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    This Is What It's Like Getting A Tattoo

    Everything I learned when I got one.

    Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

    Getting a tattoo requires a lot of preparation and strength of will. I should know – I recently had my third one and documented the process to tell the world a little bit more about what goes into getting inked, from choosing a design and what hurts most to how to keep healthy while you heal.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
    Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

    Decide what you want and where you want it.

    Whether it's a favourite animal, gorgeous design, or homage, you should feel confident that your tattoo is the right thing for you. You can seek inspiration from photographs, aesthetics that strike you, or your own imagination.

    Along with knowing what you want, you should also have an idea of where and how big you want your tattoo to be before you move much further on with the process.

    For me, the process of settling on a tattoo has lasted between a couple of months and several years. Nearly three years ago, one my of favourite songs gave me the idea for my newest tattoo, and after a long time spent stewing on it, I went in for a parachute. I decided to put it on my left forearm because it was important to me that I'm able to see it and remember what I'm trying to say to and about myself with it.

    Consider the following when choosing where to get tattooed:

    Do you have any conditions?

    I spoke to Dr Tony Downs, a Consultant Dermatologist at the London Skin and Hair Clinic about what medical precautions to take when getting tattooed. Downs recommended that if you have a pre-existing skin condition, you should consult a doctor in advance of your tattoo. He said it's best not to have a tattoo done over a mole. "The tattoo ink will not cause any changes to the mole," he said. "However, the ink may disguise changes in the size, shape, or colour of the mole in the future, making it difficult to diagnose early signs of skin cancer."

    I also spoke to Rebecca Morris, owner of London's renowned Vagabond Custom Tattoo Studio, about the conditions for tattooing over scars. This can be done, "given the scar isn't too raised", she said. "It is best to not work over the scar until it is at least a couple of years old and has stopped changing its form."

    You should also discuss any other significant health concerns with a doctor and your tattoo artist. The Family Business Tattoo Shop in London requires that you inform the studio in advance if you suffer from heart disease, eczema, impetigo, allergic reactions to medical soap, adhesive plasters, disinfectant, haemmorhaging, fainting, epilepsy, or blood-borne viruses. You should not get a tattoo while pregnant or breastfeeding.

    Are you sensitive to pain?

    If you're worried about pain, you should be careful when planning the size and location of your tattoo. I have a fairly low pain tolerance, and still found my first two tattoos to be virtually painless, but my most recent experience taught me that the area around the inside of my elbow is extremely sensitive. Check out a pain chart for some basic information on areas you might want to avoid.

    Can you display tattoos at work?

    If you're working, make sure you know your employer's stance on tattoos. If they need to be covered, you'll need to take into account how easy that will be for you to do. "Although it has become much more accepted in recent years, a decision to tattoo the neck, hands or face should not be taken lightly," Paul Hill, owner of and artist at Vagabond Custom Tattoo Studio, told me.

    Do you want to be able to see it?

    I have a tattoo of a bow on the back of my neck that I'll never see in the flesh. I love it, but I felt strongly that I wanted my second and third tattoo to be easily visible to me, since they were more about reminding myself of personal values.

    Research artists and studios.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed / The Family Business Tattoo
    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed / The Family Business Tattoo

    The most important decision you can make regarding your health and happiness comes down to choosing an artist. When I spoke to Rebecca Morris of the Vagabond Custom Tattoo Studio about what to look for when choosing an artist, she advised: "Choose an artist whose style you like but be willing to give them some creative licence. Do your research before meeting with your chosen tattoo artist. Images collected from the internet, books, and Instagram are all great. This will help to ensure they understand your vision."

    Finding an artist you click with is essential to the final product and your experience of the process. Maggy van Eijk, BuzzFeed UK's social media editor, said that "it took ages to find the right place" for a tattoo in London: "It seemed like if the artist is a bit famous they don't want to waste their time on small tattoos. So a friend of mine recommended one next to Leicester Square tube that I thought would be a bit 'touristy' but they were awesome, and so nice. They really liked my design and were fine with the size and just wanted to make it look the best it could be. Also, the guy was really funny, which helped, and I spent most of my time laughing but trying not to move my arm too much."

