You've finally decided to join the counter-culture and get yourself a wicked-looking tat, but you don't know where to go? Or perhaps you've already got a tattoo or two, but you can't figure out why it looks faded and blotchy and you're saying to yourself "But that fat guy at the biker convention seemed so competent and reliable!" Either way, we're sure there are things you'd like to know before you get large quantities of ink permanently injected into your flesh. What follows is intended for the thoughtful tattoo-seeker; if your plan involves a drunken stupor and a rusty razor, we think you'll find this article a little too conscious about safety. However, if you think about things before you do them, even when you're trying to look like a bad-ass, this will give you much food for thought.

And yes, it hurts. But not that much, wimp.


The first thing you've got to think about when you consider getting a tattoo is that it involves someone sticking needles into you. Now who do you trust to have enough respect for hygiene to stick needles in you? Your doctor, probably, but who else? Some greasy, leering guy in a tent at an outdoor concert? Your friend's buddy, who works out of his basement? No and no. You trust people who act very much like doctors, when it comes to hygiene, and no one else.

Sure, a lot of tattoo studios look pretty Goth, with black and purple paint and vampiric-looking staff, but if it's clean black and purple paint you shouldn't let that part worry you. However, if you get the impression that there's anything dingy or unkempt about the place, you should take that as insufficient concern about cleanliness and find somewhere else to go. Choosing a tattoo artist is a serious decision, for a lot of reasons (see 2. Choose a tattoo artist and 5. Get rid of that foul thing below), and you should feel comfortable asking your tattoo artist about safety, cleanliness, his or her experience, and anything else which is important to you. If you don't feel comfortable talking to your prospective artist, look elsewhere. Be picky. The basic idea is that you want to find a place that is as clean as your doctor's office, even though it might not have posters of amiable-looking goats or other farm animals on the walls and mobiles hanging from the ceilings.

Specific things for which you must watch are:

  1. Most importantly, a brand new sterile needle must be used every time.

  2. All other tools that are involved in the tattooing process must be either sterilized or disposable (and, of course, they must be either sterilized or disposed of after each customer).

  3. Everything should be personally laid-out for your tattoo. You don't want to share in a big communal bottle of ink with your fellow tattoo-lovers; you want little individual disposable containers of ink just for you. Latex gloves. Vaseline should be dispensed with disposable instruments – not by hand. You get the idea.

  4. Non-disposable equipment should be sterilized with an autoclave (an apparatus which uses superheated steam under high pressure to sterilize instruments), not an ultra-sonic cleaner or a dunk in a tub of rubbing alcohol. Ask the tattoo artist if his/her autoclave is FDA-regulated. Wiping with a greasy rag, Windex, and spit-shining are also, while quaint, unacceptable.

Don't allow the foregoing advice to leave you with a bad impression of tattoo artists in general. There are many, many tattoo artists who maintain spotlessly clean and scrupulously hygienic studios. We just want to ensure that you realize how important it is to find one of them. Of course, a commitment to cleanliness is not all you want. The following section tells you how to find a tattoo artist who will ink you with the kind of artistry you deserve. Let's just assume you deserve something really fabulous.