Table of contents for Your First Tattoo
New tattoos can take a surprisingly long time to heal completely. How you treat them during the healing time has a lot to do with how they’ll look afterwards. This is definitely a time to be in no hurry. But let’s say you’ve followed all the instructions, and now it’s weeks later and your tattoo is still itching, or oozing, or swollen? Something’s not right.
Tattoo ink is not an inert substance. The pigments in it can cause allergic reactions, and unfortunately there really is no perfect way to tell whether you’re going to react to any particular color. You could have the artist do a few dots of each color in an inconspicuous place, wait a few days and go back to get the tattoo, but just because you don’t react to a small amount of the ink doesn’t mean you won’t end up with problems when a lot of it goes into your skin. And then there’s always the possibility that the small amount didn’t cause problems itself, but it sensitized you against any further applications.
I had a nice tattoo applied to my ankle at a tattoo show on the Queen Mary. It was an impulse decision, something I ordinarily advise strongly against. But it definitely made a mediocre already-existing design look better, so I went for it. I’m not sorry I did. But that’s how I learned I’ve got problems with red ink. Fortunately, as you can see in the photo, there’s not a lot of red ink in the design. But those small red areas remained swollen, itchy, and intermittently crusty for close to two years after I got the tattoo. Nothing seemed to help, although Benadryl makes some nice anti-itch lotion that made it quit bothering me for a while. I put Nivea cream (the thick stuff in the small blue tin) on it regularly, and finally my body and the red ink agreed to co-exist peacefully. But that reaction has made me somewhat hesitant to go get any more tattoos.
Your own health may also be an issue. If your immune system isn’t up to par or if you heal slowly (as many diabetics do) it will definitely affect your ink. Be sure you let your artist know about those conditions before he or she starts work. It might be that he or she will not want to do the work if the healing will be compromised. This is something that you and the artist will have to deal with. No matter how eager you are to go ahead with the tattoo, the artist has to think of the possible consequences for both of you if things go wrong.
Some people worry about infections or HIV. Going only to a reputable shop will reduce the likelihood of that to the bare minimum. Tattoo needles are used only once, on only one person. The rest of the equipment is sterilized at high heat in an autoclave. The artist wears gloves and everything that touches your skin is disposed of after the work is done. It’s as close to sterile conditions as human ingenuity can make it. This is not to say you still can’t get infected after you leave the shop (we live in a germ filled world, after all) but the likelihood of the needles being the source of the contamination is vanishingly small.
I’ve written more extensively on tattoo health issues in the past, and I invite you to check out that series of messages starting here. I’ve also written about the surprisingly common problems with nickel allergies here, here, and here.