Tattoo or Not Tattoo

Everything you need to know for your painful rite of passage.

By Alina Shaikh, University of Toronto


So you walk in, right? Explanation to your family prepared, mentality prepared, financially – well, technically  prepared, so you do it. You open that door to the unknown world of object/ink permanence. But there’s just a hallway.

And those menacing stairs at the end of it. Along with an intimidating buzzing noise and the sound of someone wincing highly, accompanied by a careless, cheerful hum. The fuck did you get yourself into.

A cute, heavily tattooed, manic-pixie-dream-girl bounces towards the reception, and apparently she’s going to do your piece. Her golden septum shines in the fluorescents, and you wonder if that’ll be enough to distract you from the overwhelming pain you’ll soon experience. You decide yeah, probably, because you’re just that type of romantic.

You hear kids ask the usual, “Does it hurt?” “How many do you have?” “What should I get?” while trying to decide how big you want your beautiful mistake to be – 3 or 10 inches… Hmm.

You go with the smallest option they print out for you, because you don’t want to chicken out when you’ve already paid the nonrefundable deposit. And the hefty bodybuilder sweating all over the parchment-lined dentist chair isn’t helping you calm your nerves. Even when manic-pixie-dream-girl smiles at you after you approve of her trace.

Getting prepared for your first time can be tricky business: you’re wondering if you’ll be any good at this, if you’ll make weird noises, if it’ll hurt, if you’ll finish too quickly. Ahah.

No, but really, for every “first” you come across, communication is key.

So annoy your artist with all your intricate details, specific placement, break times, anything that strikes your fancy. And sitting in one of those chairs, muttering “Christ” under your breath as your artist skims bone, for hours on end, doesn’t scream very “me,” personally. So safe words are a must. Especially the, “Hey do you mind pausing for a bit?” one. My personal favorite.

After the stencil’s fixed and agreed upon, you’re lying on that thin stretch of fabric, and manhandled in a very precarious position – the tattoo machine starts to hum.

It’s not really a hum, per say, as much as it is a threatening buzz, going off and on until the ink is finally set (whatever you do, don’t call it a tattoo gun. They will defensively claim to have not “shot” up anything in the past 3 weeks).

You hear all sorts of things describing how it’ll feel – whether your friend boasts that it was only a cat scratch, your neighbor drunkenly crying about “this very deep papercut feeling,” or the ol’ sarcastic “feels like needles. What do you want from me.”

It’ll be different for everyone. At the shop I go to, most people describe it like feeling as if someone’s drawing on your skin with pen. Very deeply. Like when doodling your crush’s name into your journal, so. Deep.

Along the rollercoaster ride formally called the tattooing process, you’ll see all types of people. They’ll be the guys that pretend to fall asleep, complete with a snore and the shock of waking up somewhere in the middle of the piece with a “Shit, sorry man. Totally fell asleep there. Hah.” The tattooist will then nod, smile, and roll their eyes when they flinch violently while they “go back to napping.”

Then there are the high schoolers, complete with their 7-8 group posse of just-turned-18-year-olds. They choose whatever flash they see on the walls, usually an infinity sign, or “live, laugh, love <3” – there’s no in-between. Once they get on the chair, they’re all whines and overtly sexual moans, just what the 37-year old tattoo artist wanted. How did they know.

They ask to stop their ten-minute piece, five times, so that their friends could get an Instagram photoshoot and Snapchat interviews in the timespan of “Mackenzie’s first tattoo!! Ever!!”

They’ll skimp out on tip at the end of it all, just because, after all, there could have been friendlier customer service. Be careful though, one may look like one of these stereotypical teens, but when a girl asks for an anchor tattoo and the artist doesn’t blink an eye, she may/may not reveal that her father died at sea as a naval captain.

Tattoos are important things, whether you’re getting a quote from a song, some neat flash you saw on the wall, or a portrait of a loved one – it’s going to make a huge impact on your life. Now you’ll be super fucking cool. Just kidding.

But really, it’s going to affect you in the way something permanent on your body always is: seeing it in the mirror every day, one-night-stands tracing the outlines, strangers asking you about it (your personal life doesn’t matter anymore, apparently). Those situations are almost guaranteed to happen, but if you know what you’re doing, and it’s well thought out, you’re going to be just fine.