Getting Your First Tattoo? Here’s What You Should Know

Tattooing has been a deeply personal and meaningful part of human culture for about as long as we’ve had opposable thumbs. Tattoos are one of the most powerful forms of self-expression, and just about every culture continues to be fascinated with them, at least on some level. People of all kinds, from royals to rebels to monks and everything in between, have gone under the needle. So if you’ve decided to take the plunge and join the inked community, you’re in great company!

research first tattoo

But if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by nailing down exactly what art you want to go with, don’t worry. There are a lot of things to consider before getting a tattoo (What tattoo should I get? ..Does this tattoo represent me? ..Which style do I want? ..How much is this tattoo going to cost me?)... Planning out your ink is a big decision, and props to you if you aren’t taking it lightly.  The best artwork is born when time and thought are invested into it.

Since you’re reading this article, you’re already clever enough to know that getting your first tattoo isn’t as simple as rushing off to the first tattooist with an “OPEN” sign hanging in their window.  Or not if you want something that’ll continue to be badass when you’re 80, that is.  Lucky for you, we’ve got some expert first tattoo advice to help you be fully prepared to join the ink addiction.

What To Know Before Getting a Tattoo

Once you’ve made the decision to get inked for the first time, it can be really tempting to rush off to the nearest studio. But if you want a great piece that you can be proud of in the years of come, there are a few things you should consider first.

Age Restrictions For Tattoos

Before getting your first tattoo, be sure to research the requirements for your area. Many places will only allow you to get tattooed if you are 18 or over. Some states may lower the age to 17 or allow a minor to get tattooed with the written consent of their parent or guardian. You’ll need to provide a current state-issued photo ID or passport. Most studios will also refuse to work on you if you’re under the influence of alcohol or any recreational drugs. So as tempting as it might be to down a beer to steady the old nerves, it’s best to save the partying for later.

Budgeting the Cost For Your Tattoo

planning tattoo budget

Secondly, plan your budget accordingly. I want to make this abundantly clear: tattoos are one purchase you cannot bargain-hunt on. Most studios have a minimum cost of at least $60 or more, and that includes even super tiny micro-tattoos.  Currently, the average rate varies but for most artists is about $100 an hour or so. More experienced or in-demand artists may charge more.  It’s always possible to find artists who will charge less, but a general rule of thumb is that a good tattoo won’t be cheap… and cheap tattoos are never good.

If you can’t afford the going rate plus tip for the design you want, you need to opt for something smaller or wait until you’ve saved enough.  As annoying as being patient and saving up might feel, it’s nothing compared to the alternative.  You don’t want to risk ending up with something (permanently!) etched into your skin that looks like crap, or even getting an infection or injury from improper technique or sanitation.

An artist will generally be able to give you a ballpark figure of how much a certain design will cost when you are planning the work out, but it’s not common for an artist to give a flat rate. It’s a good practice to plan to pay for at least an extra hour of work more than you are expecting, just to be on the safe side. If you absolutely have a hard limit on what you can spend, let your artist know up-front and they can scale the design to fit your finances.

getting tattoo for first time

And if you want to have a positive, lasting relationship with your artist, you need to plan on tipping! 10-15% is what is normally expected, though you can give up to 20% or more if you feel the work was really exceptional.  Not tipping is in extremely poor taste, as that’s how most tattoo artists make their living. No tip is a quick way to guarantee that your artist probably won’t make time for you in the future.

Timing When To Get Your Tattoo

Timing is important as well! You don’t want to get your first tattoo on a whim. A lot of people think it’s a great idea to get inked while on vacation as a sort of souvenir, but the necessary aftercare is going to severely limit your vacay activities. A fresh tattoo can’t be exposed to direct sunlight or submerged in water for at least two weeks, and requires constant cleaning and care to ensure healthy healing.

Getting inked while as a part of a dare, while partying, etc. is also a very bad idea. A good tattoo needs to be thought out and planned in advance… and should be your idea, not the result of peer pressure. That might sound a little lame, but tattoos based off of impulsivity are generally the ones that people become ashamed of and need to have covered up later. Take the time to plan out something original and cool.

