Choosing Your Tattoos

So many articles about choosing your tattoo to be found online. These fanciful jaunts into airy, photo laden websites give you a one-sided perspective that you, the client, need to treat your artist a certain way to enjoy you experience. This is an incorrect, albeit flattering, method of interaction.

I was honestly amazed at how pervasive the ideas about being careful with your words,  respectful with your actions and bringing treats to your artist are being thrown around. I mean, who doesn’t love that but… it’s kind of creepy getting treats before performing a tattoo. Plus, you should not be placed in a position where you, the paying client, are in an inferior position of power when first walking into a tattoo shop.

My take, as a professional tattoo artist, is a little different than what you find online and is stated below. Take it as a starting point for those of you who haven’t been introduced to shop life, those of you who have had a negative experience or those of you who want to know how another artist may expect out of you when coming in for work. Choosing your tattoo can be difficult but, if you are prepared and vocal, it can be a fun experience.

What Do You Want!?

Choosing a design.

When starting the process of choosing a tattoo, ask yourself a few questions:

What style do you like?

Are you into hair metal band logos? Do you enjoy simple geometric designs? Find something that you are believe you will enjoy through your life, not just today. I can guarantee your love of something trendy (getting Yeet or YOLO tattooed dropped out of fashion just like Kanji) won’t have the staying power you expect it will, unless you are a very special case. Who likes seeing Motley Crue logos on your uncle’s outer arm, surrounded by barbed wire armbands? No one. Don’t be like that uncle. 

Your Uncles tattoos aren't that cool. Here is an example of some bad band tattoos.
Click to follow to : The worst tattoos we have found.

Once you have taken the time to figure out what style you enjoy and think has the staying power to be impressive for your lifetime, look at the most common themes or images you see in that style. The most commonly tattooed images are the ones that will have small variations or nuances that you may not notice unless you look really closely. Being able to describe small nuances is a thing tattoo artists enjoy when critiquing tattoos. If you can spot small variations that you do not want to see in your tattoo, your tattoo artist will thank you and be better able to craft the tattoo that you want.

Think of other styles you enjoy

There are so many styles to choose from! Don’t limit yourself by thinking inside the box. Be open to both options of blackwork or color if you don’t have an image theme already picked out. Let your imagination roam free, you are working towards designing a work of art that will be on you for the rest of your life.

Take any combination of ideas and write them down. Bring those ideas in with you when you have a consultation. If what you want is not possible, the artist you will be working with will be quick to tell you it is not a good idea. Make sure that you ask why it won’t work! There has to be a good explanation for any dismissed idea. Just not liking the tattoo is not an option for a tattoo artist and if they give you this option, you know better than to get it done with that artist.

Are there any examples of artwork that you enjoy?

Having some form of visual reference to show your artist can help them understand your style wants much quicker than using descriptive words. For example, showing someone a picture of the Hulk is better than describing something “Big and Green”.

Use your words well and bring high quality photos that explain for you what you like to see. Be brave and have a simple hand drawn example to show. You would be surprised how much this helps when translating your idea. Don’t worry, we know that you are not a tattoo artist. If you were, you wouldn’t be having a consultation.

Finding an Artist

Once you have decided on a design, follow up by checking out artists near you. If there isn’t anyone close by, find one you are willing to travel to. Do some research before making the trek. Make sure they are versatile enough, or practiced enough, in the style of artwork you want to adorn your body with.

There are misconceptions about us tattooers and how invested we are in what you mark your body with. While tattoo bros worldwide enjoy the idea that they are marking you with their specific brand, most of us really don’t care how you choose to adorn your body. The lack of caring and detached persona you walk into when getting a consultation shouldn’t be taken personally as tattoo artists do this as a job

We seriously do this all day, every day. There is a good chance that the idea you found while surfing social media has been done before and it isn’t being done the way that we would prefer to do it. That doesn’t matter.

It is your body and your choice how you want to adorn it. If you get a negative reception from the artist when you share your idea, they may not be the best fit for your tattoo. All tattoo artists need to treat you with respect. You are paying them to mark you. They should be willing to treat you and your idea with respect.

If you walk into a tattoo shop and the artist you have been excited to meet is rolling their eyes and trying to change what you want to mark your body with, take a chance and walk out. This practice should be applied to any situation where you are planning on altering your body, as well as in everyday life.

Tattoo artists should approach your tattoo completely ambivalent about what you are getting. We should only be invested in the process and making it perfect.

What do they like to do?

Checking to see what “style” the artist puts up on social media is a good indicator as to what they enjoy doing. While I have a harsh critique as to why artists choose styles, it is still in your best interest to pick someone who has practiced a style when choosing your tattoo. If the artist enjoys what they are doing, or has a lot of experience in a specific style, there is less chance the final product will be opposite what you may ask for.

Work with the artist, if you feel comfortable. Ask questions. When choosing your tattoo, be involved in the process from start to finish.

