Recently while we were in Rarotonga, Francisco got a beautiful Polynesian-style tattoo from Ti, one of their top tattoo artists. I stood by as he went through the process of making sure Ti and his shop would be the right fit just as he’d done a hand full of times with other tattooists & shops over the years. Francisco’s work in disease intervention, his past experience as a tattoo shop assistant for his best friend’s shop, our friendships with other tattoo artists, and his own personal experience make him a pretty discerning customer. But when you’re talking about something that will live on your body forever, that can be imbued with such great personal meaning, command the attention and interest of others, and is done by inserting needles into the skin, being discerning seems like a pretty good idea!
Here are some tips based on our own checklist, to help you get great, safe tattoos while traveling or at home too:
Before you get one-
1. Consider doing a little research- googling “best (or top) tattoo artist in _” is one way to find out who’s earned an international reputation for good work in a given area. Checking out respected tattoo mags is another. In both cases, If the artist or shop has a website, you may be able to browse the artists’ work to see if you like their style. And as always- ask the locals!
2. Check out the shop- drop in and take a look around while being respectful of artists working and any customers getting work done. Does the shop look clean? Would you eat there? How far from walk-in or street traffic are the tables where the work is done? Would you be comfortable there? If so…
3. Look through the artists’ books- when evaluating the art you find, try to focus on the quality of the work rather than whether or not you like the actual piece. This can be hard if you really hate what the customer chose, but consider this: How’s the line work? The shading? The color? The dimension? The placement? You can also start to recognize the signature style of the artist this way. Does (s)he do a lot of fine line? Black & white? Portraits? How does this mesh with what you’re thinking of getting? If you find someone you like, before you even book a consult…
4. Be a slave to the autoclave- this is a machine used to sterilize the tools of the trade. Ask to see it, make sure it’s looks clean and that they’re not substituting a pressure cooker designed for food- they don’t get hot enough to sterilize. It should look like a 1950s toaster oven of sorts. Ask if they have recent (within the last 2 months) spore tests. Ask what practices they use to prevent the transmission of disease. Yep, we’re talking hepatitis, HIV, etc. We want your tattoo to be the only lasting souvenir you leave with.
5. Ask about the artist’s schedule- if you find someone you like, make sure they’re not booked up beyond the time you’re in the area for the actual tattoo appointment or multiple appointments for larger pieces. If their time works, schedule a consult with the artist and expect to come back with ideas, sketches, pictures, etc. If they are there and free during your initial walk-in, it’s possible that this step could happen on the spot.
6. Vet the tattoo artist- how do you like the person behind the art? Does (s)he speak your language? Do you trust this person to poke you repeatedly with a needle? Does (s)he inspire confidence? Answer your questions patiently? Seem to really get what you’re looking for? Seem to want the job? Have a good attitude? You should have answered mostly yeses to the above. What does (s)he charge? Will (s)he be charging you by the hour (if so ask for a time estimate for your piece) or a flat rate for the piece?
7. Don’t just look for the ultimate bargain- there’s a saying in the tattoo community; “good tattoos aren’t cheap, and cheap tattoos aren’t good.” Unlike most things you’ll ever purchase, this one will stay with you for life. Spend more to get good quality if you have to- it’ll last longer too. Getting inked by a great artist in a country where your currency is stronger is a good way to get good bang for your buck.
8. Check your desired control level- will your tattooist be using a stencil (s)he draws of your piece and puts on your body for you to both discuss and tweak before the first needle hits your skin? Or will (s)he be tattooing freehand? Francisco’s tattoo from Rarotonga- his 10th tattoo- is a large upper back piece that he was not able to see until it was finished- no sketch, no stencil, completely freehand and designed moment to moment. He and I both agreed that it would be hard to handle that for a first tattoo. I wore a stencil on my leg for an entire day after my initial consult to see how I felt about the piece I have planned. Think about what you’d prefer and ask what the tattooist’s method is.
For the big day-
9. Don’t drink and ink- Aside from the obvious- the potential for ending up with a piece you’ll cringe over the next day, and the rest of your days- alcohol also thins your blood. This can cause you to bleed more, and in turn bleed out the ink. This increases the need for touch-ups just when you think you’re healed, or once you’re off to your next location. This goes for hangovers too.
10. Be a stickler for safety- look around and make sure that any preventative measures the shop claimed to take are in place now. Whatever you’ll be sitting or lying on should be clean. Your tattooist should put on fresh latex gloves pulled from a box before setting up your station, and fresh ink should be poured into new small disposable cups (this goes for any other liquids or ointment too). Your new needle and tube should be unwrapped in front of you. If your tattooist touches anything unsterilized, (s)he should change into another fresh pair of gloves before tattooing you.
11. Speak up- don’t be afraid to let your tattoo artist know if you need a break from any pain during the process- within reason. If you take too many breaks, you’ll run the risk of swelling causing more discomfort. You can do it!
In the aftermath-
12. Commit to your aftercare- ask about and follow to the letter the advise of your pro in the days that follow, and stick around town long enough to handle any issues that may come up. Committing to your aftercare also involves good planning for when/where to get your tattoo. If you’re traveling, it’s best if your lodging and your plans are conducive to a regimen that involves wearing the plastic wrapping for a few hours on the first day, regularly rinsing your tattoo with clean water in the first few days, staying out of the ocean, sand, dirt and other potential contaminants, and minimizing your physical activity so as not to rub, crack or otherwise compromise your healing tattoo.
13. Don’t be a picker- resist, no matter how hard, the urge to scratch, peel, or pick at your unhealed tattoo- unless you like the idea of tossing money into the wind, in which case, we’d prefer you toss it our way!
14. Avoid the sun- during the healing process avoid letting your tatt get direct sunlight. After it’s healed, apply sunblock like a fanatic. Francisco’s tattoos look beautiful and sharp- even those he’s had for over ten years- because he never skips this step. Don’t let your gorgeous tattoo turn into a green fuzzy blob. Ever see those? They didn’t start out that way!
15. Final tip- don’t settle if you’re not sure- it’s much better to wait for the right combo of cleanliness, safety, art, talent, attitude and timing so you’ll have the best memories to go along with your tattoo. I’m glad I did- or I’d probably have a green blob by now.
Got ink? If so, did you get it while on a trip? How was the experience? Haven’t got one yet but ready to take the leap? Tell us about it!