show off their unique tats in portfolio books or on personal websites. Most artists I've spoken to and known prefer to tattoo custom, individual designs over just rehashing a flash design from the books. Respect your artist. Don't waste their time.

I like to print out my tat ideas in a variety of sizes to pick exactly what I want, and as dorky as this sounds, literally tape it in place where I want it to make sure the placement is right. Trust me, your artist will appreciate it when you come in and know what you want and exactly where you want it. If possible, either via email or in person discuss it ahead of time with the artist so they know what to expect design-wise and time-wise. Some artists will charge hourly on bigger pieces and other just charge by the piece, often based on how much prep & design work they have to do beforehand.

My artist appreciates that when I walk in for my scheduled appointment, I'm not wasting his valuable time. He knows what we're doing and I have the final design in hand, exactly the size I want, so all he has to do is quickly trace out the stencil and set up the tattoo machine and inks. No waiting around while I hem & haw & change my mind and bullshit around.

Another perk of going to a licensed pro: you get to watch them don sterile surgical gloves and open FRESH, brand-new needles from a factory-sealed package to set up the tattoo machine (please don't call it a tattoo gun; this isn't a state correctional facility) and sort out the various inks that will be used. Again, professional tattoo artists use quality inks whereas your backyard scribbler who bought a tat machine at the mall kiosk is likely using cheap mall kiosk ink that will soon fade and look like it was done on you with a Bic ballpoint pen by a shaky hand with the DT's. Probably re-uses needles, too, thinking that soaking them in rubbing alcohol for 10 minutes is a substitute for fresh sterile needles. I knew someone who got a home tat that ended up looking like a war zone after it got infected, the color bled out, and the remaining crappy art that they started with scabbed up like a lava field.

New, unopened needles
Extreme closeup of a 5-tip needle

For an excellent primer on the types and uses of tattoo needles, go here.

Okay....did you fully prepare beforehand?

What do you mean, Wingman? Prepare?

Prepare your body, young grasshopper. You are about the get a foreign substance forcibly injected under your top layers of skin by a multi-tipped surgical steel needle. This ain't finger paints, son.

Do not imbibe alcohol before a tattoo. If you require Liquid Courage before you do this, you ain't ready. A reputable artist should not and will not tattoo someone who has been drinking. Your judgement is often impaired, and when you sober up and find a Mike Tyson Hangover 2 tribal on your face you have no one to blame but yourself. Also, alcohol thins the blood and makes you bleed more easily. Yes, you are gonna bleed a bit in the process. This is why you go to a professional with a health certificate for blood-borne pathogen training on the wall in a clean bright studio with new needles and surgical gloves,  and not some trailer park tweeker who thinks Hepatitis is a cool band name.

Do yourself a favor and drop 4 Advil about 30 minutes before your start time. It helps. Take 4 more afterwards.

Don't flinch. Don't wiggle. Don't twitch & jerk. Don't forget to breathe. The amount a tattoo hurts depends on various factors, chief amongst them being your own tolerance for pain. No one likes a crying sissy in the tattoo chair. Remember, you asked for this and are paying money for this. No one held a gun to your head or threatened to light your puppy on fire if you didn't do it. Man the hell up.

Some artists have a lighter touch than others, too. My artist is generally like a feather most times. The location of your tat will sometimes determine the likelihood of Ouch Factor. Places with thinner, more sensitive skin like the underside of your arms and wrists, tops of feet, breast tissue, and along the ribs often have a higher Ouch Factor. Mrs. Wingman says her worst one out of ten tats was her foot.

I've had some discomfort at times but nothing excruciating. The only tat of mine that truly hurt was my last one, on the back of my right calf. I don't know why, but that one really was uncomfortable for me. But I grit my teeth and took it. It's a tattoo, not a tickle fest. Again, man the hell up.

The Wingman's right calf

After your artist is finished, they should put a sterile dressing on it and a healthy slather of a protective  ointment. They should also give you proper aftercare instructions. Leave that bandage on for an hour or two. I know you wanna show it off but no one wants to see your new ink while it's gooped up with ointment and weeping blood. For the next few days it will generally feel like a wicked sunburn. Like it or not, your new tat is an open wound on your body, and that bandage keeps airborne microbes out for the critical first couple hours as you seep.

Many people recommend A&D or some other form of triple antibiotic. I've also seen people use NeoSporin with the pain reliever in it. However, antibiotic goo treats your ink as a foreign invader and will start to leach the ink back out of your skin. That defeats the purpose, no? Instead, I highly recommend using Aquaphor. I also hear good stuff about Tattoo Goo but have never used it. Same with H2Ocean.

After you remove the bandage, you will want to wash your tattoo. Use lukewarm water and mild liquid antibacterial  (like Dial liquid antibacterial) soap to gently wash away any ointment, blood and/or plasma, and to completely clean the area. Do not use a washcloth or anything abrasive. Do not scrub it; your hand is your best tool in this case. (If your tattoo feels slimy and slippery, you have probably been oozing plasma. Try to gently remove as much of this as possible because when the plasma dries on the skin surface, it creates scabs, and no one wants a scabby tat.)

Then pat (do not rub) the area firmly with a clean, dry towel or paper towel to get it completely dry. Follow with a very light application of your choice of ointment. Keep up the ointment use for a good 3-5 days as it heals. After that, continue to keep it clean, but you can use lotion when needed instead of ointment, to keep the skin soft. Whatever lotion you use, it should be dye, fragrance, and lanolin free. All three of those ingredients work within your body to break down inks, and you may experience color loss, fading, or spotting. Not cool.

As far as bathing goes, it's okay to get your tattoo wet but don't soak it. Submerging your tattoo in a bath or hot tub can cause serious damage, so avoid those for 2-3 weeks, but showering is perfectly fine as long as you don't saturate your tattoo. If you get soap or shampoo on your tattoo, just rinse it quickly with water. Swimming should be avoided for at least 2 weeks. Be careful drying off, and just pat your tat dry.

After a few days, you will notice some peeling and possibly some scabbing. A little scabbing is sometimes normal and there is no need to panic. Apply warm, moist compresses to the scabs for about 5 minutes 2-3 times a day to soften them and they will eventually come off on their own. (Do not apply ointment or lotion to a softened scab ; wait for it to dry first) You will also start to itch, just like a sunburn when it begins to heal. Heed my words: don't pick, and don't scratch. You'll screw up your tat majorly. Picking scabs can result in color loss and potential scar tissue. If the skin itches, slap it lightly. If it is peeling, put lotion on it. And if it is scabbing, just leave it the hell alone. Your ink is almost healed, and now is not the time to ruin it because you can't keep your dick-beaters and booger hooks off of it.

Excessive sun exposure can fade your tat quickly, despite the use of vibrant, quality inks. Start using a minimum of SPF 30 sunblock. Coppertone makes a tat-specific sunblock now, as does Color Guard. Take care of your ink; you bought and paid for it, and it's yours to keep up with.

Now go forth, tadpoles, and be inked.

Who's got your back? I do.

The Wingman sends a special shout out to the crew at Black Orchid in Savannah, GA. You can visit my artist's own site here.

Inside Black Orchid