During the design process, it’s your job to be available. Answer emails or text messages, and give input as they work up a design that you will be wearing permanently. If the artist has any issues with you working over their shoulder, give them some space and offer up critiques that are constructive, if needed. 

The artist should take the time and ensure all critiques are heard and understood. If any part of the process results in the tattoo artist acting in a way that is disrespectful, walk away from the tattoo.

Shadowy figure walking away.

Baggage. Do you have any?

Walking into a tattoo shop can be an experience that brings joy or, to some, terror. Needles, blood, crazy moustaches… It can be intense! If you have gotten any tattoo work before and have chosen a new artist, don’t walk in thinking all tattoo artists are a uniform breed. They are humans, just a bit more colorful.

Take the time to have a consultation and get a feeling for the artist. Your experience will be that much better and ensure you’re not strapped to a chair for 60 hours with a person you can’t stand. Suss out the artist’s vibe, energy and tact. If they don’t align with you, regardless of the final product, you should move on and find someone who you will mesh with better.

Also, when meeting with your artist, be very plain and direct about why you are getting the tattoo. If the tattoo is just rad and you have no deeper meaning attached to it, let them know. If this is a memorial for the sister you lost to cancer 2 weeks ago and the family would like to be there during the tattoo process, let the artist know.

Where do you want to get your tattoo?

The placement of the tattoo will influence how the design is made. Have at least 2 spaces prepared for the tattoo that you want to be. The process of getting tattooed is collaborative so take the ideas for you tattoo, and the placement, to your chosen artist. Talk to them about where the design is going to be placed and listen to their explanations about what is the best option for you. Also, bring up how it may connect with other/future tattoos will help create a congruent theme (if that is what you want).

How big should you go when choosing your tattoo?

In tattoos, size means everything.

Back tattoo of a ship and lighthouse.

Size will determine price, time to complete and limitations on location. Knowing how big you are willing to go (as well as how small) is essential when planning ahead. Most tattoo artists are going to want to make your tattoo as big as possible. Be prepared to stand your ground if you are set on a specific size. Leading with what your budget is, when choosing sizes, ensures the tattoo artist won’t push too hard to cover your entire thigh.

Do you want more tattoos?

If you are going for your first tattoo, try and put it in a place that isn’t at the high end of the pain spectrum. There is no reason to take an enjoyable process and mark it with a painful experience. If you have plans for multiple tattoos, you may adjust your ideas for the future due to the pain you may experience. To keep the process as quick as possible, which will decrease the total discomfort you experience, keep the first designs you get palm sized or smaller.

If you do want to plan ahead and really commit to the process, talk to your artist about how the tattoos you want to get are going to work together. Also discuss tactics for planning multiple sittings. If you have a theme or some ideas that may work well together, create a plan to make the final product cohesive.

How much time was spent choosing your tattoo?

A sick A F Lower back tatty. A butterfly T S with purple and black.

Is this a spur of the moment idea, or have you really put some thought into what you are planning to get? Regardless of the scenario, don’t go carrying bias into the tattoo shop when choosing your tattoo.

Leave that ego in check and be ready to actively collaborate with an artist. They have the training and expertise to get what you want on your skin.

Some additional points to consider

What local options are there for you?

Do you live in a major metropolis, or the middle of BF nowhere? Seeing what options are available near you may influence your decision if you are locked into a specific region with little ability to commute out.

Your buddy knows a guy named Dale at the 5 & Dime who shoots tattoos in his basement. Dale only spits out trad angel wings so it’s a good bet that you don’t want to go to him for that photo realistic tiger on your thigh.

Plan to venture out of your comfort zone if it ensures quality work. If you are truly unable to, keep the most sentimental tattoos on the backburner until you can get exactly what you want, from who you want.

What is your budget?

Pricing is usually non-negotiable.

Seriously, nothing good has ever come out of those arrangements where the artist is starving and sacrifices on price. When this does happen, people rush. The final quality will never be as great when compared to a properly paid for and prepared tattoo.

If you have a budget, and the work that you want to get is outside what that amount is, start saving. If you are not a person who enjoys the build up the anticipation, get something smaller that is inside your budget. Taking you time and not price shopping will give you want you deserve. Remember, you are in a place of business. Be respectable inside this person’s place of employment.

Artist Interaction

When choosing a tattoo, please, please, please… Don’t try and design the tattoo yourself. This is ultimately important if you are unsure about what you want the final product to be. There is a greater chance that your chosen artist will make something better than what you can imagine. Give them room to surprise you.

This above statement doesn’t stand if you know precisely what you want. Do you want your baby’s name in Scriptina font across your wrist?


Choose that.

After that has been expressed, listen to your artists recommendations about how this chosen tattoo may age, tie in with future work and how much it might hurt. There is far more to the tattoo than the final design.

