Only Skin Deep

This blog seems to be focusing mostly on piercings, which wasn’t really my intention. It just seems that piercings are more popular, are easier to screw up, and usually has more information that needs to be covered. But since there is more to the body modification world than just piercings, this next entry is all about tattoos.

Oh goodness, the history of tattoos is a long and colorful one. Nearly every culture that has walked the earth has had its own form of tattoos. Asia, Africa, Europe, India, North and South and Central America, New Zealand and Micronesia, I can hardly think of one area of the world or one culture that doesn’t have some history of tattooing in it. Many have done it for religious or even medical purposes, to mark the passage into adulthood, to mark important events in the individual’s life, among other reasons.

It was only in the early to mid 1900’s or so that tattoos began to take on a negative connotation. It was believed that only foreign people, sailors, sideshow spectacles, criminals and other “dregs of society” were getting tattooed. Certain religious influences are partially responsible for this as well, as more western cultures viewed tattooing as barbaric or savage.

As of the last thirty years or so, tattooing has seen quite a resurgence. It’s becoming more an art form now rather than marks of pride, of where one’s been and done, and people enjoy being a walking canvas. Many people who would never even dream of getting a tattoo in their entire life actually would consider, or even have, permanent makeup, which very much is a type of tattoo.

So, now that there’s a little history behind us, what exactly is a tattoo? A tattoo is described as an insertion of ink beneath the dermis layer of skin to change the pigment. Before the invention of the modern tattoo machine, people would poke the tattoo into the skin with sharp sticks, shards of metal, animal bones, thorns, or the skin would be cut and dyes rubbed in. That’s actually one of the explanations of how the word “tattoo” came into existence, because that was the sound of one stick hitting another stick that held the needles dipped in ink as it was tapped into the skin. “Tat to! Tat to!”

In the past, people have used soot, charcoal, and other natural dyes and pigments to create their tattoos, the colors of which were extremely limited, probably just blacks and blues. More recently, tattoo inks are made of vegetable ingredients, trace metals, carbon, and synthetic pigments.

In modern times, with modern tattoo machines and inks, the insertion of ink is much easier, faster, and I would imagine less painful. We actually have Thomas Edison to thank for the modern tattoo machine, though that wasn’t his intention for it when he created it. Rather, he meant for it to be a duplicating device or an engraving device for hard surfaces, and it was later discovered by a man named Samuel O’Reilly that it could be altered and modified to hold ink and inject it beneath the skin. He later patented those modifications into the tattoo machine we all recognize today. It’s remained relatively unchanged since that original patent.

As clarification, it is not called a tattoo gun. That name came about mostly because of the shape of the machine. This is because the machine does not shoot the ink into the skin. Rather, it injects it like a hypodermic needle underneath a few layers of skin.

The skin has essentially three major layers, and the tattoo machine injects the ink into the second layer. In the first layer, the body would replace the cells and the tattoo would disappear. Too deep, and the body will flush away the ink. The ink doesn’t even sit as deep in the skin as the hair follicle, so the myth that tattoos can interfere with and damage vital or important nerves is absolutely false. Here’s a handy diagram:

The tattoo machine uses a cluster of needles and creates a puncture wound in the skin, injecting a drop of ink as it goes. Most tattoo machines run at about 50-200 injections per second, and this can be altered to suit the needs of the specific tattoo, going slower or faster. The amount of needles used each time can also vary, depending on what’s needing to be done. Liner clusters, used to make thin lines and outlines, have anywhere between 1 and 5 needles, and can be arranged in a long line or a small cluster, to make thin or thick lines. Shaders, used for filling in large areas, hold about 4-6 needles in a row. Other shaders will have clusters between 5-8 needles arranged in a diamond shape or partial pyramid shape. All of this can be altered and moved to accommodate whatever effect the artist is trying to create.

Probably the most important thing to remember is that tattoos are for life. Wrap your head around that, any young people who are reading this. FOR. LIFE. Until you die. Until you’re worm food. You’ll have it at your wedding, in the hospital when you have your kids, when you watch those kids graduate from high school, at your work retirement party, at the bridge table when you’re in the old folks home. FOR YOUR ENTIRE LIFETIME. Whatever you may be into right now you may not like in 20, 30, 40 years. So, do you really want that Justin Bieber tattoo on your wrist? Do you really want to explain to your grandkids the significance of the gigantic Charlie Sheen wearing a tiger skin across the back of your shoulders? Do you really want to be in your golden years, walking along the beach in Hawaii with naked chicks humping flaming devil skulls scrawled all down your entire calf?

As cliché as it is, and how much I hate to hear it, you do have to think about where you might be when you’re 80. My personal response to this is “I’ll be 80, I won’t care what I look like and even more so I’ll have earned the right to not care!” But you still have to think about it. So you need to make sure that the tattoo you want is something you’re going to continue to love for the rest of your life, and that the artist you choose is capable of making the tattoo beautiful.

