college tattoo
Tattoos are fun and expressive, until they aren't. Make sure you get yours done right, less you end up with a not so great gift that stays even after graduation. (Illustration by Lily Qian, Parsons, The New School)

Tattoos are not as taboo as they used to be. In fact, a lot of people are inked up and college seems to be the time when most people get their first tattoo. College is also the time where most tattoo horror stories come from. Over and over people generations above students will talk about the college tattoos they got when they were young and dumb, and that’s how they ended up on “Bad Ink.” But that doesn’t have to be you. If you follow the right steps you could leave college with a tattoo that you’ll love for the rest of your life.

Tattoos can be many things and that’s why they are incredible. They can be great works of art, powerful words or simple images. They can mean as much, or as a little, as you want them to. It can be an animal you like a lot or it can be your departed grandfather’s signature. Your body is yours to do with as you please, but tattoos are a commitment. They are permanent. They are painful. They are expensive. So, make your college tattoo a good one. Here are 7 tips to make that happen.

1. Sober up or take a hike

This is one of the bigger points, do not be drunk. I cannot stress that enough. Do not be drunk! In fact, do not be under any kind of mind-altering substances. That is the easiest, simplest way to avoid a regretful tattoo at any age. When alcohol flows through your veins it might seem like the greatest idea in the world to get a tattoo, but that’s how all the tattoo horror stories start. The best thing to do if you get the ‘great’ idea to get a tattoo when you’re drunk, is to write down what you want inked on you.

If you still want it in the sober light of day, go for it. Or, if that’s not good enough for your drunk mind, try getting a friend to draw it with a pen instead. Thankfully most tattoo shops ask you before you go under the needle if you’re intoxicated, but there are still ways of getting a tattoo outside of a shop. But, it usually means an even worse tattoo permanently on your skin. If nothing else, make sure you have a sober friend with you to dissuade you from making bad drunk choices. The only thing that should be buzzed in a tattoo parlor is the needles.

2. Patience is a virtue

Make sure to wait a while. It might not be the easiest thing to do when you get a great idea for a tattoo, but the best way to make sure the design is something you want is to give it time. Tap down that impulsive instinct that could get you in trouble and wait. If you wait about six months to a year, you’ll have a good idea if you still want it for the rest of your life.

Waiting before going under the needle will also give you enough time to save up for a tattoo, which can be alarmingly expensive. So, when you think you know what tattoo you’re going to get and where on your body you want it, put an alert in your phone or mark your calendar for a year or six months out and check back in with yourself to see if you still want it. If you do, great! Get that college tattoo.

3. Research, research, research

In your tattoo endeavor, finding a good shop is key. Once you have the idea in mind, shop around at the different tattoo parlors in your area. Chat with an artist about what it is you want. Make sure that it’s a clean, welcoming place with artists that are willing to work with you to bring your idea to reality. Some shops have a specific style that could affect how the artists draw out your vision.

I got my first tattoo in a shop with a classic, blocky sailor tattoo style. The thick lines worked great for my design, but it wouldn’t for everyone. Some shops also have different pricing as well. A minimum could range from $60 to $100, which is already a lot on a college budget. If you’re looking for a certain style, scouting out an artist ahead of time is a great idea. Don’t be afraid to ask people with tattoos for shop recommendations.

4. Voice your opinions and concerns

Don’t be afraid to speak up when it comes to the look of your tattoo. When you work with your tattoo artist and something isn’t quite matching that idea in your head, say something. A good artist won’t be offended. Their job is to give you what you want. The artist will have an interpretation based on what you tell them, but it’s up to you to make sure you and the artist are on the same page. Bringing reference photos will help get you on the same page to ensure the design is what you want. Just be sure your reference photo isn’t another artist’s work.

Commissioning an artist, however, to draw your design out ahead of time is also a great way to ensure a great tattoo. Again, this is a permanent, expensive decision. Make sure the design is exactly how you want it. Triple check the placement, the wording if you have any and any important details that make or break your design. This way, you don’t end up with a misspelled college tattoo. If it is something in a different language pop it in a translator and make sure it’s the right word or character.

5. It’s their job, trust them

Be open to your artist’s suggestions. They want you to have the best possible college tattoo and they’re the experts. Based on their suggestions, you may have to rethink your idea or the placement. Your artist knows what places that hurt most and heal the best. They know how the colors will mix and fade. They know what their skill can give you.

Be open to their suggestions, but make sure it is what you want and you’re comfortable with the design before the needle starts up. Be sure to tip your tattoo artists as well.

6. Where is just as important as what

Keep placement in mind when planning out your tattoo. Where on your skin is this going to go? Some places heal poorly like hands and feet, and others are more painful like the ribs or wrists. A good rule of thumb is easy to show, easy to hide.

While more employers are accepting of visible tattoos, it still a good idea to place it somewhere it can be easily hidden to be safe. Getting a tattoo in a more hidden place makes it a nice surprise when someone points it out or when you catch sight of it again and you don’t get so tired of it. But placing it somewhere you can see could help you remember the meaning behind the tattoo, and being able to show it off is part of the fun.

7. Hands off the ink

Do not mess with your tattoo! Let it heal. Remember that tattoos need to heal below the surface too. It will take time and a lot of lotion to help the tattoo heal properly. Again, listen to your tattoo artist when they tell you how to care for it. I would suggest not getting one around midterms, finals or any other stressful point in your life. If you can focus on helping it heal up and not scratching it, you’ll be happier in the long run than if it heals incorrectly, messing up your design.

I’m no tattoo expert, but I’ve been under the needle twice myself and know plenty of people in and out of college with tattoos. What’s above is just some tips and tricks I’ve learned from personal experience, the stories I’ve heard from other friends and family and watching too many bad tattoos shows. Getting tattoos in college, and at any point in your life, is a big decision. Tattoos, whether it’s getting one or removing one, are expensive and painful. So be smart about it and think before you ink.

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