Tattoo Advice From 6 People With Years of Hindsight

I often waffle between thinking tattoos are an insane commitment and thinking they’re no big deal at all. Over the years though, as I’ve gotten my own and watched others get theirs, a few things have solidified for me vis-a-vis permanent ink: Everyone who has tattoos feels very differently about them. Try as we might to find it, there is no consistent script for those who choose to participate. Which is to say: No one approach will speak specifically to yours.

That said, I am always curious to hear more perspectives, and since I know the stories of the young and the reckless getting tatted up against their parents’ wishes all too well, this time I sought out guidance from people a little older, a little wiser, and who have the benefit of hindsight. Below are six people who fit that bill, so scroll to read their stories and advice and then tell me yours.

Olivia Kim

Olivia, 40, is the VP of Creative Projects at Nordstrom. She got her first tattoo at 14.

What made you first want (and get) tattoos?

I got my first tattoo when I was 14! My mom had just gone out for the evening, and my sister and I decided to have a party at our house. Our friends were literally hiding in the bushes and trees and, as soon as the car left the driveway, they all came in. Then my friend, who was a senior and had a car, said that he was going to go get a tattoo. I said, “Oooh, me too!”

I never thought about it or deliberated whether or not I wanted one. I just got one. I think I’m pretty much the same now. The feeling of wanting another one, and another one, and another one never goes away. I don’t like to overthink anything. You can just wind up talking yourself out of an experience.

What about it might you have done different had you known better?

Nothing. Zero regrets. I love the really bad stick-and-pokes from my best friend Jenn that we would do on the floor of my apartment just as much as I love the beautiful super-pro ones done by amazing tattoo artists. I think you have to just get what feels right for you — not your friends, or your fave celeb crush, or something impersonal. If it’s what you want, it’s what you want.

What advice would you give to people who are thinking of getting a tattoo?

I’ve heard people say, “I’m thinking about getting a tattoo but just waiting for the right moment or the right inspiration.” But I think the fun of tattoos is the spontaneity of being in the moment and whatever you happen to be thinking of in that moment. How else do you wind up with a cupcake on your knuckle?

It’s not the most important decision in your life, so be a bit free with it. Have fun! What is the worst thing that could happen? You hate it or regret it? You can just as easily remove tattoos these days as get them.

Richard Biedul

Richard, 34, is a lawyer turned model turned art director. He got his first tattoo at 16.

What made you first get a tattoo?

Believe it or not, the rationale behind getting my first tattoo wasn’t an archetypal act of rebellion nor a desire to follow a trend. It was more of a Leonard (Guy Pearce) in Memento type scenario…

My (twin) sisters passed away when I was very young. As a teenager I was haunted by the notion of their memory fading as I grew older, especially because the memories I had of them to begin with were so limited.

I guess in the simplest terms: I made the decision to get a tattoo to ensure that I never forgot them. I hope that the permanence of the tattoo on my body will act as an eternal memorial to them and to any fading memory of them that I may or may have as I grow older.

What about your journey since has surprised you?

Over the last 18 years, some of the times and places (and ease with which) I’ve been able to get tattooed have genuinely surprised me. From house-parties in Berlin and Brooklyn to shops in London, Paris and Milan. Any time of day or night. Over breakfast, lunch or dinner: the list of strange scenarios goes on and on…

I wouldn’t change anything. I stand by all of the decisions I’ve made to get each and every one of my tattoos. Except maybe the drunken decision to get a unicorn on the back of my left arm…

Thoughts on style choice?

When people ask “Can you recommend a tattooist?” I always say yes, but caveat any suggestions based on what style of tattoo the person wants.

Stylistically, my tattoos are all done by different people from different parts of the world, but they all maintain aesthetic similarity. They probably don’t necessarily fit any one of the major tattoo styles but if I were pushed I would say they’re a mixture of traditional and stick-and-poke…

There has been a large number of people in London over recent years who having never expressed an interest in tattoos have, in the space of 12 months, covered every inch of their body in an attempt to fit an aesthetic that has taken others decades to achieve. On some people it works, on others it looks contrived. It’s like going to Supreme and buying one of everything. Owning these items doesn’t necessarily make you stylish. It just shows that you have a propensity to follow trends (and consume fashion).