It may sound daunting, but finding a good tattoo artist involves more than just walking into your most local shop and taking whatever it is they have to offer. Not all tattooists deserve to call themselves “artists”. There are no laws preventing just anyone from buying a tattoo machine, bottles of ink, a business license to operate as a shop, and then they can start tattooing. Some don’t even take the time and effort and money to open a legitimate shop, they operate out of their homes, or go on house calls. We’ll go into why these guys are so bad a little later. So just because someone has all the tools it doesn’t mean they’re really qualified to use them.

Non-professional tattooists are called scratchers, because they tend to just scratch the tattoo haphazardly into the skin and call it good. They won’t follow sterilization procedures and laws, they have no artistic skill whatsoever, and you’re going to get a terrible tattoo because of it. So how do you tell the difference between a good artist and a scratcher?

The best way is to recognize that a professional will NEVER work out of his or her or someone else’s home, their car, a basement, a back room in some random business establishment, etc. They will have a specific SHOP that they work in, specializing in tattooing and sometimes piercing as well. Not all tattoo shops pierce also, though I’ve never found a piercing-only shop, either. When you do find an artist in a shop, ask to see their portfolio. This will be a binder, a book or some other record of their past work, to show what they’re capable of. Some artists specialize in a specific style, like portraits, traditional Japanese style, etc. Just because an artist specializes in a certain style, does NOT mean they can’t do other styles. They may refer you to another artist who does specialize in what you want to assure that you get the best tattoo possible. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Sometimes you can ask the artist if you can sit in on a session with another client to see them at work. Of course, you MUST ASK and get permission from the artist and the client for this. Working artists should be wearing gloves 100% of the time, and changing them CONSTANTLY. If they have to touch something while tattooing, like the phone or they drop something, they should be taking the old gloves off before touching the item, and replacing them when they come back to the station.

Once you find an artist you feel comfortable with and who has the quality of work you’d like on you, make sure the shop they work in is up to par. It should be clean and uncluttered, and smell like a doctor’s or dentist’s office, smell clean. The tattoo stations should be clean and uncluttered, and each station should be separated by a wall, or at least a partial wall. Most I’ve seen are stone or cinder block, rising to about chest height or more. Each station should have a door, curtains, or another way to shut off visuals 100%. The employees should be clean and neat, professional yet causal looking, if that makes any sense. People who tattoo and who get tattooed tend to be artistic, maybe a little eclectic, so they shouldn’t be wearing suits and ties and business sets, but their jeans should be washed, their hair should be shampooed, their teeth brushed, that sort of thing. They should be willing to answer any questions you may have readily and fully. Don’t ever be afraid that a question is dumb, or obvious, or inappropriate or anything like that. The employees should all be absolutely willing to answer your questions, find the answers, or refer you to someone who does know the answer. If they don’t answer you to your satisfaction, ask for clarification. If they refuse to answer a legitimate question or concern of yours, walk out.

Demand to see autoclave spore test records. This is VERY important. The autoclave is the same machine that doctors and dentists use to clean their reusable tools. It uses steam or chemicals and pressure to destroy and kill 100% of all potentially living germs, viruses and organisms on whatever is placed into it. Some shops operate on a 100% disposable system, meaning they never reuse tools. There is nothing wrong with this; you just have to make sure that they really ARE throwing away everything after each use and not using dirty tools on various people or reusing dull and dirty needles on people. If a shop does clean and reuse tools, you can ask to watch them open these sterilized packages in front of you to assure that they are brand new clean and sterile.

Demand to see any licenses to operate (state business license, city license, etc.). Demand to watch them set up their station and watch them remove new needles from sterile packages. Make sure everything is single use, sterile and thrown away after each use and each client. If the artist you talk to denies even one of these requests, walk out. Ask if the artists or shop belong to any professional organizations, like the APP (Association of Professional Piercers). These memberships are not required, since many can be expensive to maintain, but if they are members they’re likely to have current, up to date information on health and safety, laws, regulations, trends and new innovations in the industry.

Ultimately, trust your gut. Bring a friend for a second set of eyes and ears and opinions. If something about the shop makes you uncomfortable or uneasy, leave. If something about the artists or the people you talk to make you uncomfortable or they don’t answer your questions satisfactorily, leave. Remember that you’re going to be paying these people to perform a service FOR YOU, so if they’re not up to YOUR standards, find another shop and another artist who is.

So, you’ve found the perfect shop and the most amazing artist. You have your design ready to go, but what if you can’t draw, like me? How do you get what’s in your head onto paper, and ultimately into your skin?

