Let me answer your first question: Yes, it does hurt.
But, as my tattoo artist told me, the pain doesn’t matter much if you want something enough. And that was true. I’d been thinking about my tattoo for several years and was thrilled to finally be getting inked.
For me, the pain was bearable. Every 10 seconds or so, the artist had to stop to wipe away ink, and without that break it would have gotten really uncomfortable. My image is a simple outline, so I wasn’t getting any shading or coloring, but I did have it placed on the inside of my bicep, which is a fairly tender spot. It didn’t hurt as bad as racking your shin, but it smarted more than getting scratched.
I’m not a fan of needles — when I get my shots, I can’t look — but this felt different than the needles you encounter at the doctor’s office because it’s much shorter. The needle and the ink gun hum as they repeatedly jab the surface of the skin, so that part didn’t bother me. It felt more like a burning sensation than a pricking.
If you have the conviction that you’re ready for a tattoo, the pain shouldn’t be enough to dissuade you. If it does, then you’re not ready to make that kind of a commitment!
Now that we’ve addressed the first question on everyone’s mind, here are three other things you should think about before you get that tattoo.
If you have a tattoo, what's the ONE piece of advice you have for someone thinking about getting inked?
Here’s a rule I learned from a friend that has saved me from several ragrets: Once you know the exact image and the exact placement on your body, you should wait at least one full calendar year before getting it tattooed. If it still seems like a good idea after that period of time, then you have a sense that the image is important to you enough to make permanent.
Yes, tattoos can be removed, but it’s costly and results vary. It’s safe to say that your body will never be the same after getting that tatt — and this is the body that will need to carry you through a whole lifetime.
There’s a lot that will change over the course of your life, but your tattoo won’t. You may feel like Breaking Bad is the best TV show of all time, but no matter how good your Walter White tattoo looks, do you really want to be explaining to your grandkids who that guy with the goatee is?
One helpful corrective here is to make sure that the image you select will never fade in its significance to you — that the image touches on a core part of your identity. It should also be revelatory for a part of yourself that you’re willing to make public. Ask yourself: would I be okay answering questions about this image for the rest of my life? Because people will ask about your tattoo!
My dad worked in Custer State Park in South Dakota, so that’s where I grew up. We’d wake up some mornings to bison or bighorn sheep chomping on the grass in our front lawn. It was an incredible privilege to have the park as the setting for my childhood, and it has shaped the person I am in so many ways.
Now that I live in Indiana, I think about my connection to the park a lot and I wanted to make it a part of who I am in a visible way. So I started playing around with a simple outline of the bison from the park’s logo. Once I had an image and size for a tattoo idea, I thought about placement — and even went so far as to have my sister draw a sample image with a Sharpie on my bicep so that I could get a feel for what it might look like to have ink there.
All of this conceptualizing took place over two or three years, so when it was time to get my tattoo, I was completely certain of what I was doing. And now, when I see the image on my arm, it brings me a lot of joy — I have confidence that it was a great decision. And I love to talk about where I grew up!
Do your homework
For a decision as important as this, don’t just walk into any tattoo parlor and sit down in the first open chair. Shop around. If you see someone who has an eye-catching tattoo, ask them where they got it.
Most tattoo artists have a strong presence on Instagram, so you can look at their work and get a sense of what they can do. Depending on what you’re getting inked, think about both the image and the style of the artist, especially if you are trusting them to draw freehand. The parlor should have an option to use a stencil, where the artist uses a thermal printer to put temporary ink on your skin and then traces it with a tattoo gun. (If you’ve had your image picked out for more than a year, you can just show up with a paper copy of your image and they can easily turn that into a stencil.)
One important factor to consider in your research is the safety and hygiene of the parlor. Don’t just research online — walk into the store and meet the staff. Tell them you’re just shopping around. The space should feel as clean and orderly as a doctor or dentist’s office. Pro-tip: check the bathrooms — if they’re clean, you know the parlor has good hygiene practices. You should be able to observe artists using equipment from one-time use packages and sterilizing their workspace.
Respect your body
Our bodies are a gift and should be respected and honored, so just make sure that whatever image you choose for a tattoo dignifies your body and doesn’t demean it. It’s hard to determine exactly where that line is, but looking at our bodies from the perspective of our Catholic tradition might help.
It’s easy to think that we are something beyond our bodies — that we inhabit these bodies for a time, but that who we really are is something more. In a way, that’s true — we are body and soul, and our souls will live with God when our bodies die. But for now, our bodies and souls are united. In other words, we don’t have a body — we are a body. Our bodies are one of the ways we bear God’s image, so they deserve dignity. What we do with them matters.
There are lots of ways a tattoo can dignify and reverence your body — but there are many more ways it can go the other way. So take your time and make a thorough decision — this is not a decision to be made on an impulse. It’s an opportunity to reflect deeply on who you are and what makes you you — and then to share that with the world.