In closing

Hopefully you are in a better place now and have confidence about choosing your tattoo. You control the fate of what is put on your body.

But please… Do not tattoo your partner’s name on your arm.

Not the author



Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus


How long do hand tattoos last and can you do them?

Well, here is the persistently asked question from clients to us tattooers: Do you do hand and foot tattoos. And, do they last?

I am in a bit of a goofy mood while writing this post so the tone may be different than usual. I apologize if it makes the reading difficult.

Sweet Jesus, there is a plethora of misinformation out there as to how and why we do/don’t do finger tattoos. Today, I hope to put this to rest!

Hand tattoos – What Gives?

So you have a client that walks in and says,

               Client: Hey. Do y’all do hand tattoos?

You: **Nonsensical garbled answer because you really don’t want to do one but.. damn, you gotta pay them bills**

To dissect this problem, let’s dig right into the fucking dirt of what your skin looks like and how it’s different on the hands and feet. Then we will jump into why finger tattoos may or may not heal up, what to look for in your fingers/feet that help make a good choice about placement and how the healing is different for these areas of the body.



That means, let’s get onto the science!

Skin Composition – What’s the skinny on them layers?

I was am going to skip all the technical mumbo-jumbo about skin layers and what not but I ended up writing all about it.

Here is what people who are not tattoo artists thinks their hands look like. It may also be what we all assume every person’s hands will look like when they come in to get a tattoo blasted on the digits:

probably younger hands

In all reality, here is what we tattooers deal with on the daily:

old ass hands

If you look at your hands (just do it) and compare the skin on them to the rest of your body, you will notice a few things that are different.

  1. The backs of your hands have very little fat (adipose tissue)
  2. The palms of your hands are thick (Like…what if your whole body was like that?)
  3. There are transitional areas that line the sides of your fingers and palms.
  4. The skin takes a ton of abuse and you may have some rad scars.

What does that have to do with the tattooing procedure and how can I accurately assess the possible healed tattoo from people who want their hands/feet tattooed?

It’s easy young padawan. You just must understand the why’s before getting to the how’s.

Skin Construction

So, let’s have a short primer for all those out there who may not have taken an A&P class in college.

Here are the layers of your skin, broken down Scooby style for ease of reading.

  • Epidermis – about 0.1 mm in thickness.
    • Water proofing and barrier for the body. Made up of basal cells and keratinocytes.
      • Keratinocytes – a bunch of different proteins, enzymes, lipids and defense peptides that protect the body. They absorb water and don’t divide like normal cells do after they have been “selected” during a maturation stage. (more information found by following this link)
      • Basal Cells – Keratinocytes that are found in the basal layer of the epidermis.
  • Dermis – on average about 2 mm in thickness
    • The living part of your skin in that it supplies all the cells for the epidermis. It also contains vascular bodies, structural cells that give skin its physical properties, immune cells and specific fat cells called adipocytes.
  • Subcutaneous tissues – anywhere from 2 mm in thickness up to greater than 18 mm (> 18 mm)
    • This is fat. The subcutaneous tissues give structure like your dermis but is made up of loose connective tissues to underlying structures. Its like the dermis but is like…loose.

Here is a table that breaks down the layers in a more scientific way –

Skin LayerStructureRole in Viscoelasticity
Stratum corneum—outermost layer of epidermisStructure of up to 25–30 rows of corneocytes; includes fibrous keratin; “brick and mortar” arrangement, in conjunction with other stratified layers in the epidermis, increases tensile strength (resistance to longitudinal stress), and resistance to damage ()
Water content is 15–30% ()
Supports pliability (ease in change of shape from baseline)
Promotes strength, elastic behavior, and resistance to loss of skin integrity with movement, stretching, and application of force
Basement membrane zone (BMZ)Collection of three cell layers between the epidermis and the dermis (lamina lucida, lamina densa, and lamina propria; ; ); comprised of proteins (primarily laminins, proteoglycans, and types IV and VII collagens; )
Desmosomes (cells responsible for adhesion) serve as binding cells between basal layer of skin and upper lamina lucida (; )
Anchoring fibrils and a matrix of fibers at varying stages of maturity connect thicker lamina densa layer to upper layer of dermis (; )
BMZ semipermeable to water; limits water passage to maintain skin hydration and support viscoelasticity
Lamina layers extremely flexible due to construction of multiple-microfibrillar subdensa and protein-based supra-lamina desmosomes (; )
Supports epidermis and provides strong adhesion between the epidermal and dermal layers to protect against shearing forces (); when force applied on parallel plane to skin, it has a viscoelastic response of expanding and then contracting fiber matrix and associated fluids
Serves as an anchor to surrounding layers; disruption of BMZ leads to amorphous structure within epidermis and dermis causing skin structure breakage and reduced viscoelastic response
Dermis—layer between the epidermis and subcutaneous tissuesWithin papillary region (uppermost layer of dermis), a networking of thin elastin protein fibers (oxytalan fibers and the elaunin fibers cross-linked via desmosomes) is in loose matrix with procollagen (a precursor to collagen that originates within ground substance) and ground substance (; ; ; )
Reticular region (below papillary region and above hypodermis) is comprised of ground substance and a thicker mesh of collagen fibers wound among thicker elastic fibers assembled from elastin and microfibrils (; ; )
With force, elastin molecules stretch in linear pattern, cross links maintain structure; quick elastic reaction provides immediate response to force, followed by slower viscous response and then full return to baseline
Elastic fibers are thinner in papillary region and used for quick response but break more easily; elastic fibers in reticular region thicker, more bundled with collagen, and provide slower, viscoelastic behavior and greater tensile strength (; )
Hypodermis—innermost and thickest layer of skin; connects dermis to bone or connective tissueAdipose tissue is present in the hypodermis, but thickness of this layer may vary (; ; )Thickness of adipose deposits maintains shape of skin, protects it from underlying (bony) structures, and is positively correlated with skin strength and elasticity (; ); positive and protective effects may negated in obesity ()
Problems with obesity include impaired skin barrier repair, decreased lymphatic flow, decreased strength of collagen structures, impaired circulation, decreased wound healing, and skin disorders that change the structure and impair the function of the skin ()

