Your First Tattoo: What to Expect & Tattoo Pain Tips

I got my first tattoo in May of this year after saying my whole life that I never wanted one. Oh, how things change.

My urge to get a tattoo came on suddenly last year and after being randomly struck with an idea that meant a lot to me personally, I was ready to make my idea into reality – but only after months of planning. I took the tattooing prep phase nice and slow to make sure I really did want my tattoo. After six months of still liking the idea I knew I would love the tattoo if I got it.

Not everyone has to do that but it’s something I would recommend if you, like me, often love something compulsively and then hate it later. 

I was completely in the dark about how the whole tattooing process worked when I first had my idea. I asked my friends and boyfriend lots of questions and did my own research – and of course, finally got my tattoo! I’m writing this lengthy guide because I wish I had known all of this information before my first tattoo.

Now let’s get planning!

How do I choose a tattoo artist?

The first step is to figure out if you want something super specific or just anything. This will determine how much actual planning, thought and time you will have to put into the tattoo planning process.

… if you just want your first tattoo ASAP

If you’re just really wanting to get inked, but don’t care too much about the style, artist, or actual tattoo design, you could easily try to walk in to any tattoo shop. Done.

But if you’re picky, like me, you’re going to want to research tattoo artists near you, and really nail down the style you want. That way when you have your consultation your artist can easily tell exactly what you’re envisioning.

… if you don’t know what style you want your tattoo to be in

You can either research tattoo artists or the design you’re wanting first.

I’d recommend starting with the former if you’re not going to be picky about what style your tattoo needs to be. That way you can just find an artist’s style you really like and ask them to do the subject you want. For example, if you know you really want to get a tattoo of a whale but aren’t sure what you want it to look like, you can browse different artists, and as soon as you’ve found an artist whose work you’ve fallen in love with, they can give you that whale in their style! 

However, if you’re dead set on an exact vision of what your tattoo is going to look like, I do not recommend the above planning process. Instead, I would start trolling the shit out of Pinterest and Instagram tags looking for inspiration for your first tattoo.

moon tattoo ideas shown on pinterest
Some tattoo ideas I saved on Pinterest prior to my consultation

… if you have an exact vision of your tattoo

In my case, I knew I wanted a super detailed full moon tattoo but couldn’t put into words what it should look like, which is no help to a tattoo artist, so I started on Pinterest. I searched for things like “moon tattoo,” “full moon tattoo,” “full moon art” for days when I had free time.  On Instagram, I did the same thing. I scrolled through the recent and popular posts in tags like #moontattoo, #fullmoontattoo, #moonphasetattoo, #celestialtattoo.

Doing this research brought up styles I had never thought of, others I knew I definitely didn’t want and things super close but not exactly what I was envisioning. I saved all the closest images I could find so I would have reference photos to show the artist.

After all my tattoo research I knew I wanted my moon to be grayscale and super blended. Almost like a watercolor painting, but not realism. Now that is a much more helpful description for a tattoo artist to work off of.

… after you have your design picked out

At this point, you can start searching on Google Maps for tattoo shops near you. Take your time to check every hit Google gives you and check out the resident artists’ work. Favorite shops with artists you like so that once you’ve exhausted all the tattoo shops in your area you can easily go back to the ones you know you like.

Screenshot of a google search "tattoo" in Tacoma, WA

Now you just have to compare the last standing artists’ portfolios, vibe, and availability to choose what works best for you. Send the request for a consultation and you’re one step closer to getting tatted!

What happens at a tattoo consultation?

This is when you meet your tattoo artist for the first time and share your vision for your tattoo. Some artists prefer in-person consultations, while others opt for video calls. 

Share the inspiration photos you’ve found, and what you like and don’t like about them. Some artists ask for an inspiration photo and for you to point to one piece from their portfolio you like the style of. That way they can have a better idea of what you’re asking of them. 

Use this time to openly share your ideas for your tattoo. Don’t hide any details or just agree with what they are saying. If you end up not liking them as much as you thought, or they just don’t seem to get your vision, then you can find someone new!

My artist just asked to see the reference photos I had gathered. I sent her about five photos (one being the second image below) and detailed all the things I did and didn’t want to be incorporated into my design. She then asked me to find a real photo of the moon for her to work off of, so I found the two below and said I wanted something in between that level of detail.

