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Getting Tattooed: What to Expect

Before you head off to the tattoo studio you may be wondering what to expect out of the experience. There are typically five steps to the tattooing procedure:

1. Stencil Application. After your tattooist has put on rubber gloves and professionally prepared the skin to be tattooed (generally by cleaning and shaving), they’ll apply your design stencil. Before this happens be sure to take a few moments to look over the design one last time, making sure that it’s exactly what you want and checking things such as the spelling of certain words etc. The stencil will generally be made using a thermofax machine and carbon copy paper. The stencil (when applied to skin) will leave behind temporary lines that will serve as a “blueprint” for the artwork. For more information on Stencils, please see the Article, “About Stencils and Their Importance.” You may be impatient for the real ink, but it’s VERY important that you inspect the stencil now while it’s still temporary. Make sure that it’s perfectly positioned on your body and don’t be afraid to ask your tattooist to reapply the stencil if it’s not exactly where you want it. Most reputable artists will be just as concerned with placement as you are and they’ll wash it off and re-apply it until you’re both pleased with the placement.

2. Get Ready and Comfortable. After you’ve determined that you are happy with the stencil placement, you’ll need to find as comfortable a position as possible for both you and your tattooist to stay in during the actual tattoo process. Depending on your design, the tattooing process may last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, so positioning is important. Longer sessions will very likely include breaks (you’ll both want and need them), but having to shift positions too often will inconvenience both you and your tattooist.

You need to be comfortable, but so does your tattooist. The studio will likely have a variety of chairs (similar to those in salons or barber shops), stools, fold-out and cushioned tables, as well as a host of other props that can be positioned to suit both of you. You may also need to remove or pull aside some of your clothing to keep it out of the way. Your tattooist might put paper surgery towels around the tattoo area and may tape or tuck them into surrounding clothing to keep them in place as well as keep your clothes clean in the process.

3. Line Work. The tattooist will then perform what is called the “Line Work.” This is generally a black outline of the tattoo design, derived from the stencil, and which will create the solid lines that will exist in the finished tattoo. As your tattooist creates these lines by tracing the stencil on your skin, the tattoo machine will vibrate and buzz as they operate it with a foot pedal. The tattooist will stop intermittently to refill the needles with ink. As they work through your design, you’ll see they are constantly wiping to remove excess ink and fluids. Your design stencil will be slowly wiped away during this process as well.

Some people describe getting the line work done as feeling like you’re being cut or scratched. The needles of the tattoo machine may seem like they’re moving fairly slowly over your skin. The area being tattooed could also begin to feel hot or numb and, as your body processes the light trauma it’s receiving, you might also begin to feel overheated or cold. It’s important to keep your breathing slow and consistent and to tell your tattooist if you begin feeling sick or faint.

4. Shading and Coloring. After the line work is completed, shading and coloring will begin. Similar to line work, the tattooist will continue to replenish their ink and wipe off any excess fluids as they work through this part of the process.

Shading can feel significantly different from line work, with your tattooist moving the tattoo needles in little circles or other small movements, unlike the slow, more constant strokes associated with the tattoo outline. Moving in a concentrated area this way may feel abrasive, like a steel wool pad scrubbing a spot off a dish. As before, you should always focus on steadying your breath and trying to relax.

5. Bandaging. Once the tattoo is completed you will likely breathe a sigh of relief as your tattooist wipes down your tattoo completely with a light solution to remove excess ink and fluids. After you both examine the work, they’ll often apply a bandage to protect it and help prevent infection. Your tattoo is technically an open wound, and it’s very important to carefully follow any healing instructions given by your tattooist. Keep your new tattoo bandaged, cleaned, and treated as they instruct. For more information on tattoo care, please see the Article, “Tattoo and Piercing Aftercare.”

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