Borrowed from source: Everett, J. S., & Sommers, M. S. (2013). Skin viscoelasticity: physiologic mechanisms, measurement issues, and application to nursing science. Biological research for nursing15(3), 338–346. doi:10.1177/1099800411434151

Let’s move on with a look at the subcutaneous tissues and why this layer of skin is so thin on your hands.

No fat, What up with dat?

The back of your hands and the tops of the feet are what every 80’s-90’s supermodels hoped their entire body could be like. Nearly fat free! (that was awful)

(I am going to stop putting in a separator and use hands as interchangeable with feet for now. That repetitive explanation is getting tiring)

The back of your hands look like crêpe paper stretched over a turkey skeleton. There is little to no fat on the hands of most people and, as anyone who has had their hands tattooed, the shock and vibrations you get from a tattoo make the hands hurt a lot. They tend to blow out, heal hard and take more of a beating through your normal day, in comparison with other parts of the body.

All over your body, the fatty layer (also known as the hypodermis or subcutaneous layer) exists to absorb blows and gives easy-access pathways for blood vessels to connect through your body. It also stores/releases energy, insulates your body and connects the tissue (skin) to underlying fascia which connects the skin to muscles, tendon and other stuffs.

One additional part of this amazing part of the skin is that it contains fibroblasts and macrophages, which if you had read the skin article (out soon), are key in getting the pigment to become “permanent” .

Fancy scientific mechanisms aside, the fatty tissue (in tattooing) keeps the skin supple and helps absorb some of the force that is emitted by the tattoo machine (via a needle). It also helps smooth out the dermis when you pull a stretch, making the layers under the epidermis more consistent thickness wise.

Imagination time!

Place a dish outside on a concrete slab and hit it with a hammer… what happens? It explodes!

Now take another plate and place it on a pillow and smack it with a hammer… what happens? …It still blows up, but the shock you feel from swinging a hammer is greatly decreased.

Hand and foot tattoos for thick skin – Yes everyone has thick skin

This may seem like a weird idea that we all have thick skin but, in essence, we do. That thick skin is on the palms of our hands and soles of our feet. Its there because we need additional protection from our environment with the feelers that we utilize to interact with our world.

Our hands and feet are what we use to interact with our environment. It is what gets us to work and allows us to do the jobs we choose to do. Our feet go through an immense amount of stress every day. Each step you take is an opera of stress distribution and pressure. Your weight, with what speed you are going, is absorbed by a complex network of bones, muscles, connective tissues… and a bunch of magic! (not really) Those stressors increase the pressures to a value that can be multiple factors higher than what your physical weight is. 

nasty feet

Why are the fatty parts so important for tattooing?

The fat helps create a less volatile surface for you to tattoo. The needles that are being driven by a tattoo machine will have a little cushion when they strike the bottom of the machine stroke. This is supremely important as the cushion not only helps the client feel less pain (initially) but also enables the skin to settle evenly when stretched.

What’s that you say? Stretching is influenced by the amount of fatty tissue underlying the skin?!

skin layers

It’s super important to get the stretch down right!

(Upcoming article on stretching will be linked HERE when it is completed)

SubQ – Skin on the hands and feet

The subcutaneous layer (SubQ or fatty layer, like stated before) that all but missing in the hands and feet make things difficult to tattoo but serve a function that is unique to these parts of the body.

Due to the lack of fatty tissue, there is less connection to the underlying structures in the hands and feet. This makes it easy for the fingers and feet to bend and move with less restriction but it also has an effect when getting the hands and feet tattooed.