Photos I showed my tattoo artist

Photo of the moon taken by Hubble telescope

Photo Credit: NSA/ESA

photo of moon and wave tattoo

Photo credit: @maeil_tattoo

photo of full moon

A photo I took of the moon.

What should I do the night before my first tattoo appointment?

First things first, make sure you know what forms of payment your tattoo artist accepts. Most are cash only, but a lot of them are starting to also accept digital payments like Venmo or Paypal. Just be sure to ask at some point before your appointment so you don’t have to run out and get cash at the last minute. Not fun!

Money aside, here are a few things my tattoo artist and my tatted friends told me to do to prepare for my appointment:

  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Do not drink alcohol the day beforehand – you don’t want to be hungover or dehydrated
  • Drink copious amounts of water starting the night before
  • Eat a big meal before your appointment
  • Don’t take any ibuprofen/aspirin as they can thin your blood

What should I wear to my tattoo appointment?

Wear breathable clothes because you are going to sweat. A lot.

This is coming from a girl who is always cold due to a circulation condition. I was surprised how hot and sweaty I got – and in places I didn’t expect. The back of my neck was drenched and I could feel sweat covering my thighs inside my jeans. So if you have longer hair, maybe braid it back or put it up to keep it off your neck. And maybe don’t wear skinny jeans.

Most importantly, make sure your tattoo spot is accessible with the clothes you have picked out. If you plan to get tatted somewhere usually covered by clothes, ask yourself exactly how naked will you be comfortable with?

If getting tattooed around your chest or ribs, maybe wear a button-up. That way you can still have some bits covered, and won’t feel completely exposed. If tattooing around your hips, maybe opt for a skirt/dress so it just has to be hiked up. That way you don’t have to take your pants completely off if you feel too exposed in your undies.

But if you don’t mind the partial nudity, then wear whatever feels comfortable. 

How to deal with tattoo pain?

“Did that hurt?” seems to always be the first question someone asks when they meet a person with tattoos. It’s only natural to wonder since tattoos involve needles, but that also means the answer is obviously yes. Getting a tattoo will hurt. But the pain level will ultimately depend on many factors, including each individual’s pain tolerance – just like with piercings.

Related: Does it hurt to get your nose pierced? (+ other commonly asked questions)

Strategically place your tattoo

Where you’ve decided to get your tattoo will affect how much pain you should expect. I like to be difficult so I chose my sternum/underboob for my first tattoo. Easily ranked as one of the most painful tattoos, I found the pain of my sternum tattoo to be a bit unbearable for only a minute or two, but the rest was quite doable. To me, it felt like what I imagined the Black Quills from Professor Umbridge in the Harry Potter series to feel. 

To make sure the pain isn’t overwhelming, a lot of tattoo virgins opt to get inked in a fleshier area. My already tatted friends recommended I opt for my thigh, bicep, upper back, or shoulder for my first tattoo. But like I said, I like to be difficult, so I was very dead set on wanting my tattoo to be on my sternum.

Also, be aware that it’s not just go-go-go for the tattoo artist. They are constantly stopping to wipe away excess ink/blood and to cross-reference their design. So there are short breaks built into the tattooing process.

Breaks are totally okay

You can always ask for a break when you feel the pain is unbearable. However, tattoo artists recommend not taking too many breaks as this lengthens the tattooing process, therefore allowing more time for the skin to become inflamed. My underboob tattoo took about an hour and I took one break towards the end when she started doing the darker shading.

My finished full moon tattoo!

Yes, there are breaks but do make sure to bring something to distract you between them. Your artist may or may not talk to you. Your artist may or may not have a television or radio playing for you to get distracted by. So be sure to bring your own entertainment just in case. Ask if you can bring a friend and pack headphones!

Bring something to distract you

I’m one who easily zones out when my hands are playing with something, so I brought an onyx crystal to fiddle with. That way when the pain got to be a bit too much to handle I could try to focus on my fingers feeling that instead. If you don’t have crystals, try bringing a stress ball or Play-Doh to squeeze.

Soon enough, the pain will be over and you’ll be officially tattooed!

Now you know just about everything I wish I knew before I got my first tattoo. 

All in all, the tattooing process is quite simple and not as scary as people make it out to be. Being nervous before you get tattooed is normal so don’t be scared! 

I hope you found this helpful, and if there are any questions I left unanswered about my first tattoo experience feel free to ask me below!

p.s. my tattoo was done by the lovely Melissa Larkin at TygerWolf Tattoo in Tacoma, Wa!

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