Any common misconceptions you’d like to debunk?

“Does it hurt?” I get asked this quite a lot. The longest session I’ve ever had was three hours. Before I had that session I would always say: “No, not particularly.” However, post-wolf’s head, I always answer in the affirmative! But just how much depends on a person’s individual pain threshold. What is tolerable to one is intolerable to another…

Any advice for people thinking of getting a tattoo?

Tattooing, just like art, fashion and music is purely subjective; what one person likes another hates. Obviously you can appreciate the technical expertise that went into the work, but everyone should tread their own path, do some research, find a style or artist that YOU like. Don’t be influenced by your peers, sportsmen or celebrities. Take risks and most importantly…be original!

Mary Dorman

Mary, 67, is a civil rights activist attorney. She got her first tattoo when she was 55.

What made you first get a tattoo?

I believe I have always been an outlier. Since birth. I have never been afraid to be different because I simply am. On the other hand, I am a white female who looks like so many others and none of my friends have or had a tattoo. Maybe a teeny one in a hidden place. Good tattoos have always appealed to me. There was a fabulous show of them at the Drawing Center in the ’90s and I knew I had to have one. I have never regretted it for an instant. I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Now I just want to enhance it but have to find the right artist.

The surprise of my personal tattoo journey is how many people want one but are too chicken to get one.

Any advice on style choice?

If you’re going to get a tattoo, commit to it. Anyone can have a little dot that is a dolphin or a peace sign…boring. Might as well wear a temporary. That said, it doesn’t have to be huge by any means. One thing that I have noticed is how most people get a tattoo in a place that they can’t see it: shoulder blade, back, etc. I enjoy seeing mine.

BUT! My tattoo can’t be seen unless I have shorts on, as it is on my calf. As I age, I would like to get a tattoo of an octopus tentacle poking out of my collar just up my neck, but that may not be in this lifetime.

Any common misconceptions you’d like to debunk?

What cannot be debunked is that if you get a shitty tattoo, you are stuck with it or Dr. Zizmor (who advertises for tattoo removal on subway signs).

Any advice for people thinking of getting a tattoo?

Think about the image and get a true tattoo artist to draw a sketch that you can personalize even further. The tattoo has to be about you. Also — really fight making the decision when you are not sober. Some PRETTY BAD tattoos come out of spring break in Key West.

Charles Taylor

Charles, 56, is a writer. He got his first tattoo at 50.

What made you first want and get tattoos?

It was an idea I toyed with on and off over the years. What would I like? I always wanted a pin-up girl, you know, a kind of Varga girl. But, frankly, I worried what that would look like when I got older. Would it be the tattoo equivalent of the mid-life crisis sports car? I don’t think aging has to mean dullness. I see how reluctant men much younger than I am are to try anything that isn’t run-of-the-mill dull, and it just makes me despair for my entire gender. There is nothing more boring than the sartorial habits of the average American man. On the other hand, you don’t want to look like an ass.

The decision when I made it was simple. My mom died. Six days before I turned 50. I decided I wanted her name tattooed on my left shoulder. I was so marked by her death that marking my flesh seemed of very little consequence.

I asked some of my students where they got their ink. And the same name, NY Adorned on 2nd Ave, kept coming up. I went in on a Saturday and got her name and middle name, Eva Lorraine, in simple black script on my left shoulder. I remember being strangely proud when, after he was done, the tattooist said to me, “Wow! You’re a bleeder.” It felt right that I had bled for the honor of having my mom’s name engraved on me.

My dad was, at first, a little taken aback. But he understood why I did it, and he came to like the tattoo. He even kidded me, “When are you going to get my name?” I did this past April the week after he died, on the opposite shoulder, in the same script, his first and middle name, Charles Henry.