Yes, your magnificent biceps can take a tattoo and look amazing when oiled up! But, could you imagine how it would feel if the skin on your hands were attached to the muscles the same way your arms or thighs? That would be weird and restrictive.

Walking or grasping something would become very difficult, in the beginning, but as your muscles developed those movements would be even further restricted. Larger muscles needed to move the resticed joints would cramp the area that they occupy and the idea of dexterity would be absent from the species.

Next up on the block for tattooing hands and feet is the uppermost layer of your skin, the horny layer.

The Horny Layer – Not what you think

Image result for stretched skin diagram hand and foot tattoos - Austin powers style. oh behave!

Another aspect that is unique to the hands and feet on a body is the excessively developed horny layer of skin. No, your hands don’t want to get down ya dirty, or maybe they do? The horney layer is another name for the uppermost layer of your epidermis, the stratum corneum.

The stratum corneum (which will be called the horney layer from here out because…I am like a teenager at heart) is made up of all those dead skin cells that are slowly sloughing off when new ones are made. The skin all over your body is always dying but there is a greater sloughing that happens on your hands and feet because they are constantly in use.

One other aspect of these areas on your body is an additional layer of skin called the stratum lucidum.

Ahhhh, the circle of life!

The upper most layer of skin is comprised of mostly dead cells, they had to get there somehow. These dying or dead cells are migrated up through the skin by newly formed cells further down and once they reach the top, they fall off.

Working our way into the skin, and looking at something that is totally unique to these body parts we end up at the stratum lucidum. It is located between your epidermis and dermis on the hands and feet. It’s a collection of specialized cells that give your hands and feet a waterproof, protective layer. Much like a rain slicker in inclimate weather, this layer adds additional protection to these parts of your body and help to keep pathogens out of the parts of your body that interact with your world.

You may have noticed this specialized layer of skin if, like myself, you have gone for a long walk and come home to some swollen, soaked socks. You can also see this layer in action when you take a nice hot bath and get all pruney!

The keratin cells in your hands absorb water and swell, but only the dead/dying layers on your hands above the stratum lucidum! neat eh! This specialized layer is great at protecting your most precious digits and, to be honest, aren’t we glad that our backs don’t wrinkle like that in the tub!

Next, onto the dermis!

The dermis. The real target of hand and foot tattoos

Ok. This article has become more about the skin rather than focusing on tattooing. I understand if you need to go but, I promise, after this section we will move onto the real meat and potatoes you came for!

The dermis is what lies between the epidermis and the subcutaneous tissues of the skin. It is made up mostly of collagen and elastin. These two proteins are what gives your skin it’s bouncy resilience. Your nerves, blood vessels, lymph vessels and sweat glands are also crammed into this space!

We are not ignoring the blood and lymph vessels, which help with thermoregulation and supply oxygen and nutrients to surrounding cells. We are moving past them quickly to talk about more specialized cells.

Another type of cell that makes up the dermis is a mast cell. These specialized cells are a part of the inflammatory response that helps the body deal with intruders (infectious materials like viruses or other things that shouldn’t be there). I’ll leave you a link that explains it all in a much better fashion than I can.

Dermis Explained

Why is the dermis important?

The dermis is where the pigment stays and becomes “permanent”. Your epidermis is constantly sloughing off and is composed of dead/dying cells (mostly keratinocytes). These cells that are being pushed out are not capable of “holding” pigment. The pigment holding cells are the macrophages that are summoned up from the lower layers of the dermis.

These specialized cells deal with infections and foreign particles (like ink). The macrophages consume/engulf the pigment particles that have been injected into the skin and hold it in place. These cells, like all others in our bodies, slowly die off and dump their contents (tattoo pigment) back into the skin before being transferred up to be sloughed off.

What happens to the pigment when that occurs, you ask?

ink life cycle after tattooing

The body sends more macrophages in response the the released foreign particle. The newly formed macrophages come forth, engulf the pigment and lay in wait until they meet their inevitable end.

This process continues during your livable existence and ensure that your tattoo is going to last a lifetime. (for now… mwahahahaha SCIENCE! – more on this later)

What’s up with hand and foot tattoos?

How about you, dear reader take this one. I know you can probably answer this question pretty well after all that typing that occurred above! (at least I hope so…)

hand structure
  • With a layer of subcutaneous tissue that is less evident, the body can experience greater trauma when being tattooed. Higher degree of trauma = lower chance of healing cleanly.
  • Lower levels of subcutaneous tissue create a more difficult stretch which creates a more uneven dermal layer. This makes it nearly impossible to place the pigment consistent into the skin so it shows an even tone and doesn’t “blow out”.

(A blow out is where the pigment is placed in a way that causes it to spread in an unpredictable way under the skin. The pigment placed into the body can roll along the capillary pathways, along soft spots of less dense skin or be carried into less dense areas by the inflammatory/immune response that occurs during a tattoo.)

