My First Tattoo Experience

Meet Melissa...

Melissa is 20 years old. She's wanted to get a tattoo for some time now - her first - to commemorate her grandfather who passed away when she was 12. While she knew there were many things to consider before she got tattooed, the biggest question that came to her mind were what type of design she wanted to get (not to mention where to put it). Melissa had some vague ideas for tattoos she thought would work well for her, but nothing concrete enough to get it permanently inked on her body. She kept a lookout over the years for the perfect tattoo design, and even visited some tattoo studios from time to time, but she just never saw anything that totally felt right.

Finding the Perfect Tattoo Design:

A few weeks ago, a friend told Melissa about the website. Upon visiting the site, she spent quite a bit of time browsing's large database of designs and even discovered a few that she could see getting tattooed. She added several designs to her "Personalized Gallery" to compare and consider, and she used the "e-mail a friend" feature to send links for these designs to her friends and family to see what they had to say. While she liked, perhaps even loved, many of the designs she was worried that they wouldn't be personal enough to properly honor the memory her grandfather.

Melissa browses in search of the perfect tattoo design.

Melissa browses

Personalized, Custom and Couture Tattoos:

Melissa browsed the Tattoos-101 section of and discovered an article about Personalized, Custom and Couture Tattoos. She felt that she shouldn't get a design tattooed exactly like the way it looked online or off the tattoo studio wall because other people will then have the exact same tattoo. After reading through the article and understanding the differences between the 3 Approaches to Getting Tattooed, her feelings were affirmed. A personalized tattoo was exactly what she was looking for. Melissa felt strongly that she wanted to make sure that no one else in the world would have a tattoo like hers, but she also wanted to use one of the designs she found on as her starting place. She also knew that she wanted to have a lot of creative control over her tattoo design. Aside from a little doodling back in school Melissa wasn't exactly an artist herself, so she knew she would need to find a tattooist with good design skills (not just good tattooing skills) to help her personalize her design. She also felt like she would ultimately need the advice of the tattooist regarding placement of the tattoo on her body. She wondered what the tattooist would say about the designs that she found. She did like some elements found in many of them, but what good would that do for the tattooist? Could they personalize it? Could they even use it?

Finding the Perfect Tattoo Studio / Tattoo Artist:

Selecting the tattooist is just as important as selecting a tattoo design and body placement. Several of her friends had gone to Main Street Tattoo of Longmont, Colorado and were pleased with their tattoos. Looking at the tattoos of her friends Melissa was indeed impressed with the work. She had also heard that Main Street Tattoo runs the website system in the shop, so she thought perhaps they might have some insight on the designs she found. Never one to just act on her friends word alone though, Melissa decided to go to Main Street and check things out.

Equipment at Main Street Tattoo in Longmont, Colorado

Main Street Tattoo and Piercing of Longmont, Colorado, U.S.

First impressions are important when looking for a tattoo studio and artist to work with, and Melissa's first impression of Main Street was good. She felt the atmosphere was clean and professional and most of all, comfortable. Upon entering the studio, she was politely asked if someone could help her. She told Russ (a tattoo artist since November 2004 at Main Street Tattoo) that she had found some designs on that she liked and she wanted to see about getting one of them personalized to commemorate her Grandfather.

Before Russ could reply, Melissa brought up another concern: safety. She knew Main Street was a reputable tattoo studio, but she still wisely checked-in with Russ about shop policies and procedures regarding health and safety. Russ explained that the local health department inspects the shop regularly, that the shop's sterilizers are tested to make sure they are working properly, and that the shop uses universal health care precautions when tattooing.

When Melissa was satisfied that she would get a safe tattoo at Main Street, Russ suggested to her that she next take a look at all the tattoo artists' portfolios of tattoo work and get a sense of which artist she would like to work with. Melissa looked through the portfolios of all the artists, and they all looked really good. She felt a little naïve because she didn't really know what to look for. Rachael (Tattoo Artist since 1991) picked up on this and helped Melissa with her questions. While the process of determining what constitutes good art is somewhat subjective (including tattoos), Rachael pointed out some examples of things to look for in the portfolios to determine how "good" the tattoos are, including:

  • Clean linework - not shaky, uneven, or blotchy
  • Proper ink and line density so the tattoo will look better over time
  • An assurance that the photos in tattoo portfolios are of completely healed tattoos, allowing for an accurate assessment of what the quality of the final tattoo will be.

Rachael also showed Melissa examples of tattoo designs on the walls at the studios that had been tattooed and photographed. This way, Melissa could compare some photos of tattoos actually created on peoples' bodies to what the original design looked like. Rachael told Melissa to take special note of the before and after accuracy depicted in the photos.

Even after getting a better understanding of what makes for a "good tattoo," she still felt all the artists' portfolios looked really good and was unable to decide which tattooist she had a preference for. Having talked now with both Russ and Rachael, she stated she would feel most comfortable if one of them tattooed her. She also particularly liked both of their styles of tattoo work in the portfolios. Since Rachael was booked for the rest of the day doing other tattoos, she decided to go with Russ as her tattooist, assuming he could do the personalized work on her tattoo design.

Tattoo Design Personalization:

Russ is not only a skilled tattooist, but a skilled artist. He recommended that Melissa sit with him at the computer and show him the designs on she was considering as reference for her tattoo. He could then make recommendations for how to personalize it and quote Melissa some prices to do the tattoo.

"Is this stuff actually useful to you guys?" Melissa asked Russ.

"Hell yeah!" Russ replied, "We love it when people bring in designs! It makes things so much easier for us."

Russ told Melissa that while there was always some work to do with personalized tattoos, the stencils and color reference that the website would provide for them once she purchased the design would help a great deal when it came to Russ giving Melissa the best tattoo possible. Russ even told Melissa that she could get a discount on her purchase through Main Street Tattoo because Main Street Tattoo was set up with a Premiere Account.