Any tattoo artist worth their machine will draw you a custom piece of artwork if you don’t have one of your own ready to go. And even if you do have something you want, they will be more than willing to help you finish it, perfect it, alter it, tweek it, whatever needs to be done to make it perfect. Bring in any designs you have made up already, any reference pictures, books, materials, even movies or DVD’s, ANYTHING you have that will help the artist and you design the perfect piece of art.

Bring your materials with you when you walk in. Initially, you’ll talk to an artist about what you’re visualizing and what you want to do. The artist may take measurements of the area, pictures of the area so that they can use it later with the final artwork. They may do a quick rough sketch of the idea to get down important points, then will have you come back in a few days for the final piece. Some will ask for a deposit on the artwork, just so they know you’re going to come back for it and they’re not wasting their time drawing custom work that you’ll never come back for. The average seems to be about $50 for the deposit, and that will be added into the final cost of the tattoo. Once you agree on the design, you’ll either start then, or will get an appointment to come back later and get started.

This is about the time when you decide on a final price. Sometimes artists will ask you early on what your price range is and will work with you, cutting the tattoo into several sessions at a certain price each time, if necessary. There is no such thing as a general price range for any tattoo, since there are so many factors involved that will affect it. Location of the shop, region of the world or country, the piece itself, the amount of detail in the art, the size of the artwork, the individual artist, the shop’s minimum price, etc., will all affect the ultimate cost. Some artists charge solely by the hour, no matter the size of the piece or how long it takes. Some will agree that a small tattoo should only cost however much, say about $60, even if their hourly charge is $100 or more. Talk with the artist, discuss payment options and your price limit, if you only have so much money to spend you can very much work on a tattoo in sessions. If they’re not willing to work with you, walk out. Again, THEY are performing a service for YOU, and since you’re paying for it, it’s going to be on your skin forever, everything should be done to your satisfaction, within reason.

The day arrives! How should you prepare? First of all, EAT SOMETHING!!! I know a lot of people are nervous about getting their tattoo and forget to eat, or don’t eat enough. You really don’t want to get tattooed on an empty stomach. I recommend eating something hearty, with solid proteins and good sugars and complex carbohydrates in it. Getting tattooed is a traumatic experience for your body, so it needs the energy to combat the pain and trauma. On your way to the shop, you might want to swing into a store and grab a juice, or sports drink, but avoid energy drinks and sodas. The juice and sports drinks will help you replenish sugars and electrolytes lost during the tattoo process and keep you stable, while the caffeine in sodas and energy drinks will drain you, make you shaky and get your heart rate up, potentially making you bleed excessively during the tattoo because caffeine can thin your blood.

Once you get to the shop, make sure you watch the artist set up their station. You should be able to watch them open new sterile packages, wrap and rewrap their machine, their station, the chair, everything around them in disposable plastic wrap. They should be changing their gloves CONSTANTLY during this process.

Once the artist is ready for you, he or she will have you come over and they’ll examine the placement once again. The area will be shaved of hair, if needed, and your skin will be cleaned. The stencil will be placed on your skin, if you’re using one. If not, the artist will draw on your skin what is to be done. Then you’ll review it in the mirror, give them the all good, and you’ll get started!

During the tattoo process it’s important to remember to BREATHE!!! If an area hurts, do not hold your breath. You can get lightheaded that way. My personal ritual is to inhale for four or five heartbeats, then exhale for four or five heartbeats. This will keep your breathing regular and deep and keep your heart rate even. Sip your juice or sports drink as you go, and don’t be afraid to ask the artist for a break if you need it.

Once the tattoo is complete, your artist will then wrap it up in plastic wrap and tape it on. This is to protect your newly open skin from outside elements and allow it at least a few hours to start scabbing over. This is a very important step, because again, it keeps germs in the air, from your clothes, from the car seat on the drive home, out of your new tattoo. Tattoo inks can also sometimes stain, so this protects surrounding surfaces as well. Now is when you’ll be paying your artist, cash or charge or however you chose to do it is fine. I’ve talked to some artists that will actually charge slightly less if you pay in cash since the shop has to pay a fee for the operation of the charge card machines, and that’s annoying. Remember also to tip your artist, however much you feel is appropriate. Use the same guidelines you would if you were in a restaurant. Anywhere between 10-20% of the total cost is customary, but if you’d like to tip more because you had a great experience, love the work, the artist was fun and entertaining, then by all means tip more. Besides, tipping makes it hurt less. ^_~

Now you have a beautiful tattoo, a mark that reflects yourself for the rest of your life. It’s an expression of who you are, what you believe, what you stand for, and how you view the world around you.

In the next entry, we’ll discuss the aftercare of your tattoo, what you should and shouldn’t do to it and with it, what happens if you notice something wrong with your tattoo and need to get it fixed. We’ll also look a bit into tattoo removal products and procedures, how effective they are, and other alternatives to cover, remove, or improve a tattoo.

So don’t go too far!


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