    Another of my colleagues, Rebecca Serra, relies on style and reputation to guide her choices: "My first two were by Valerie Vargas – I went to her about ten years ago purely from seeing her style online and falling in love with it! This pattern kind of stuck with me ... When I wanted font I looked for someone who was known for that, Emiliano at Frith Street, and so on ... and eventually went to The Family Business because they have a great reputation and are friendly."

    The shop needn't be famous, trendy, or the place all your friends go – it certainly can be any of these things, but what's important is that you feel comfortable and that there's a good relationship between you and your artist. "I've been into snotty parlours where they won't look at you if you don't have a full sleeve or chest piece," said Rebecca. "But I never felt that with these guys – they always listen, offer helpful suggestions, and I come out happy."

    Make health a top priority in your search.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    A licence and clean environment are the most essential things any tattoo shop must have. In Britain, licence and registrations are supplied through the local council, so it's best to contact your council in advancing of choosing a studio to make sure it's up to snuff.

    The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) requires shops to display a licence on the premises, as well as to maintain cleanliness and sterilisation of all instruments. I spoke to Julie Barratt, director of CIEH in Wales, about what customers should look for when choosing a hygienic and safe tattoo shop. There are several basics that will give away the parlour's level of safety and sterilisation right away: "Look for proprietors that are clean and tidy," she said. "They should have clean clothing on, no one should be eating or drinking on the premises, and there should be a clear delineation between the area where the tattoos are done and the area where customers are walking about."

    Barratt also advised that if your council participates in the voluntary Tattoo Hygiene Rating Scheme, it can give you a lot of information about the level of safety you'll experience at any given studio. "The point of the Tattoo Rating Scheme is to allow the public to know what they can’t find out just by looking," she said. If your local council participates, you will be able to find a sticker in the window of any tattoo studio in the area, rating it 1–4. A rating of 1 indicates that the shop "Needs Improvement", while a 4 means that after evaluation, the studio has been declared "Very Good". You can follow Tattoo Hygiene Ratings on Twitter for up-to-date ratings on parlours across England and Wales.

    Even if your local council doesn't participate in the Tattoo Hygiene Rating Scheme, you should always ensure the business is registered and ask to see the certificate if it's not in plain view. But, Barratt warned, just because a proprietor is registered, "that doesn't mean it's hygenic". When it comes to your health, it's down to you to evaluate the environment to ensure you're in a place where you'll be safe. Even with a rating, you should form your own view. "If you’re uncomfortable," Barratt said, "don’t go. Go somewhere else."

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
    Lynzy Billing
    Lynzy Billing

    London is blessed with an overwhelming number of talented tattoo artists, and options are plenty. This wasn't the case for my first or second tattoo, which were done in places with a limited supply of tattoo parlours. Maggy told me a similar story about getting her first tattoo in a small town in the Netherlands where she could choose between only two local tattoo shops. "I went for the more 'alternative' one," she said, "mainly because there's a Dutch 'rock star' I thought was handsome, and he always went there. In hindsight I wish I'd gone somewhere else or gone to Amsterdam, where there's more choice in tattoo shops."

    Since I had the choice this time, I wanted to make sure I made the right one. My search for an artist was focused on creating a really good experience and a professional, creative relationship with my artist. My last tattoo didn't turn out exactly as I would have liked, and while I love it nonetheless and don't regret it a bit, I learned that I wanted to put myself in more-than-capable hands and feel 110% that I was on the same page with my artist.

    After several personal recommendations and plenty of online stalking, I chose to work with the absolutely fantastic Mo Coppoletta, founder of The Family Business Tattoo, a top parlour in London. I could tell it was a good fit early on: The combination of Mo's portfolio, the atmosphere of the parlour, and the attentiveness of the staff assured me I'd be in great hands.

    Communicate your ideas to your artist.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    Once you've decided on a tattoo and an artist, it's essential to establish an open communication with your artist so that you feel comfortable throughout the process. A good rapport and sense of trust with your artist will help you feel confident during the tattooing process.

    To get this going, you should arrange a consultation before your tattoo so you can discuss your ideas with your artist, and so you can get an idea of what it will cost and what the process will be like. If you can be in touch via email before your consultation, you can take the opportunity to put your thoughts and ideas in writing, and send along some visual inspiration to give your artist a sense of what you're going for.

