“How much does a tattoo hurt?” and other tattoo virgins’ frequently asked questions

New tattoo!

So as you know, I recently got tattooed for the seventh time: the highly capable Alec Benjamin, currently of Red Hot + Blue Tattoo in Tollcross, was kind enough to make my upper left arm considerably more awesome. (The design is a hamsa / Hand of Fatima / hand of protection.) Now that I have a few bits and pieces of ink on me, I’ve started to get questions about tattoos and tattooing. My un-inked students will spot one of my tattoos and ask about it, or I’ll tweet about the latest on my tattoo wish-list and get a question land in my @ box. There are lots of questions that are repeatedly asked by nervous tattoo virgins, many of them sensible. I wanted answers to these questions, too, when I was a quivering member of the inkless club! So here are my thoughts. Hope they’re helpful!

Tattoos
My chest-piece, inked by Roberto Seifert during his guest stint at Tattoo Zoo, Victoria, Canada

How much does a tattoo hurt?
This is by far the tattoo virgin’s most burning question — and quite right too! It was my most burning question when I was pre-ink, too. Unfortunately, it’s kind of impossible to answer. The pain level varies from person to person: some folks apparently feel pain completely differently to others, so what was excruciating for your just-tattooed friend may be fine and dandy when it comes to your turn. Also, the amount of ouch varies hugely depending on where you get your tattoo. Areas that are notorious for being painful include the ribs, feet and fingers. In general, beware of anyone who tries to compare tattooing to something else for you — “it’s like a bee sting” — or worse, the people who try and stab or pinch you to show you what it feels like! It really is different for everyone.
To be honest, my usual answer to this question is “not that much.” I’ve now been tattooed on my chest, neck, both legs and my upper and lower arms, and the pain level was much of a muchness… and really pretty OK. Think of it this way: tattooed people go back again and again and again to have this stuff done to them. How bad can it be?

This.
Aren’t you worried they’ll look ugly when you’re old?
Not in the slightest. I think this is something you worry about pre-tattoo, and then you get your tattoo, and suddenly it’s not important anymore. This question is in the same bracket as “but what if you want to get a good job?” The answer is the same — and mind-blowingly simple — for both. If you’re genuinely worried about either of these, just put your tattoo somewhere where you can cover it up with something — clothing, a watch, a scarf, your hair, whatever. And if you’re still worried about it, maybe you just aint meant to be tattooed.

Mermaid
Getting Violet, my mermaid, inked by the fantabulous Hilary of Electro Ladylux Tattoo of Vancouver, Canada, in summer 2011

How long does it take to heal a tattoo?
Depends on the tattoo. The smaller and simpler it is, the less time, generally… though I know a dude who has a full sleeve and reckons it healed in one day (NB: he’s lying). But all tattoos go through roughly the same stages. Firstly, it’ll be brand new and kinda shiny and sticky and generally feel a bit gross. This is because it is essentially an open wound, hooray! But you should not be afraid to wash it and moisturise it and keep it happy. I kind of think of a new tattoo as like a graze: immediately after it happens, it’s kind of painful and you don’t much like putting clothing over it, because it’s tender. But then within 24 hours it starts to heal a little and that stuff all feels a bit better.
The next stage is the initial scabbing stage — gross, but necessary. This is the part where you think, ‘whoah, my tattoo’s healing super fast!’, because these big bits of scab seem to be wiping off all over when you put your cream on. Do not be fooled! Next comes the itching stage, probably the worst part of being tattooed. Forget the pain of the needle, and fear the itch! HUGE DEAL: you cannot scratch a tattoo. You cannot peel off a scabby bit. You have got to let it itch and you have got to let the scabs come off in their own time! In the meantime, all you can do is lightly slap the tattoo, which sometimes (sometimes!) alleviates the itch a bit.
Finally, you’ll get additional scabbing, where much smaller, finer bits of ink come off and your tattoo really starts to show through. By this time you’ll probably be fine to touch the tattoo, wash that part of yourself as you normally would in the shower, and even wear abrasive fabric like wool over the tattoo. At this point you should still moisturise, but you’re nearly healed, hooray!
These stages can last days or weeks, by the way. My mermaid took over a month to heal — my little bit of Latin on my right forearm? Only about six days.

&
My ampersand, inked by the wonderful Jason of Red Hot + Blue Tattoo in 2011.

Doesn’t being tattooed open you up to discrimination?
Folk walk around with this notion that as soon as you get large, visible or multiple tattoos, your life gets much harder. You’ll never get a good job now! People will think you’re violent [men] or a slut [women]! People will question your intelligence/social background/how you were raised etc etc etc. Newsflash: heavily tattooed people have responsible jobs. Alec, my aforementioned tattooist, is literally covered in the things (he even has some on his face) and he used to be an IT teacher. I’ve got a fair few, plan to have more, and I’m a college lecturer. Look at Melissa Kakoulas — she’s an incredibly successful lawyer. Some employers, like the Metropolitan Police and HMV, have a bee in their bonnet about tattoos — but frankly, if they’re that intolerant of difference then do you really want to be working for them anyway? In my experience, folk don’t bother too much about them, as long as none of them are really offensive and you’re willing to try and cover them up if required. As for people who draw conclusions about your sexual proclivities, background or intelligence based on your tattoos? Hooray! Those people essentially just posted a big sign over their heads saying I AM A TOXIC HUMAN AND YOU WANT NOTHING TO DO WITH ME. I always like to know where I stand.

Boy's new ink!
My bestie Leon’s most recent tattoo, based on this poster, done at Tribe, Edinburgh

Don’t you regret it?
I never have. I’ve had a couple of tattoos now — the Hamsa included — done on a bit of a whim. I’ve never regretted any of them. I can’t speak for anyone else, but here’s the weird thing about mine: after a surprisingly short time, I stop seeing them. You know how you don’t really notice, say, your elbows or what colour your eyes are when you look in the mirror? My tattoos are like that, too. They’ve just become part of the landscape. I did have a wobble when I first had Violet the Mermaid inked (see photo futher up this post), mainly because she was my first colour piece and much bigger than the others, but also because she’s topless and has a bit of a saucy bum. But after a couple of weeks of “oo-er I do I really have a naked lady on me?,” she just became… part of my leg. Now, the main times I notice her are times when I buy a pair of trousers or a skirt or a pair of boots that hit just the right part of my leg to show her off. And then I think, “Violet looks awesome!”
I know a lot of tattooed folk and never met anyone who regrets any of their tattoos. I think that’s probably because none of the people I know have ever walked into a parlour and picked some random pink butterfly off a flash sheet and gone, “that’ll do.” If you put some thought into it and make sure it means something to you, that’s a fairly good start. The actual design of my hand of protection — which I vaguely sketched for Alec and then he improvised with — was done on the spur of the moment, but I’d been thinking about a hand of protection and why I wanted one for several months. As long as it’s a meaningful act, you won’t regret it. I think that probably goes for most areas of life!

Any questions I’ve missed?

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You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

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One Response to ““How much does a tattoo hurt?” and other tattoo virgins’ frequently asked questions”

  1. Mandy Fleetwood Says:

    Erm. Afraid you do know someone who walked into a tattoo parlour and picked a random pink thing and said ‘that’ll do’… My eighteen year old self did just that. Even worse, I asked for it on my hip, the tattooist said ‘oooh that’ll hurt’ so I said ‘ah, just pop it on my back then.’ Cringe

    However, having a horrible pink manga style angel on my left shoulder blade has encouraged me in the name of the cover up to explore lovely big tattoo designs, which I probably would have been a bit intimidated to even consider had I not needed to!

    xx