What about your tattoo journey has surprised you?

A few weeks back, I was moving boxes after hours at my part-time job and was wearing a sleeveless undershirt. My boss, who is covered in tattoos, looked at the script on my back and said, “Those look so sick, Charley.” It was a compliment from someone who knows about the artform and who means what he says. It meant the world. There are only a few more names of people around me I love who I would find a place for on my back, but because I love them I’m hoping I go before them. I have toyed with the idea of getting a quote written on my side, but I’m afraid the particular quote I have in mind might be an inadvertent curse rather than the point of pride I would intend it to be. And no, I won’t tell you what it is.

Are you pro or anti-“trendy” tattoos?

Completely against trendy tattoos. It’s not like the thing you buy at H&M to wear for a season.

Any common misconceptions you’d like to debunk?

Well, they are so common now that we can no longer say, “Think of what will happen when you try to get a job.” Cops have sleeves now. That said, like any style that becomes common, not everyone wears them well. I work a part-time job with guys in their 30s who are covered in tattoos and they’ve thought them out, who they wanted to tattoo them, how each would work with each other. I recently met a woman who is having an entire bodysuit done. I saw a photo and it was ravishing: completely thought out in terms of her whole body. The worst thing to me is someone who looks like they are wearing all their clothes at once. Since mine are on my back, I forget about them for weeks at a time.

Any advice for people who are thinking of getting a tattoo?

Do it sober. Put thought into it. Think of what size you want. Will it be visible or not to the outside world and if it is, how will it go with what you wear in your everyday life?

Christie Terranova

Christie, 34 is a hairdresser at Common Good Salon. She got her first tattoo at 18. (“It was a butterfly, because duh.”)

What made you first want tattoos?

I’ve liked tattoos ever since I knew what they were. Not much has changed in that department. I’m still collecting and like to get tattooed when I travel.

Any advice on style choice?

Well, it’s no surprise, good art costs money. When you are young, it’s hard to spend a lot because you don’t have a lot, but hopefully when you get older, you get nicer pieces. As far as tattoo trends, I couldn’t care less about what other people do to their bodies as far as modification. It’s not my place to judge either way.

Any common misconceptions you’d like to debunk?

Where we live, in New York, there’s not much to debunk…we live in a very liberal place. As far as other places, located in the US or outside, being a heavily-tattooed woman is considered strange. But the world will come around. When people ask about them, my usual response is: “I just like them.” It’s that simple.

Any advice for people who are thinking of getting a tattoo?

You definitely get what you pay for. Tattoos are expensive. I know it sounds redundant to say, but they’re permanent. Pay the money. It’s worth it. Also, above all, the people who are tattooing are artists. They are expensive because they don’t get paid time off or health insurance. You’re helping with that. It’s not cool to try to lowball someone. And finally, opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one. So, do what you want. And live your life.

Amanda Wachob

Amanda is an artist and tattoo artist working in New York, New York.

What made you first want tattoos?

I never expected that I would be a tattoo artist, and had never really thought about getting tattoos prior! I got my first tattoo during my apprenticeship; I picked a design from a piece of antique sheet music.

What about your journey has surprised you?

I think what’s really surprised me is how obsessed I am with everything about tattooing. I didn’t expect to fall so completely in love with it. It’s truly my passion and time disappears when I’m working…I feel really lucky for that.

Any common misconceptions you’d like to debunk?

Get the style of tattoo that you want regardless of that whole “longevity” thing.  Your body starts breaking down the tattoo ink as soon as it goes into your skin no matter the color or style or application, and all tattoos will age and need a touchup eventually. We are here for such a short time on this planet, so decorate yourself however you want and enjoy.

Any advice for people who are thinking of getting a tattoo?

Definitely research your artist, and have them make something unique just for you. It’s never good to ask a tattoo artist to copy someone else’s work, it’s best to seek out that artist directly, even if it means traveling to them or waiting for awhile before you can get something.

Illustrations by Eloise Weiss.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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