  • Higher levels of stress from normal daily use increase the amount of shedding that needs to occur as more cells are destroyed from use.
  • Being constantly in use, the environmental stresses are greater than other parts of the body so an increase in healing time may occur.
  • The thicker horny layer creates a longer pathway for ink and needles to travel. this travel will dislodge pigment at different depths that can create an illusion of a well done tattoo. When the tattoo heals, and the misplaced pigment is shed (not absorbed) the finished product could be much lighter than anticipated.

So this list is going to left and added to at another time. I have shit to do and I am running out of time!

How can we tell who would be a better candidate for a hand or foot tattoo

This one is simple. You do a consult and touch their hands/feet after washing your hands and putting on a set of gloves.

Look at the skin. Is it very thin looking? If so, you will need to adjust your machine speed to ensure quality injection of pigment.

Give the skin a little push and pull. Does it feel tight or strongly attached to the underlying structure? If it does, there is a better chance that the SubQ layer is thicker than average and should be easier to tattoo. If the skin is very loose, there is a better chance that the tattoo will fall out or blow out if your needle depth is not set shallow and run on a slower machine setting.

WHen doing a consultation, ask the person who wants the tattoo what they do for a living. If you are going to tattoo a bakers hand, or a mechanics hand, there is a greater than average chance the tattoo will heal like total crap. Why you ask? BECAUSE THEY WORK WITH THEIR HANDS!

The type of work and what the skin is introduced to in a daily grind are what we consider environmental stresses. If you were to apply those same stresses to any other part of the body, what would you expect? (This wasn’t rhetorical)

How evident is the vascularization of the hand? If it seems very prominent, located near the surface, the epidermis will be thinner than normal (maybe they don’t use their hands for work or have a light duty job). If this is the case, you will have to adjust your hand and machine speed to ensure good saturation and less trauma.

In closing for now…

There is more information that needs to be added to this so let’s leave this article as a primer for those of you who need more.

Thanks for reading.


Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus

Tattoo Pain – Client Version

Tattoos hurt. What can you do to cope with that pain?

Regardless of your best buddy who has skin like granite, tattoo pain is real.

It’s something we have all come to expect when being stabbed with needles. Even if it is, pain shouldn’t be a determining factor when deciding to get a tattoo. Let’s look into some basic principles as to why tattoos hurt, how they are done and what you can do to manage the pain of tattoo, before, during and after the procedure.

hands covered with blood
Photo by it’s me neosiam on Thanks Becky

So, Explain to me what’s going on!

i.e. the tattoo Process.

(PREFACE: Not to go in depth about the types of tattoo machines out there, as there is a plethora of opinions formulated by those far more educated in the workings of those machines, but in this article we will focus on using a coil machine. Stay tuned for a later article about different types of machines.)

Tattooing, Why hurt so much!?

So let’s start with the basics and break the whole thing down Barney style. Tattooing is the process of getting ink into the skin and getting it to stay, permanently. In the western world this is done using a tattoo machine (also known as – tattoo gun, tattoo device) where a grouping of needles is place inside a receiving tube and attached to a bar that is connected to said machine via a flat metal spring (in 1 or 2 pieces.). It moves up and down pushing the needle into the skin, creating a small opening wherein the needle is retracted and “pulls or pushes” the ink into the skin.

How the machines get ink in your skin

Some expansion to the steps above – The tattoo machine works in an simple harmonic motion, driving the needles attached to a bar up and down… quickly. The receiving tube has a reservoir that collects a suspension of pigment by dipping the needles and receiving tube into an ink cap which contains suspended pigment also known as ink. The ink that is collected is pushed into the skin and captured by immune cells and held in place. Phew! (This is seriously overly simplified, but, I will do a proper write up in the future)

Photo by Pixabay on

Picture a vibrating loose meat sandwich shoving pickles and onions into … Something?
(this is an absolutely terrible analogy and I asked my wife for help figuring this one out. She literally looked at me with a questionable gaze, crinkled up her nose and asked to me to repeat it a second time. After hearing twice she advised me to move on from it and not do this again.)

Shit. I got a bit off topic. Back to the post.

SO… YA! Getting tattooed hurts. And yes, I know that pain is totally subjective. Your friend Becky had her ribs blasted for 12 hours straight and didn’t even blink an eye, while you, a discerning tattoo aficionado, sat for 2 lines on your wrist at a quarter inch long and screamed like a boiled rat.

Getting help with pain

What you don’t know is that Becky may have had a great artist sit her down and walk her through how to cope with the tattoo process and the inevitable pain. Now you, dear reader, can take with you a couple tips that should help you sit like a corpse through the short, or long, session you have coming up.

Fighting Tattoo Pain

Here is the ol’ blog list for ya’ll:

1. Come in with a good night’s rest.

Yup. This is a great way to help stave off any crazy pain sensations, and its one of the easiest and cheapest ways to help you sit through a tattoo. Studies show (not a full list but the abstract and footnotes have some great links to additional studies) that sleep and the interpretation of pain are inextricably linked.