    BuzzFeed

    I was lucky, since years of experience and artistic intuition have made Mo the kind of guy who just gets it. He was quick to understand my ideas and make adjustments based on my thoughts. "There is a personal way to draw anything," he said, and it was true – he plucked my thoughts from our chat and my emails and created a design that suited me perfectly.

    One of the most wonderful aspects of getting a tattoo is the collaboration between your ideas and those of your artist. When I spoke to Paul Hill, he said that "having the freedom to be creative every day and the challenge of translating peoples ideas onto skin" is one of the most fulfilling parts for him as well.

    It's incredibly important to keep your mind open to your artist's ideas and see what they can bring to the table when it comes to style and personalisation. You should always make the final call about what goes on your body, but allow yourself the surprise and pleasure of seeing what a talented artist can create just for you.

    Arrange your appointment.

    Chelsey Pippin / BuzzFeed

    Once you've had a chat with your artist and feel comfortable placing your skin in their hands, you'll need to set up an appointment for your tattoo. Some shops may be able to do it on the day, while others may require several weeks' notice – it's good to check on your artist's policy.

    Most tattoo studios require a deposit, so come to your consultation prepared to put down some cash, and be aware of the refund policy. In my case, the deposit came to about one-third of the total cost of my tattoo.

    You should try to get a price quote so that you can know the budget for your final appointment. Your artist may tell you it will depend on the final size and time, in which case you should ask what the cap on the price will be so you can put aside a general figure for the appointment.

    Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

    Get health and safety concerns in order.

    Lynzey Billing / BuzzFeed
    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
    Chelsey Pippin / BuzzFeed

    When you arrive on the day of your tattoo appointment, you'll be asked to sign a health and safety waiver. You'll need to provide some basic information to make sure you're in good health and to release the shop from responsibility for any liabilities caused by the tattoo. If you've done your safety research and confirmed that your studio meets health and safety standards according to your local council, as well as making sure you feel physically comfortable in the shop, this is no problem.

    My copy of the waiver also had my care instructions on the back – it's best to hang on to those!

    Finalise the design.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    Going over the final design is a hugely important step on the day of your tattoo. When I arrived, Mo had already drafted up several versions of the design we discussed so that we could settle on what to move forward with.

    We considered a couple of options we'd previously discussed – including the idea of putting my favourite (and spirit) animal, a turtle, at the base of the parachute. While we had both liked the idea at the consultation, it was clear once the drawings were done that the size I wanted wouldn't allow for proper detail to make the turtle look as delicate as I imagined, so I was happy to let that go in lieu of the simpler image of a heart. Once we settled on a size that I felt comfortable with, Mo was off to the drawing table to finalise my tattoo design.

    Transfer the tattoo stencil.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    After the design is set, it's time to settle into the chair, but before the needles come out, most studios allow you to "try on" your tattoo using a stencil. This also serves as the guide during the actual tattooing process. Some artists draw freehand, but it's best to be very careful with that kind of approach.

    Mo shaved my arm to make the area smooth for tattooing, then applied an Dettol-based spray to my arm to clean and prepare the area for the transfer.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    Once the stencil was transferred to skin, Mo and I both took some time to make sure we were happy with the size and position. In my initial consultation, he suggested I take a walk around the block to be sure I was happy to go forward, but for me, just seeing the outline on my arm was enough to give me confidence – I was ready to go!

    Once you're ready, it's outline time.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    Mo used one thin electric needle to do the black outline of my tattoo.

    I was getting serious butterflies – the prep had taken up a lot of time and my excitement and anxiety had been mounting for a while!

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    The outline took about 15 minutes and was fairly painless, like a scratch. I did notice a bit more sensitivity at the very top and very bottom of the tattoo – the needle in these areas felt more like a sharp pinch.

    There's a lot more ink involved than actually goes into your skin, which leads to a bit of mess and smear over the top. It may cause the lines of your tattoo to look distorted at first, but in my experience that's fairly normal. If you have any doubts about the progress of the tattoo, ask your artist to clean the area so you can have a proper look.

    If you're getting a tattoo in an area you can easily see, you should definitely watch the process, even if you're squeamish. It's great to keep an eye on things so that you're comfortable with the progress, but more importantly, it's quite mesmerising to watch, and the experience of seeing it happen weaves itself into your lasting memory of the tattoo.

