I’m fortunate enough to work in a school environment that doesn’t frown upon my visible tattoos. I felt pretty prepared for the opposite to be true–that’s why all my tattoos are in locations easily concealed by professional attire–but I was pleasantly surprised to discover I didn’t have to worry about wearing polo shirts in warmer weather. (And thank goodness, because my library isn’t air conditioned!)
Having my tattoos visible invariably means my students will look at them, ask about them, and want to talk about them. Where did I get them? Did it hurt? How long did they take to heal?
I wasn’t at all surprised to get the questions, and I’m always happy to answer them, but I was a little thrown the first time a kid approached me asking about their own tattoo.
My continued discussions about tattoos with teens have convinced me that at least one of the two following theories must be true: some teens just aren’t ready for a tattoo at this age; or some local tattoo parlors simply aren’t adequately informing their teen customers and preparing them for healthy tattoo aftercare.
I don’t want to say that teens in general shouldn’t get tattoos, because I really don’t believe that’s true. I know that I wouldn’t have been ready at that age–I waited until I was 25 to get my first tattoo. I also know a lot of parents aren’t thrilled by the idea of their kids getting tattoos (and, indeed, in the majority of states that regulate tattoo parlors, tattooing minors is either illegal or requires parental consent).
I do think, though, that when a teen says something to me like, “Wait, you’re supposed to wash a tattoo?”–that teen either really wasn’t paying attention, or they went to a really crappy tattoo artist.
Here, then, is my advice to teens who want to get a tattoo:
1. Don’t get your girlfriend or boyfriend’s name. This isn’t about me not believing that teen relationships aren’t “real” or that teens can’t experience love–I would give this advice to anyone considering such a tattoo. I know some teens who have tattoos honoring a loved one, living or dead, which I think is touching, and I also know some teens who have their own names tattooed on themselves, which I think is maybe a little silly–but neither has the same potential to be super embarrassing five years (or even five weeks) down the line that the name of a (current) romantic partner does.
2. Don’t get tattooed under the influence. Of anything. Any reputable tattoo parlor won’t tattoo anyone under the influence–in fact most will make you sign a form to that effect before you go anywhere near a needle–but shady joints (not to mention this guy my brother knows who’s totally awesome and he’ll tattoo you in his pickup) don’t always have the same high standards.
Aside from the logistic concerns–are you going to need to puke? Is your pain tolerance impaired? Are you shaking, hallucinating, or otherwise unable to sit still, which will all impact your artist’s ability to do his or her job?–getting a tattoo under the influence means your judgment and reasoning capacities are impaired. Your perception is also compromised; the tattoo that looks great now may turn out to be awful when you’re sober.
3. Seriously consider the placement of your tattoo. Like it or not, many people–including potential employers, potential romantic partners, and college admissions officers–have very strong opinions about tattoos. If your tattoo is in a visible location that can’t easily be concealed by clothing, it’s entirely possible your tattoo–not your personality, intelligence, work ethic or heart–will make the first impression for you.
4. Take care of your tattoo. Any reputable tattoo artist will ask you if this is your first tattoo. The really good ones will give you aftercare information and advice even if it’s not your first tattoo. If you’re someone who has trouble remembering directions, ask for a written aftercare guide.
Some artists prefer A&D ointment over an appropriate lotion (and some studios actually sell their own)–I usually start with A&D and switch to lotion once my tattoo is no longer losing excess ink and has started the scabbing process–but either way, they’ll usually send you off with a small sample.
You will lose some excess ink in the first few days. This surprises (and scares) some people who aren’t expecting it, but it’s perfectly normal. Immediately after being tattooed the ink will be mixed with a small amount of your blood (this is an open wound, after all), but after that it should be just ink. Your artist will likely wrap your tattoo with a bandage and tell you to keep it on for a few hours, but you shouldn’t cover your tattoo with a bandaid or plastic wrap after that–it needs to breathe!
Depending on the size of your tattoo and your body’s own healing process, your tattoo site may swell a little right after your session, but that should calm down after a day or two. If it stays swollen (or swells later in the healing process), if you see blood beyond the first few hours after you’re initially tattooed, or if your tattoo starts to give off any kind of discharge, seek medical attention immediately.
Always wash your hands before you touch your tattoo (yes, even to apply ointment or lotion), and never let other people touch your tattoo until it’s fully healed. You should also wash your tattoo gently with warm water and antibacterial soap before you apply new ointment or lotion (as well as when you ordinarily shower).
If your tattoo is in a spot that’s ordinarily covered by clothes, obviously you should wear clean clothes, and avoid materials that you don’t want to get covered in lotion or ointment. I also wouldn’t recommend fabrics with a lot of texture, like wool, while your tattoo is still scabbing–they can stick to your tattoo and potentially pull away scabs prematurely, which can impact the image quality (and hurt!).
Avoid pools and hot tubs while your tattoo is still healing. Hot tubs in particular can be breeding pools for all kinds of germs and bacteria. Once you’re done with the scabbing and peeling phase, always put sunscreen on whenever you’ll be outdoors with your tattoo exposed; sun can ultimately damage your tattoo, and prolonged sun exposure can wash it out considerably. (You can even find tattoo products to protect you from the sun and preserve the colors of your tattoo.)