What does that mean? If you stay up all night crushing Redbull’s and Mountain Dew Code Red while running dual instances of Fortnite, and hit the sack at 7 AM, you won’t sit well for your tattoo at noon. Your body needs rest. sorry insomniacs but not sorry narcoleptics. It gets rid of all those shitty hormones and chemicals that make you feel like crap. Your brain rests and it can deal with the bullshit of getting stabbed a million times. So, please, get some sleep. (8 hours or more is a good idea).

2. Have a good meal a few hours before coming in for a tattoo

Eating can take your pain away. I am serious. Look around you if you live in the USA. We are always hurting and gosh darn it we love to eat! Good thing is that having a delicious meal will help you with any pain associated during a tattoo. Your body responds to pain with inflammation, which is what happens when you get stabbed. You get stabbed, your body goes, “OH SHIT!” and releases an inflammatory response that gets healing started. If you are more sensitive to that response, your ability to deal with the pain is limited. This means you are going to be a in for a world of hurt.

So eat something that you enjoy before, during a break in tattooing and just after. Your brain will release the fancy things called endorphins which will help with the pain by making you feel happy.

3. Keep caffeine to a minimum.

Oh my goodness, you can’t make it out of bed without a double pot of french roast. That may spell trouble for your tattoo session. Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor which means it can increase blood pressure and close up them veins in your body. Caffeine does not thin your blood. The “thinning” of your blood that is noticeable after ingesting caffeine is due to decreased efficacy of your platelets. Platelets are the things that form scabs and stop bleeding when you get injured.

While the exact mechanism isn’t fully understood (at the time this article is written) you can wager a bet that the decrease in platelet function will increase your body’s propensity to bleed during a tattoo.

( As an aside, the additives in energy drinks exacerbate this effect, making them a double whammy)

What is a good idea, if you are addicted to caffeine like I, is keep your intake low. 1-2 cups 4-6 hours before you tattoo. also, drink water.

4. Drink water

You have had this shoveled into your brain since childhood (and i say that because no, little person aged 10 years, you’re double digits but you are not getting tattooed). Being hydrated is a good thing. Remember above where I had mentioned something about inflammation? That process is part of what influences your pain tolerance when getting tattooed. Here is an article that is grossly overqualified for how I type but goes into great detail about how and why being hydrated is good for pain management.

5. Learn to meditate

If you’re from a place that looks towards left leaning cultures as a place where hypocrisy reigns supreme and all folks are coo-coo, you may have cringed or become uncomfortable at the above mentioned idea. “What chu talkin’ ’bout bhoy. I ain’t gone waste my time doing no medititates! I can handle the pain like a real man-uh.” Sadly, you would be wrong there my friend. Meditating doesn’t mean you have to take up a vegan lifestyle and join a naked hot yoga class,. What it means is that you should be focusing your attention to something other than whatever the fuck it is you are thinking about currently.

This may spell disaster to anyone with ADD or ADHD but it is a great trick to spin through time and keep the interpreted pain at bay while getting a tattoo.

I have had the luck of meeting many people who were open to the idea of focused pain management over the years I have worked tattooing. I tell them to bring something to the appointment that helps them “veg out”. This is key though, it has to be focused to the individual.

The Audiophile Tattoo Client

  • If someone is always listening to music as a way to separate from their surroundings, they are triggered through audio stimulation (their ears). Having a horror movie on with tense music and screaming will ensure a short sit so keep things calm. Put on some Enya.

The Cinephile Tattoo Client

  • For people who lose themselves in the splendor of some visual stimulus, I tell them to bring in whatever they feel comfortable watching. It can be a movie or a TV series, but something that they can strap some headphones on and watch.

The Haphephile Tattoo Client

  • For those unlucky enough to be stimulated by touch more than anything, (think you get lost with massages) they are a hit or miss client. I have had some people who were good holding someone else’s hand to sit for an eternity, others are good with covering their faces with a soft or silky blanket/garment/towel. Sadly, some of those people just fucking laser focus in on the pain and sit like absolute crap. There is little to do to get them through the tattoo process other than lying to them about time and the length of the procedure so far.

6. Take some Tylenol or Advil.

While the majority of tattooers out there are undecided on the effects of NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) on a tattoo, I have used them sparingly for years as a way to fight inflammation and pain during a procedure. **Note – Make sure an adequate medical history is conducted and permission from a medical professional has been given before utilizing any NSAIDs during or after a procedure** I won’t go into the pharmacokinetics but this shit works but you know that they do work due to their success globally. This tip also does not suggest to pound back 12 advil with a Redbull during your sick tat session. Please, be responsible.

Taking an NSAID after the tattoo procedure is completed also can help with pain or inflammation. Especially with those marathon sessions. Go talk to your PCP and get some feedback about how and why these may be a good tool in your tattoo artist / client arsenal.

