So You Want to Get a Tattoo

You have a great idea for a tattoo and you’re ready to showcase your love of pizza, your dog, tiger lillies, Nintendo, your wandering spirit or your mom; preferably not all in one tattoo. So how do you get this design out of your brain and onto your body — especially if you’re planning and preparing for a tattoo for the first time? What do you need to know to make this permanent experience stick in all the right ways?

Because of the sheer amount of information for tattoo first timers out there, we spoke with Greg Arpin, head tattoo artist, and Dave Asgarian, a designer and business manager, from Unicorn Ink in North Providence to get their take on what’s the must-know information for anyone looking to get work done.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Fallon Masterson (Motif): What’s your most common question?

Greg Arpin: People want to know if it hurts. We generally say it’s more of an uncomfortable feeling than pain.

Dave Asgarian: It’s like a cute cat kneading on you. It hurts, but it’s cute, so you aren’t going to push it away.

FM: What do you wish people knew up front?

Tattoo by Greg Arpin
Tattoo by Greg Arpin

DA: Artists don’t like to hear about white ink. When you put white ink into someone, it doesn’t look like white paint. It doesn’t stay white. White as highlights, as part of a design, is different. But just white will look like a scar.

GA: Also, finger tattoos. Your hands and feet shed. Constantly. They’ll fade.

FM: When planning a design, what should people keep in mind?

DA: Sizing. A lot of people love to get super small tattoos the first time. Especially small, feminine tattoos, with lots of detail. Over time, it never looks as good because our body is made of 70% water and the lines bleed together a little bit so when the details are so tight, it can look like a blob. A tiny mandala might look great when you walk out, but you need to consider how it will look over time.

GA: We do show people pictures of what it might look like in the future. We want them to know all the aspects of what the tattoo might become. We also know we can usually accommodate what people want by simplifying the design.

FM: What sort of behavior should people keep in mind while they’re getting work done?

GA: Our clients can bring a friend if they want, so they feel more comfortable in the room. But that can be negative if they’re laughing and moving. That gets tricky. If they keep moving, it won’t come out as precise. So my biggest no-no is moving. Also, no alcohol and no drugs.

DA: Some people get tattoos high as a kite and they’ll admit, later, that it actually hurt more than if they hadn’t. If you drink a lot the night before, your blood is thinner. There’s more bleeding. If you’re doing color, it’s not going to come out how you want.

GA: You should be hydrated. Drink lots of water. I can tell immediately if someone is dehydrated by the way the ink goes in the skin. You should drink water heavily a few days prior to your tattoo. It really helps out. If you’re dehydrated, your skin shrinks. The ink doesn’t go in nice and smooth. If you’re hydrated, your skin is swollen and the ink fills in smoothly. There’s less trauma to the skin. The past two years — a lot of people are not drinking water! Also, I tell people to try to eat before they come, if they’re first timers.

FM: Would you recommend a numbing cream for the first time?

GA: We have used them. They can help out, but you need to put it on an hour or two before you come. It won’t last the whole time, but it’s a temporary relief that can get you through the early stages. There is a risk it could hurt more when it wears off and the nerves are waking up, and some artists might not like it and think it affects the skin or makes the ink more difficult to get in, but it’s not too bad.

FM: What should people know about aftercare?

DA: It’s the most important part of how your tattoo will look, but, if it’s your first time, it is trial and error because everyone is different.

GA: As a shop, we like to use Aquaphor. It seems the most natural.

DA: There’s also such a thing as putting on too much ointment. We recommend for a medium size tattoo, you put a half a Skittle amount of Aquaphor on it and you spread it as much as you can throughout the tattoo. If it’s shiny, it’s too much still. It should be a very matte finish. Don’t overdo it with the ointments. If anything, underdo it. We have an artist here who doesn’t do any aftercare. He just airs it out and cleans it, once in the morning.

FM: What should you consider when you’re choosing a shop?

GA: Number one is cleanliness of the shop and if they use disposable products, like needles. Those things are important. We also have individual rooms that we built here. A majority of people prefer that versus an open floor plan.

DA: If you’re taking your shirt or pants off to get a tattoo, and you’re just in your underwear, it’s nice to have the privacy. We hate to say don’t do walk-ins — because we get a lot of business from it — but check out the shop first.

FM: What about when choosing an artist?

DA: Looking at the portfolio is so important. You’d think it’s the first thing people would do, but they don’t. They’ll come in and care about the price more than anything. I think that needs to be taken a little more seriously. There’s an epidemic of bad tattoos. So many people need cover ups right now because they didn’t make the right decision the first time. You need to talk to your artist, get a consultation before hand. Don’t be too spontaneous. People are constantly coming in with tattoos they got from other places or a friend in a basement. What they get to cover it up isn’t what they originally wanted — but it’s the only thing that will work. There’s a lot of regrets because people aren’t spending the time to consider if the artist is what they want. People need to take that more seriously.

GA: Look at the artist individually. Look at someone who’s doing portrait tattoos. They’re not going to want to do wording.

DA: If you have an artist who likes to do portraits and big pieces, and he’s worked so many years on his craft to get to that point, it sounds rude to say, but it can almost be insulting to say, “I like your work… Will you put this word here?” It’s cool that they want to go to him because they like his work, but…

GA: We don’t want to sound selfish, but it’s weird.

DA: “You do fantastic portraits! Can you do a finger ring?”

GA: It all comes back to one thing: do your research.