    Shading is the hard part.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    Naturally, the majority of the shading of my tattoo was to be done on the areas I found most sensitive: the very top and very bottom of the tattoo. This part of the process is by far my least favourite; it requires a much bigger needle. "How many needles are in there?" I asked Mo. "Nine," he told me. NINE.

    To be completely honest, this part is the worst, but it's also completely worth it. You'll notice more blood than you did during the outlining process, but this is normal – a large area of skin is being tattooed at once in this case, so it's to be expected.

    The best advice I can give here is try to stay still and breathe; each area was shaded within five minutes, so despite some discomfort, it was quite manageable. Larger and more sensitive areas may take longer and be more painful, so consult your artist and refer back to a pain chart if you're concerned.

    Colour is the final touch.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    When you're planning a tattoo with your artist, you should discuss how different shades will look on your skin, as well as how different styles of colouring might look with the rest of your tattoo. I was initially interested in a watercolour tattoo, but after discussing it with Mo, I decided to take a simpler route, since the size of my tattoo didn't really allow for the detailed colour shading that an excellent watercolour tattoo needs.

    The process for colour isn't any different than using black ink; again, Mo used a nine-needle tool to add the blue. This was my first colour tattoo and I can't recommend watching this part enough – it's really exciting to watch a splash of colour become a part of your skin.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
    Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

    Keep your tattoo covered for the first several hours.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    After my tattoo was all finished, Mo wrapped my arm securely in plastic film and advised me to remove it after about four hours, and to wash the area immediately.

    You won't need to rewrap the area after you've removed your inital dressing, but with the tattoo so fresh, it's best to avoid letting it come in contact with fibres or other irritants and keep it washed regularly.

    Wash and moisturise regularly, but not excessively.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    In the weeks that follow, your tattoo will go through several stages of healing, and it's important to give it excellent care. The Family Business suggests gently washing it three times daily with a mild soap such as Dove or Carex and applying a moisturising cream several times a day. You should avoid anything with fragrance – The Family Business's aftercare sheet suggests its in-house cream, or Bepanthen or Acriflex as an alternative. Vagabond Custom Tattoo Studio also recommends the nappy rash cream Bepanthen, and owner Rebecca Morris warned that "Sudocrem and Savlon are not recommended and can even bleach some tattoos."

    I chose Bepanthen as it's readily available in most pharmacies and supermarkets, and it's not terribly expensive (£2 a tube). But you should always check with your artist what works best with the kinds of ink they use.

    You should always wash your hands before moisturising, and only use enough cream to "keep it slightly moist", The Family Business advises. I find it best to apply cream when I can sit still for 15–20 minutes while it dries, as Bepanthen is a bit greasy and can smear your clothes or get things stuck to it if you're moving the tattooed area about.

    Be aware of what you expose a healing tattoo to.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    As it heals, it's important to control what your tattoo comes into contact with. When we spoke to Dr Downs of the London Skin and Hair Clinic, he said: "Avoid applying cosmetics or make-up directly over the tattoo. Avoid excessive heat and excessive cold during the healing process. Protect your tattoo from the sun and sunbeds as UV light can fade some tattoo inks and increase the risk of skin cancer."

    While you should be keeping your tattoo clean, you should avoid oversoaking it. Morris said that "soaking your tattoo in the bath or exposing it to direct sunlight can be very harmful during the healing process". She also advised that you should wait to shave the area until the tattoo is fully healed. "Follow the aftercare instructions given to you by your artist and your tattoo will heal beautifully," she said.

    When it comes to working out, you don't need to disrupt your whole routine, but maybe take things down a notch while you heal. "As long as you don't over-sweat, you can do some light exercise," advised Mo.

    Follow your tattooist's instructions when it comes to aftercare.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    Do ask your artist what their specific instructions are regarding aftercare and dressing, as different places may have different sets of advice, and consult this guide to aftercare and all things tattooing from Public Health England if you have any concerns or uncertainties.

    Whenever in doubt, it's best to live by Mo's bottom-line advice: "Treat it gently."

    Don't forget to enjoy the hell out of the experience and your new work of art.

    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
    Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

    For more information and inspiration on tattooing, check out the Washington Post's extensive exploration of the cultural and medical background of the process.