I remember the moment the needle touched my skin for the first time. I was bare-chested, reclined on an uncomfortable leather chair. Even though my eyes were closed, I could feel the artist’s face getting closer to my body. My palms were sweating, and I clenched my jaw as I braced for impact. Then it happened. I felt the needle graze the skin on my chest. And just like that, I lost my tattoo virginity.
My first tattoo was my late grandfather’s name written in Kanji over my heart. It was a small piece, about three square inches. You wouldn’t know it was there unless I took my shirt off. However, my most recent tattoo was a half-sleeve — a large, visible piece covering my entire upper arm.
I noticed a few things after getting this larger piece. They’re not necessarily good or bad — they’re merely my observations. But I think they deserve a discussion, especially as it pertains to the decision-making process of getting a tattoo. These are the less-talked-about considerations you need to think about before getting your first big tattoo.
Get a tattoo for the right reasons.
Everyone has a reason for getting a tattoo. Not to disparage anyone, but I don’t think all reasons are created equal.
Since I’ve gotten my arm tattooed, I’ve had many great conversations with other tattooed individuals. Sometimes people compliment the tattoo. Sometimes they want to know the name of the artist. Other times, it’s a casual acknowledgement between two tattooed people — à la, Cool tattoo, bro.
However, I’ve also had some bizarre conversations where people compliment my tattoo and then share every detail of their own tattoos. Or they’ll criticize my tattoo choice, preaching that a half-sleeve is half-assed. Some have even explained to me why their tattoos are better than mine.
I’ve had enough strange conversations that I’ve observed a common behavioural trait amongst these people. It seems like their tattoos overpower their personality — in essence, they define themselves by the attention they receive from their tattoos. And when they don’t receive attention, they seek it.
Your tattoo might have meaning — or it might not. You might want a tattoo because you like the artist’s work. Or, you think a tattoo would look badass on your body. But don’t get a tattoo if your only motivation is attention.
Tattoos will only give you fleeting attention. In the beginning, your friends will want to know everything about it. Your mom will ask for pictures. You’ll run into people you know, and they’ll say something like, Wow! When did you get that?
But the attention dies down quickly. Pretty soon, you realize that deep down, you’re still the same person — just with some extra ink on your body.
Before getting a tattoo, I think it’s important to honestly reflect on why you want a tattoo to ensure that you’re getting it for the right reasons. It should be about personal expression. It should not be for attention to replace a need to develop a personality.
You become an ambassador for your tattoo artist.
I alluded to this in the first point. Once you get a big piece, especially if the piece is high-quality, people will want to know about your tattoo. A lot of people will ask about your tattoo artist.
Sometimes they’re people with tattoos who are looking for local talent to work on their next piece. Or, they’re people who want to get their first tattoo and like your piece's aesthetic.
As I had more of these artist-related conversations, I started to realize that, whether I liked it or not, I was becoming an ambassador for my artist’s work. So to throw it back to Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility — maybe not great power but definitely some responsibility.
Tattoos require a level of care to ensure the design remains fresh and aesthetic. Otherwise, they start to look old. Maybe not right away, but give it a few years, and a once beautiful tattoo will begin to look blurry and smudged.
After you get a tattoo, you will need to take care of your skin — moisturizing the skin, applying liberal amounts of sunscreen, eating good foods, taking the right supplements. But you’re not just taking care of the tattoo for you. You’re also taking care of your artist’s work.
Realistically, you won’t take every measure to maintain your tattoo. But I think it’s essential for prospective tattoo owners to understand the role of responsibility because their tattoo turns them into an ambassador for their artist — especially if the work is high-quality or the artist is well-known.
People will want to talk about your tattoo.
The last point was about talking to people with tattoos. This point is about talking to people without tattoos.
Many people I meet want to talk about my tattoo, especially people who don’t have any tattoos themselves. They always ask the same questions: How long did it take? Did it hurt? Be prepared to answer these questions.
If you’re thinking of getting a non-generic tattoo, I’d also include the question: What does it mean? — by non-generic, I mean anything that isn’t flowers or geometrical shapes.
For example, I decided to get a tattoo of the Egyptian god, Anubis, on my arm. Anubis is the god of death, and his job is to guide souls to the afterlife.
One of my former students fell in love with Anubis during our unit on Ancient Egypt. First, she loved him because of his dog-like body — if you didn’t know, 10-year-old girls adore puppies. But secondly, she also loved Anubis for what he represents.
The standard interpretation considers Anubis as being synonymous with death, which is rather depressing. But to her, Anubis represents new beginnings — the idea that as one door closes, another opens. She concluded that Anubis is a god that helps people seek positivity in the negative.
I thought her insight was beautiful. So when I found out she was diagnosed with cancer, I decided I wanted that imagery on my body as a reminder to search for the light in the darkness.
I love talking about my tattoos because of the meaning behind each piece. But not every tattoo has a story, nor does every tattoo need a story.
Tattoos are personal. Why you get them is entirely up to you. But people will want to know the backstory. Honestly, they probably don’t even care about your answer — sometimes it’s just a talking point. Regardless, after you get a tattoo, you’ll be talking about it a lot. So be prepared.
You lose your anonymity.
I live in my city’s central area, so everything I need is within a five-minute walk. My coffee shop is in my apartment building. My grocery store is adjacent to my apartment building. My gym is a block away. Restaurants and bars litter the neighbourhood.
Naturally, I run into familiar faces. But I feel like I’ve become more recognizable because I have such a visible tattoo. For example, I was at a restaurant in my neighbourhood. The server said that she saw me at the gym a few days prior and recognized my tattoo. Or, I was in the elevator with my neighbour, and she asked if I was seeing someone. I asked her how she knew — I hadn’t even told my friends. It turns out her husband saw me with my date while he was coming home from work.
We all know that tattoos are recognizable. But I don’t think we understand how much a visible tattoo can affect your recognizability— until we get a visible tattoo. Tattoos make it a lot harder to fly under the radar.
I was talking to a friend who was thinking of getting a large tattoo on her arm. After discussing my experience with her, she was less convinced that a large piece was the right move. So, she decided to take some more time to think before making the final decision.
And honestly, that’s the purpose of this piece. I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from getting a tattoo — quite the opposite. Getting my arm tattooed was a terrific decision. The tattoo itself has a lot of personal meaning, and it also looks badass.
But I think possessing a greater understanding of all the less-talked-about consequences is ultimately beneficial. And hopefully, my experience can add to that conversation. More knowledge can only help with the evaluative decision-making process, so there aren’t any surprises post-decision.
So, happy tattooing!