7. Take one long break and a couple short breaks during the tattoo procedure.

Every hour take a 5 minute break to rest and adjust your eyes and allow the client to move about. At 3.5 hours, let them get a good meal and hydrate. This simple process will help in people sitting 9+ hours consistently.

This process isn’t to be broken up for phone calls, text messages, social media, cigarettes or consultations. Set up long appointments with the full intention of that tattoo being done your only goal for the day. Do not get interrupted and don’t get sidetracked. Focus on your client and what they are going through to complete a marathon session or that short 2 line session that gives you so much grief.

Photo by on

So that’s it for this article. Give me feedback or comments below and share the fuck outta this page so we can get the industry aligned with a SOP.



Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus


Tattoo Checklist -Client Version

Whether you’re getting ready to sit through a marathon session or a single needle prick, here’s a checklist to make sure you’re prepared for the big tattoo day. We also attached a printable link at the bottom of the page to make sure you have a friendly reminder to post on your fridge.

Shower. Be a good client

oval mirror near toilet bowl

You dirty fucker. Please go into your tattoo session bathed and smelling neutral. No heavy cologne/perfume. Also, don’t shave your tattoo area unless specified by the artist. If you sever your kneecap while trying to trim the chewbacca growth you acquired during your trip abroad, you can’t get tattooed.

Loose fitting clothes that aren’t white or light in nature.

woman in white shirt

Please don’t wear white clothes. You may look chaste and virginal but you will get ink on them. Also, being comfortable is key when being stabbed so make sure you have clothes that are loose fitting for your tattoo. If you are a texture person, silk is amazing.

Good night’s sleep.

photo of person holding alarm clock
Photo by Acharaporn Kamornboonyarush on

Sleep is key to your body having the tools to fight off pain. If you are sleep deprived you will not enjoy the tattoo process as it will feel like you are being tortured. Get around 8 hours of sleep before your tattoo appointment, or just like, everyday.

Be a good client – No alcohol or drugs please.

photo of man smoking blunt

You can’t give consent while intoxicated, no matter how little you feel you have imbibed. Your coherence is key when making a life-long decision, and we are pretty sure it is illegal to be fucked up in most states. So, hold off on that martini and bong rip until after your tattoo session. Even better, recharge your brain a bit by letting off for 72 hours. This will give your body time to stock up and store those rad endorphins that you burn getting fucked up. Marijuana included.

Have a good breakfast.


Eating gives you strength and feeds that endorphin producing monster of a body so you can sit through any length of tattoo session. Don’t leave yourself dealing with hunger pains, eat something.

Hydrate yo’self

sunset cup water drink

Water. The element of life! Drink it. You will lose fluid during your tattoo. The magic of water also helps with the inflammation you get during a tattoo, which in turn decreases pain. Less inflammation, less pain. It’s a win win.

Tattoo Snacks

woman sitting on beige floor tile

Having a boost of fuel during your tattoo can help some people sit longer. Keep the snacks light, somewhat infrequent during the tattoo session. Also, check with your tattooist to see if they have any issues with the snacks you want to bring in with you, or if it’s even okay to bring food in at all. If it’s not okay to bring snack into the tattoo area, plan to take a short break if you need to fuel up.


white headphones

Sometimes, listening to music is the best. If you are someone who zones the hell out listening to music, bring something to focus on while getting tattooed. Keep it light, no heavy shit, and relax your session away.

Travel to and from Your Tattoo

automobile automotive blurred background car

If you are planning a larger session, or if you have had issues like:

  1. Fainting while giving blood
  2. Lightheartedness
  3. Low blood sugar

Get a ride to and from the tattoo appointment. Or, if you just like to ride in style, grab an Uber and help your local rideshare provider. Feeling frugal and eco friendly? Take the goddamned bus.

Taking Breaks – Be safe a client!

watch on a wrist

Taking breaks can be great but, if you take too many, or too often, your body goes into repair mode. This means your tattoo will hurt more than if you just sat through the mild discomfort. Take a break for 5 minutes every 1-2 hours to stretch your legs and get some blood pumping. If you make it 3-4 hours and the pain is getting to you, take a 30 minute break and grab a meal. When you come back, you’ll be ready to sit until the end of your session.

Paying for you Tattoo

Handful of cash money

For most tattoo establishments, bring cash as it is preferred. Ask ahead if there are any other options, especially if you’re uncomfortable carrying rainmaker money on your person.

Tipping Your Artist – Should you as a client?

person who may be a client doing thumbs up

Tipping is complimentary.  What does complimentary mean? If you want to compliment their service and work, give them money. 20% for small tattoos where the artist has gone above and beyond is standard. 10% good work but a bland experience. 0% for anything else. Its complimentary!

Thanks for reading, and here is the printable link. Tattoo Checklist- Client Version



Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus


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