What to Expect When Getting a Tattoo

If you are thinking about getting your first tattoo, but are unfamiliar with the process, the thought might meet you with anticipation. Fear of the unknown can sometimes hold us back from doing things we really want to do. You might be concerned that it will hurt too much (tip: avoid getting tattooed on your period, as skin may be more sensitive). You might be worried that you wouldn't know if the artist was doing something wrong.

The best thing you can do is educate yourself on the process of tattoo application; that way, you will be prepared and know what to expect when you sit in the artist's chair. So, how is a tattoo applied to the skin? From start to finish, this article will tell you exactly how human skin is transformed into a beautiful work of art.

Alison Czinkota/Byrdie
01 of 13

Thoroughly Research a Tattoo Studio and Artist

Tattoo shop

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Choosing the right shop and artist takes time, so don't rush the process. Each tattoo artist will interpret your design idea differently, so it's crucial that you find someone who gets your style. Many artists display their portfolios on social media, so take advantage of that and use it to discover new artists.

After you've found a studio or an artist that you would like to work with, pay the shop a visit and schedule a consultation to get a feel for the vibe. To ensure that the studio is safe and reputable, check online reviews, ask to see past work, and make sure the artist has completed the safety requirements necessary.

02 of 13

Choose Your Tattoo Design and Style

Tattoo design

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Whether someone chooses the artist or the design first is totally up to them. While some might already know what they want tattooed and can be flexible with the artist doing it, others might be dead set on a specific artist and more open to the artists' input when it comes to the design and placement. If you don't know what you want tattooed, find an artist with an aesthetic that aligns with your own and you're sure to love anything they come up with. You can (and should) also refer to artwork the artist has showcased on their Instagram for inspiration.

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Pick Your Tattoo Placement

Tattoo placement

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The placement of your tattoo is entirely up to you, though for a first time, you might want to stick with an area of the body that may be less painful to tattoo, like the forearm, and save the torso for when you're more accustomed to the sensation and aware of your own pain tolerance. You might also want to avoid placement on your hands and feet since tattoos on these areas tend to fade faster and require more touch-ups.

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Complete Paperwork and Settle Payment

Tattoo artist giving customer tattoo on arm
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Once you have decided on your tattoo design and your artist, you will be required to show valid identification for proof of age. You may also be asked for your address and phone number, so your artist can contact you in the future if need be. In most studios, payment must be made before services are rendered. It is up to each studio to decide which methods of payment they accept. Whatever method you pay with, make sure they give you a receipt.

05 of 13

Get Comfortable in the Tattoo Chair

Chair in tattoo parlor
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After your paperwork is filled out, you will be seated in the tattoo chair. Sometimes this is in an open work area, and sometimes a private room, depending on the location of your tattoo. If you are shy and don't want others to watch, you can request a private room, but be sure you have done this in advance. A lot of studios use dentist-style chairs, some use regular table chairs, and some use benches. Your artist will do his or her best to make you comfortable for the tattoo you have chosen.

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Prep the Area

Tattoo artist shaving customer's leg before tattooing
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Now it's time for the preparation. The area of your body you have chosen for your tattoo will be cleaned, usually with rubbing alcohol. Then, any hair will be removed from the area by shaving it with a new disposable razor which will be discarded after being used. Even the finest of hairs can get in the way and cause problems, so this is a crucial step, even if you can't see any hairs. Then, the area will be cleaned again to make sure it is smooth and ready for the transfer.

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Approve the Placement for the Stencil Transfer

Tattoo artist drawing design
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Most tattoo studios use a machine called a thermal imager to make their stencils. This saves on literally hours of tracing time by simply inserting your tattoo design into the machine, and it transfers it onto a special thermal paper in seconds.

Once your stencil is ready, it's time to create the transfer onto your skin. Some artists will use soap or water to moisten the skin, and some will use stick deodorant. These aid in making the design transfer better and darker onto your skin. When the paper is pulled away from your skin, it will leave you with a purple-ish blue likeness of your future tattoo. Once you approve of how everything looks, you're ready to go.

08 of 13

Be Patient While the Artist Prepares the Equipment

Tattoo artist wearing gloves and holding tattoo equipment
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It is at this time that your artist will start preparing their tattoo machine. The inks will be placed in little tiny cups called ink caps, and the needles and tubes will be removed from their sterile pouches and placed in the machine. Clean, distilled water will be poured into a cup for cleaning the needles during the tattoo process and to change from one color to the next. Some A&D ointment or Vaseline will be placed on a clean surface for your use only.

09 of 13

Hold Still for the Tracing and Linework

Man tattooing woman's arm
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A little ointment will be placed over your transfer design for a few reasons. One is that it helps keep the transfer on longer without accidentally rubbing it off, and it also helps the needle to slide along the skin more smoothly, which is certainly going to be more comfortable to you. After the ointment is applied, it is time for the first line.

If you're nervous, don't hold your breath. Take a nice, slow, deep breath and try to relax. The first minute or so will be the roughest. After that, your skin will kind of get used to it and the pain will begin to subside.

10 of 13

Brace Yourself for the Shading and Coloring

High angle view of colorful tattoo inks on table
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Once all the linework is done, your artist can breathe a little bit easier knowing that they won't have to worry about the transfer anymore. Now it's time to get creative with a little shading and possibly color. Depending on the size of your tattoo, your artist may switch to a different set of needles called magnums (or mags) which are designed for coloring and shading. They may even switch tattoo machines altogether. The shading and coloring can go along quite quickly, and before you know it, you've got a complete tattoo.

11 of 13

Admire the Finished Tattoo

Tattoo artist taking photo with cellphone of client's new tattoo
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Your artist may like a picture of your tattoo for their portfolio. They'll clean it up and sometimes even apply a hot towel to it first. Then they'll take a picture, and this is a good time for you to get a shot, too. Taking a photo after the protective ointment is applied causes a glare, so it is best to do it now. If for any reason you do not want the artist to take a photo, just say so. You are not under obligation to let them.

12 of 13

Apply the Dressing and Bandaging

Tattoo artist dressing customer's new tattoo
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Now that your tattoo is finished and clean, it needs to be treated just like a wound. A protective layer of ointment will be applied to the tattoo to prevent infection by bacteria. Then a bandage will be applied, and it will be taped up to make sure it is secure. It is important that you keep this bandage on for the amount of time your artist instructs, which brings us to our last step: aftercare.

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Ask for Aftercare Instructions

Legs of tattooed woman standing against garden fence
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Your artist will now give you aftercare instructions. These should be given both verbally, and on a piece of paper for you to take home with you. It is important that you listen and follow the instructions you are given. From this point on, it is your responsibility to make sure your tattoo is well taken care of. The artist cannot be blamed if you get an infection because you didn't follow directions.

Prevent your tattoo from fading by wearing a daily sunscreen and avoiding prolonged sun exposure.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Falcone D, Richters RJ, Uzunbajakava NE, Van Erp PE, Van De Kerkhof PC. Sensitive skin and the influence of female hormone fluctuations: results from a cross-sectional digital survey in the Dutch populationEur J Dermatol. 2017;27(1):42-48. doi:10.1684/ejd.2016.2913

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Tattoos.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. What to expect when you get a tattoo. Updated October 2, 2020.

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