Submitted Date 07/23/2019

The water beneath the glass-bottomed boat is crystal clear. I can see all the way down to the giant clams my fellow tourists are snorkeling to touch. Everyone's in the water except for myself and one tour guide. There are two reasons I'm not looking through a plastic snorkeling mask right now; the primary being that I just don't "do" water and the second being my companion. I know him only by an assumed moniker, Captain Chocolate, but it suits him. His skin is the color of silky dark chocolate and the man's physique is just as decadent to take in.

We're standing in a tourist boat in the middle of the South Pacific, off the coast of an island named Rarotonga. The nearest neighboring country is New Zealand, 2009 miles away as the crow flies. Captain Chocolate is Māori, descended from the Polynesians who colonized this island more than a thousand years ago. Since he's standing next to me wearing nothing but his swim shorts, I can see the traditional tattoos covering half of his chiseled torso. He's explaining to me that each of the symbols inked into his skin is tied to his family and where he grew up. He points out the arch that represents a cave near his home as I try not to blush and drool.

At that point, years ago, I had only my upper sleeves tattooed. Even then I was what my mother described as "heavily tattooed" when she pointed me out in a crowd. While perhaps not as deeply profound as Captain Chocolate's, my tattoos are essentially symbols that mark important events and people in my life. A couple, like my squirrel and acorn, were just for fun. I remember where, when, and why I had them all done. I've got upwards of twenty now and no plans of stopping anytime soon. Some are large and colorful and others are small and monochrome. Luckily, the biggest pieces are the best, done by locally famous artists.

Now that I've been through the process as many times as I have, I feel qualified to offer some advice to those seeking their first tattoos. Since many of mine are so visible, I often get asked about them and those questions often lead to conversations about tattoos in general. More "inked" individuals and I swap the names of artists and studios. The less experienced usually express their trepidations. Whether you're having trouble settling on a design or have a pattern in mind, but don't know where to have it done, the tips below will be useful guides on your quest.

Deciding on a design:

Taking the time to decide on a design is important. After all, you will have it embedded in your skin for the rest of your life. If you someday regret your decision, there are of course ways to change the way you look. Depending on the color and size of your tattoo, it can be covered with another tattoo. Tattoo removal procedures are available, but they're expensive, painful, and don't completely erase every trace. So, it's worth it to decide on a design that will still mean something to you 45 years from now.

Whether you are considering the logo of your favorite sports team or a portrait of your grandma, you should take a good look at it before it becomes part of your body. Print or draw out your prospective pattern on a piece of paper and tack it up someplace where you will see it every day. I recommend the bathroom mirror. Keep it up there for about six months. If you're still completely in love with it, go ahead and take it to a studio.

In general, I don't recommend going with current bands or living celebrities. You might think Zack Effron is the cat's whiskers today, but what if his career takes a nosedive or he becomes embroiled in scandal? Maybe you just discovered One Direction and their music makes your blood sing with joy. Good for you! While it might not seem like the band can ever do wrong, what if their next album isn't quite up to par? What if, twenty years from now, your tastes have changed?

There's a bit of superstition amongst the tattooed that warns against getting the name of a lover permanently engraved on your body. It's believed that, once their name is a part of you, they will cease to be. In other words, the relationship will be doomed from that point forward. It seems absurd and maybe it's simply the power of suggestion, but I've seen it happen.

As for placement, there are a lot of factors to consider. Depending on what line of work you're in, you might opt for a part of your body that's easily concealed. If you're worried about how well your ink will age, I'd pick a spot that's less likely to stretch or wrinkle. A big bold design on your belly might look awesome when you're fit at twenty. How will it look, though, twenty years down the road when your metabolism has slowed and maybe you've had a child?

That's not to say being obsessed with appearance should prevent you from being tattooed. Maybe you've settled on a career that doesn't force restrictions on your dress, your hair color, or your skin designs. Perhaps you know you'll be just as beautiful at a size twelve as you are at a size eight. I've been asked how I'll look with all these tattoos when I'm eighty and my response has always been, "like a badass."

Finding an artist:

Once you have an idea for a tattoo or even have one picked out, you'll need to find someone to actually put the design on you. The tattoo industry is one prime example of "you get what you pay for." The larger, more colorful, and more complex your design, the more you'll pay for it. The more talented artists will also charge more for their work. It's worth paying a bit extra for quality art. Also, it's customary to add a tip when paying for a tattoo. So, be sure to factor one into your budget too. How do you find the right artist?

The first step is going to require a bit of social interaction. Check out the locals when you're out and about. Most folks who have visible tattoos are used to being asked about them and don't mind being approached (respectfully) with questions. After all, they chose to have themselves tattooed where everyone can see. If you see someone who has a design you like, ask them where they got it and who their artist was.

If certain names come up again and again, it might be time to pay a visit to their shop. Most reputable tattoo studios have artist binders that contain portfolios of their artists' work. You should be able to sit down with one and flip through to decide if that artist consistently produces designs you like. A lot of artists have Instagram accounts you can check out too.

Getting tattooed is a bit like having a medical procedure. There's definitely blood involved, which means there's the risk of infection. That being the case, cleanliness and health precautions are vitally important. The needles need to be disposable or autoclaved and always sterile. The shop should have a prominently displayed health certificate, which means it's been inspected and approved by your public health department. Your artist should suit up with medical gloves and cover chairs and equipment with clean, disposable protection.

Your artist should be friendly and easy to communicate with. Let them take a look at your design or ask them to draw something up for you. Do not be afraid to ask for tweaks and changes until your tattoo design is exactly what you want. If the person wielding the tattoo gun is not picking up on what you're asking for or just gives you a bad vibe, it's time to take your business elsewhere. Go with your gut feelings about the person.

Once you've been tattooed, make sure you care for it right during the healing process. Most studios will send you home with printed instructions and supplies. It's important to stick with the procedure until you're completely healed (unless you have a bad reaction to an ointment, etc.). In general, keeping your new art moisturized and protected will help ensure it looks great for years to come.

*photo by the author. Do not copy or distribute without permission.


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  • Ceara 3 years, 9 months ago

    I wish I had this before I got my first tattoo! I love the way you explain everything. Thanks for sharing!

    • Jen Parrilli 3 years, 9 months ago

      Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it.