Leave Time For Healing

how long for tattoo to heal

Don’t forget about aftercare! Getting a tattoo is basically a minor surgical procedure, and yes, there is a healing period. A new tattoo generally takes about two weeks to heal fully, depending on the size of the piece and the complexity. If not taken care of properly, a new tattoo can easily fade, become distorted, or have ink pulled out of the skin completely. In worst case scenarios, poor aftercare can lead to an infection. You can check out our article here if you need some pro tips on how to care for your new tattoo.

NOTE: It is possible to be allergic to tattoo ink. While this is extremely uncommon, if you find yourself experiencing the signs of an allergic reaction or infection (swelling, blistering, excessive/long-lasting redness, oozing, etc.), then see your doctor immediately.

Designing Your First Tattoo

Few things are more satisfying than creating your own tattoo. But while the internet is a great resource for first tattoo ideas, there’s a little more that goes into designing your inked masterpiece than finding a cool picture on Google.

designing first tattoo

Think About Placement

First off: location. Where exactly your artist sticks his or her needle(s) is more important than you might think. It sort of goes without saying that certain areas of your body are going to hurt more to get inked than others… and yes, getting a tattoo is going to hurt. Having needles pierce your skin hundreds of times a minute won’t feel like kitten kisses. But generally speaking, the pain is pretty manageable, so long as you stick to a relatively meaty area of your body (like a shoulder). Definitely stay away from any area that’s directly on the bone (like the side of your foot or your ribcage); even tattoo veterans can struggle with those.

There’s also wear and tear to think about; there are places on your body that are more prone to changing with weight gain/loss or age can distort a tattoo over time. And though tattoos are steadily becoming more accepted in the professional world, there are still many businesses that won’t hire employees with tattoos that can’t be easily covered or hidden.

We’ve found that the best places to get a tattoo (at least tolerable for the first time) are the shoulder, thigh, calf, or bicep. All are places that are very easily covered with most clothing, so they’re not going to be damaged by the sun or cause trouble at work, and are minimally painful areas to get inked. These particular body parts also tend to stand up pretty well to the test of time, and aren’t likely to distort very much if your body changes.

Size Matters

Secondly, consider the size of your ink. The best first tattoos tend to be smaller, around 3-4 inches max. Many artists would advise against getting a really big design- like a full back piece or sleeve- right out the gate. It’s best to stick with something smaller at first so that you can get an idea of what it feels like to get a tattoo. Everyone has a different pain tolerance, and you won’t really know how getting inked is going to affect you until you’re actually under the needle. You don’t want to be partway through a massive piece and decide you can’t hang. Also, mastering the art of aftercare is much easier with a small tattoo than with a huge one.

small wrist tattoos

small tattoos by @laystattoo

First Tattoo Designs

Now for the most fun part: the actual design! You can find inspiration for your ink through sites like Pinterest and Instagram, both of which are packed with tons of work from talented artists around the world. If you need help on what type of tattoo to get, you can check out our archive on tattoo meanings. The best tattoos are the ones that carry a personal significance to you. Researching the meanings of various symbols and subjects can help you decide on what to get, or at least point you in a good direction.

Most artists will draw up your tattoo after meeting for a consultation, but you can also use sites like Custom Tattoo Design to help create your piece. CustomTattooDesign.ca is a website run by a team of professional artists who are dedicated to helping you bring your tattoo vision to life. The process is fairly simple: you send them a description of your idea, and the team will send you a price quote based on the size and complexity of the design. If you’re down with the price, you can make a deposit and an artist will create a custom, original design just for you. Custom Tattoo Design is pretty unique because they are the only online tattoo designer that will draw up large pieces (like full sleeves or back/ chest designs). They also have artists who work in every conceivable tattoo style, and have a money-back guarantee if you aren’t satisfied.

SPECIAL FEATURE; Interview with Custom Tattoo Design 

We chatted with the tattoo Pros at CustomTattooDesign.ca, and got a chance to hear from CEO Lee Roller who had some excellent tips for our readers: 

InkVivo:  Why should someone work with an artist to create an original design instead of selecting a stock image in the shop?

