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So, you’re finally going to do it? You’re going to get that tattoo you’ve been talking about for years. You have the perfect design all picked out and know exactly where you want it. You’ve visited the shop a few times and are confident you’re chosen the right one. It’s clean and well lit, the artists are all wearing gloves and the autoclave is in plain sight so you see that it’s being used. The guy who’s going to do your ink seems nice and you feel like he’s really listening to you and understands what you want. You’re just a little hesitant because you don’t know precisely what to expect. Well, here’s a little enlightenment on the process, everything you need to know if you want to get your first  tattoo.

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Just like most other major life decisions, getting a new tattoo begins with some paperwork. You’ll be asked for the usual stuff, then a photo ID to prove your age. Rules vary from state to state, but you have to be at least 18 everywhere. Tattooing a minor with a parent present and/or written parental consent used to be ok in some places. The rules were stretched and abused, and it’s really not the norm now, but some shops will still do it.

After all your forms are filled out, you’ll have a seat in the artist’s chair. Some used chairs kind of like a dentist clinic in Delhi, India, would have, other’s used tables or benches like a massage therapist does. If the shop is small, it may just be a plain kitchen chair. You may be seated in an open work area or a closed room, depending on the placement of your tattoo. Either way, your artist will try to make you comfortable.

Next is the preparation phase. The skin that’s about to be inked will be cleaned, usually with rubbing alcohol, then shaved, then cleaned again. Nothing but a brand new disposable razor should be used, and even then, it should only be used once. You can ask to check the razor out first if you want to. The artist won’t think you’re rude. He’ll probably thing you’re dumb if you don’t.

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Now you need a stencil. These use to be traces or drawn by hand. It was a time consuming and tedious process. Thanks to the invention of the thermal-fax, it now takes just a few minutes. You can bring in a design you like, and your artist can scan it into the thermal-fax which prints it on a piece of transfer paper (assuming there’s not copyright infringement involved). He will then moisten your skin with water, soap, or sometimes a stick deodorant. This will help the transfer stick better and come off darker on your skin.

At this point, your artist will take a few minutes to prepare his workstation. He can’t do this ahead of time or everything wouldn’t be sterile. He will gather the ink into little bowls called “ink caps.” Then he will take the tubes and needles out of their sterile wrappers and put them in his machine. There should be a cup of distilled water on the table to rinse the needles between colors.

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Now it’s time to get down to business. Before the needle touches your skin, the tattooist will dab a bit of ointment over the transfer. This is to make the transfer stay on longer, and to help the needle slide more smoothly over your skin so you’ll be more comfortable. First comes the outline. It’s basically getting what’s on the stencil permanently inked onto you skin. It’s going to hurt, but it shouldn’t be unbearable, otherwise there would be people walking around everywhere with half-finished tattoos. If you’re not getting color, you’d be finished at this point. If you are, the tattooist will switch to magnums, needles specifically made for coloring and shading.

You’re now the proud owner of a new tattoo. The artist will clean it and usually take a picture for his portfolio so prospective clients can see what he’s done. Next, he will put a protective ointment over the area, and cover it will gauze. On your way out, you’ll be given a sheet of instructions on how to care for your tattoo while it’s healing.

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