Alongside beards and beer that tastes like mulch, tattoos have been inescapable for the last half decade. The hipsterisation of fringe interests means that body modification – once reserved for sailors and bikers – no longer marks you as a ne’er-do-well. Since David Beckham had son Brooklyn’s name scrawled on his lower back, tattoos have gone mainstream – even BBC veteran David Dimbleby went under the needle in 2013, opting for a scorpion on his right shoulder.
Frankly, tattoos are trending. They’ve appeared on celebrities, in the Daily Mail sidebar of shame, in every fashion editorial. “But you shouldn’t approach it like a trend,” says Naomi Reed, from London’s Frith Street Tattoo. “You can’t take it off.” An ill-thought-through dip into Hawaiian prints means some Facebook photos you’d rather not revisit. It’s tougher to ignore a novelty moustache permanently inked on your index finger.
It’s estimated that a fifth of Brits have a tattoo. Among the under-30s, that figure rises to one in three. But just because society approves, that doesn’t mean you will in two decades. Pick wrong and you have to live with something you hate until you die. Or you have it lasered off, with pain and a price that will make your eyes water. Better to choose wisely and enjoy your ink forever. No regrets.
Find The Right Tattooer
A tattoo artist is exactly that. And as you wouldn’t ask Jeff Koons to paint you a watercolour, you shouldn’t expect someone that specialises in sailor tattoos to nail a photorealist portrait of your cat.
If you’re not sure what you want, let your taste dictate your choice. “We ask people to bring in things they’re into that aren’t tattoos,” says Reed. “It can be art, ceramics, design. It helps us get an eye on whether you’re more graphic, or after something intricate. Then we can get a feel of which tattooer works in that way.”
Treat your first meet with them like a first date. “If you’re doing a big piece of work you’ll spend a lot of time with that tattooer,” says Reed. “A full sleeve could be 30 hours. It needs to be a pleasant experience for everyone and you need to be able to communicate.” Halfway through a back piece is no time to discover how much your opinions on politics differ.
Listen To Your Tattooer
Odds are that the person with more ink than skin knows more than you about whether your design will work. “The body is something which is not fixed. It’s not like paper,” says Reed. “Things shift and move and age. And while every body is different, there are basic guidelines of what works and what’s going to look good long term. So get your own ideas and listen to the tattooer about what’s workable.”
Time’s effect on your skin is echoed in what’s imprinted in it. Squeeze too much detail into too small a space and the years will have the same effect on its intricacy as rain on an oil painting. “Colour portraits, realism – they look incredible when they’re first done. Five years later they’re like colourful mush,” says Reed.
Black outlines add longevity. “It holds up better than anything else. Having that structure means even as it softens, the design is still readable and understandable.”
Don’t Be Obvious
But ‘readable’ doesn’t have to mean ‘MUM’ in Gothic caps. “Meaning is an important starting point, but it has to look good,” says Reed. “The aesthetic is the most important thing if you want to be happy long term. It can be packed with meaning, but if it looks rubbish? Well.”
Time might blur a tattoo’s edges, but it sharpens its significance. As a partner to your every experience, even a design you got purely on aesthetics will develop its own personality. “Even if you wouldn’t have got that style in a few years, they’re a marker of who you were then. The appeal is that they’re permanent.”
Not that you should avoid resonance. But sometimes, it’s best to be subtle. “You might not want a name, but you can get an experience that you share together, a flower they love,” says Reed. “It looks good, it has a meaning, but you’re not shouting about what it is.” Your tattoo becomes a personal marker that you can choose whether or not to explain. And it’s always nice to have a secret.
Especially if your boss isn’t inked up. You might be open-minded, but most job interviewers still balk at ‘LOVE/HATE’ knuckle tattoos. “Don’t get a tattoo because you think it’s hilarious,” says Reed. “Finger tattoos, you can’t hide. Some employers won’t employ you and it’s not worth limiting your work options over a joke.”
The US Army bans anything on the neck, or below the knee or elbow. Adopt a similar rule – if normal work clothes cover it, then feel free to decorate that bit of skin. Just know that a full sleeve means you’ll have to spend hot summers with your cuffs buttoned.
Tattoos hurt. But probably not as much as you think. “It’s very uncomfortable, rather than painful,” says Reed. A tattoo machine uses a small needle to punch ink into your skin and the damage is no worse than a graze. “Some areas are more painful than others.”
If you have the pain threshold of a day old foal, steer away from your body. “Your torso has your internal organs, so you have more nerve endings in order to protect them. There’s more sensation. Your sternum, your back, your ribs, your chest are more tender than your arms and legs. Around joints is also more tender – your elbow, your knee.”
But your biggest enemy is in your head, not the tattooer’s hand. “People get stressed out, anxious, and their adrenaline starts going,” says Reed. “They panic, then they pass out.” She advises eating an hour before your tattoo, to level out your blood sugar, and letting your tattooer know if you start to feel strange. “We’ll stop, have a breather and a bit of chocolate. But it’s psychological, not physiological.”
Look After It Properly
A tattoo’s for life. Look after it right and it will look good, for life. Ignore the aftercare and you’ll regret your faded, infected design. For life.
“You need to keep it clean and dry,” says Reed. Wash twice daily with hot, soapy water, then let it air out before covering up. Put a tight tee over your freshly inked bicep tattoo and the scab will fuse with the cotton. And rip straight off when you get undressed.
There’s a glut of tattoo-specific moisturisers out there. “But you don’t need the fancy potions,” says Reed. “Once it’s totally scabbed over, a little bit of moisturiser – something unperfumed, like E45 or Cocoa Butter – will make it feel more comfortable.”
Tempted though you’ll be to show your brand new ink off, the longer it’s under wraps, the better it looks. “Sun damages tattoos like it does skin,” says Reed. “People always want tattoos before they go on holiday, but it has to stay out of the water, out of the sun while it’s healing.”
Better to get inked in winter so you can show it off, scab-free, in T-shirt season. Just take pains to protect it. “Wear a high factor sunblock. I wear kids’ sunblock, because it gives better protection. Light colours will get broken down quicker, but if you wear high factor sun cream they stay nice and vibrant.”
Ink-spiration: The Best Tattoo Artists On Instagram
Frith Street Tattoo
The Soho store has some of London’s best artists, plus regular guest spots from world-renowned tattooers like Chad Koeplinger and former Gallows lead singer Frank Carter, with every imaginable style offered – whether you fancy a small graphic, or a full Japanese bodysuit.
If you’re about all things bold and monochrome, double tap on rising tattooer Hellbow Elliott. His illustrations tend towards the macabre – think spiders, swords and skulls – but his ever-changing style means his feed flows through everything from Geishas to nesting birds.
Hooper made his name with tribal designs that have since morphed into almost impossibly intricate geometric patterns. Within his whorls you’ll find Asian mythology, planets and stars, all twisted into not-quite-recognisable new forms.
Second-generation artist Tim Hendricks gives old-school tattooing a modern twist: think black-and-white pin-up girls, boats with an impossible number of sails and skateboards crossed like a Jolly Roger.
He also reps his favourite tattooers, so his feed is a great way to find new talent.
Fans of pneumatic blondes and leering sailors will leave disappointed. Machlev’s feed proves just how much you can do with straight lines – his geometric designs are part-sound wave, part-blueprint, all mesmerising.