Roller:  “Working with an artist to create an original design allows you to make all the changes you want, without the pressure of making a decision on the spot. This way, you don’t have to get a tattoo until you’re 100% ready. Typically, you don't get to see multiple revisions of your design in a tattoo shop. But when your artist is willing to complete a specific design prior to starting your tattoo, the process is much smoother. The feeling of having something that is 100% original also takes away the remorse many people feel when they see the same tattoos on other people.”

custom tattoo design

InkVivo: What are common mistakes to avoid when choosing a design?


Roller:  “There are a handful of common mistakes that people make when choosing a design. First, if your design includes lettering, don’t make it too small. You have to be willing to commit the design to a proper size or it will blur and become illegible over time. Secondly, try to avoid getting tattoos based on a phase of your life. A commemorative tattoo can be nice, but if you’re thinking of getting the name of your high school or your girlfriend tattooed onto your body, you may regret it later on. Lastly, try to make your designs simple and clear. The more elaborate your design idea is, the more you risk ending up with a design that doesn’t look clean or polished.”

Finding the Right Artist and Shop for Your Tattoo

A lot of people feel that the relationship they have with their tattoo artist is very personal; after all, you’re trusting this individual to mark your body permanently, and to do so in a way that is safe and reflects your personal vision. You’re also likely to spend at least an hour or more sitting in close quarters with just that person. So, with that being said, it’s important to spend your time finding a tattooist you really vibe with.

The first thing you want to look at is the artist’s personal style and level of skill. There are a lot of really talented tattoo artists out in the world, but not every single one is going to create artwork that fits your vision. Many artists will specialize in one or two particular styles, like New School, Black-and-Gray, Photorealism, etc. And not every artist is going to have the same level of skill or experience.

getting first tattoo

Many tattooists are posting their portfolios online now, either through their studio website or through social media like Facebook or Instagram. You can literally view hundreds of examples of their work, and a lot of the time clients will leave comments relating to their experience. It’s also a good idea to check out reviews of the artist or studio online; customer reviews can give you a good idea of the studio’s cleanliness, pricing, and the friendliness of their staff and artists.  Review sites like Yelp.com are a great tool for finding a good tattoo artists in your area.

Just like you wouldn't buy a car before taking it for a test drive, you shouldn't settle on a particular studio until you visit it in person.

There are several things you should look for when checking out a tattoo studio: 

    • private rooms or booths
    • artists’ licenses and certifications displayed on the walls
    • all artists wearing gloves while working
    • immaculate work areas 

Tattoo artists and piercers are literally creating open wounds on their clients that will get infected if exposed to bacteria, so a studio should have the same level of cleanliness as a doctor’s office or hospital. If you can smell the disinfectant and cleaning products when you walk inside, that’s always a good sign.

If you’ve never been inside a tattoo studio, it’s understandable if you find the general atmosphere a little intimidating… even if the staff is super friendly. If you’re worried about how to act inside of a studio, you can check out our article here on Tattoo Shop Etiquette. We cover everything from setting up consultations, to preparing for the day of, as well as various faux pas and expectations you may experience within a studio.

getting a tattoo

While visiting, you can ask to speak to the artist you’ve had in mind for your work; most are more than willing to introduce themselves if they aren’t with another client. Talking with them in person will give you a good idea if you’re on the same wavelength, and if you feel comfortable with them. You can also ask them to walk you through the process of getting a tattoo: what tools they use, how they clean/ sanitize their station, etc.

If everything lines up, you can make an appointment for your consultation, and then you’re on your way to joining the awesomeness that is ink culture!

And remember, if you don’t 100% love your tattoo design don't go through with it!

This is your body, and you’re the one who’s going to live with the artwork for the rest of your life. A good artist understands what a big deal this is, and will be happy to work with you until you find something that you love.

Getting your first tattoo really is a rite of passage for many people, even today. Hopefully these first tattoo tips have taken some of the pressure off, so that you can spend less time worrying about getting it right, and more time enjoying the process and the finished result!

Special thanks to the good people at Custom Tattoo Design for giving us an interview! 

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