Before she decided, though, Russ reminded Melissa that where she wanted to put the tattoo would heavily influence her decision on what tattoo design she would want. She felt like she wanted her tattoo to be visible in casual settings and easy to show others, but not in a highly visible area where it might have a negative impact on her life (with work for example). She had considered her lower back, her ankle, her thigh, and her back shoulder area. Her gut was telling her to get tattooed on her back shoulder area.

Russ described some ideas for personalizing he could do with the various designs Melissa was looking at, and how they could work on the different areas of her body she was considering to get tattooed. He explained that while subjective, some designs simply tend to look better and fit better on different parts of the body.

There was one tattoo design by flash artist Ray Reasoner that seemed to stand out more to Melissa than the others. Russ recommended that Melissa go with her gut instinct, both with the design selection and the placement on the body. He agreed that this design could be personalized to go on Melissa's back shoulder area; a placement that was a good fit for her based on the type of visibility she was looking for.

Melissa knew now that at last she had found the perfect tattoo design! The simultaneous feeling of excitement and confidence that surged through Melissa’s body was incredible. She happily purchased the Ray Reasoner design she wanted Russ to work with, and then she and Russ printed the design reference and stencils right there at the shop. Russ personalized the design as he described he would, and when Melissa was satisfied, he adjusted the final stencils to begin tattooing.

An example of tattoo personalization using an original design

Tattoo designs found online or on studio walls can be personalized to create your perfect tattoo design.

Preparing / Applying the Stencils:

It still wasn't exactly clear to Melissa how important stencils were to the tattoo process. So, when Russ went to go prepare the stencils, she asked Mike (Tattoo Artist of 17 years) who was tattooing someone in the chair next to her what stencils were. Mike explained:

Russ applies the tattoo stencil to Melissa's back.

Stencils (also known as "lines," "line drawings," "line art" etc.) are really the BLUEPRINTS for tattoos. They are the basic structure of the tattoo design full of subtle communication (line thickness, shading, spacing, etc.) from the original artist of the design about how the design was meant to be tattooed. The stencil is run through a thermofax machine onto a sheet of carbon paper, and the carbon "stencil" of the tattoo design is then placed on the skin as a guide for the tattoo.

Before long, Russ came back with the stencils, modified and ready for the tattoo. He applied the stencils to Melissa's back left shoulder, and asked her to look in the mirror to make sure the placement was exactly where she wanted it. This was the blueprint for her tattoo . . . so it needed to be perfect. And on the first shot, Russ was spot on. Melissa was now finally ready to get tattooed!

Getting Tattooed:

As Russ setup his work station for the tattoo, Melissa, despite her better judgment, began to get nervous. She had never been tattooed before, and she of course knew that it was going to hurt. Just how much she didn't know. She had heard it described as "pin pricks" or "a hot cat scratch", but there was just no way of knowing what to expect. Russ could tell Melissa was nervous, and told her he would start tattooing with just one simple line of her tattoo. He would then stop so she could take a moment to react to this new experience. After the first line, Melissa thought, and then smiled. "It's not really that bad." Russ told her to let him know if she felt she needed a break, but he was going to start in on the first step; tattooing all the linework - the basic black outline of the tattoo taken from the stencil.

As he was tattooing, Russ and Melissa calmly chatted and joked a bit. She also asked questions along the way. "Why do you do all the linework first?" she asked Russ. Russ explained that as he tattoos, he is constantly wiping the area he is working on to remove excess ink and fluids. Eventually, as he keeps wiping, the stencils will wipe off, so it's important to do the linework before the stencil is lost. The linework in the tattoo will eventually become the new base for the design.

Russ begins his tattoo work

At last, Melissa begins to get tattooed.

Once the linework of the tattoo was complete, Russ began shading and coloring the tattoo. Melissa begin to realize that many people - herself included - underestimate the craftsmanship involved in tattooing. There are multiple needle setups commonly used for different purposes (number and alignment of needles being used). In addition, depth and angle of the application is vital to the health of the skin, and greatly influences how the tattoo will take initially and hold up over time. These were just a few examples of the many things a tattooist needs to know, and traditionally these skills are taught through a lengthy apprenticeship under another professional tattooist - never from a book or TV. Russ was apprenticed under Rachael and Mike . . . and he definitely knew what he was doing!

In short time - shorter than Melissa realized - that tattoo was completed. Russ cleaned up the area tattooed and allowed Melissa to look in the mirror at her new artwork for the first time. Melissa smiled and knew that her diligence in choosing the perfect tattoo design and a skilled tattooist had paid off. She was completely satisfied and knew that her grandfather's memory would be honored as long as she lived.

Tattoo Aftercare / Healing Instructions:

Russ suggested Melissa take a picture immediately of her new tattoo with her cell phone. The tattoo would now need to be healed, and therefore covered until the next day. By taking the photo, she could show her friends immediately and not have to remove the bandage. When the "Kodak Moment" was over, Russ bandaged the area and provided Melissa with a care sheet. He explained that different tattoo professionals might have different instructions on healing tattoos, but Tattoos-101's general instructions have been proven very effective. Main Street Tattoo "guarantees the ink," meaning they will do any touch-up work required at no charge. Melissa just needed to follow the instructions. Melissa read the instructions over, and Russ made sure she didn't have any questions.

Melissa thanked Russ for doing a great job, and gave him a nice tip as she paid for her new tattoo. Melissa did her homework, and that helped ensure that her first tattoo experience was a great one . . . and probably would not be her last!

Melissa's perfect tattoo!

Fresh ink - Melissa's new tattoo!