What it’s really like to get a tattoo

by lachicaruns on

I’ve wanted a tattoo to commemorate my first marathon for the past four years, but really couldn’t settle on a design. How could I pick something that encapsulated my training, suffering and achievement?

So I stalled. I did a ton of research about designs, styles and post-tattoo care, but really couldn’t find much information about what it’s really like to get a tattoo. You know, the kind of details you really want to know about.

And since we’ve established that there’s really nothing I’m not willing to share (exhibit A), here’s how it went.

How did I find an artist?

I asked friends whose tattoos I admired, then I cyberstalked a few tattoo shops in town. I noticed that I genuinely liked one particular artist’s pieces on a very regular basis, so I scheduled a consult.

My favorite 18-year-old and I met with the artist for a few minutes one afternoon about two months ago. I told him what I was looking for, in very general terms. He asked me to email him some ideas/thoughts and that he’d send me a design. He also said we could make any changes I wanted.

I sent him a link to my Pinterest board … and waited. It took several weeks and at least one more email before I heard back: schedule a three-hour session. No design.

I later learned from the office manager that artists don’t typically share their designs until the day of the appointment. Gulp.

This made me very nervous because I was worried about wasting the three-hour appointment (and losing a small deposit) if I didn’t like what he came up with. But I always went back to just how much I have admired his work. Trust the artist, right?

I committed to working with him to make any changes and stopped worrying about the design.

On the morning of my 4 p.m. appointment, I got a short email with an attachment. El husbando and I clicked and both immediately said we loved the design. While it was not at all what I was expecting, the artist captured what I wanted.

I was very much ready and headed out to the appointment later in the day.

We’re there any surprises?

Other than the fact that the design was way bigger than I expected? Not really.

The artist handed me the design in its actual size and I’m pretty sure I gasped. It seemed ginormous.

There was no way I could have the design placed on the front of my left shoulder where I wanted it originally. What to do?

Again, I chose to trust the artist. We talked about making it smaller, but he worried we would lose the detail that made the piece so special.

I needed a placement that would allow me to cover the tattoo because my job entails meeting with a lot of potentially conservative people and I never want to offend.

The artist recommended the back of my shoulder. I was disappointed because I really wanted to have a tattoo I could easily look at. I got it for myself, after all. But I genuinely loved the design and knew that the artist is the expert, so I agreed.

I filled out a few forms, got some general information about tattooing and headed to the back of the shop.

How do you prep for a tattoo?

First, I have to say just how clean everything was. The area looked like a doctor’s office. It felt sterile. Except for the irreverent designs on the walls and the music blaring in the background, that is.

The artist washed his hands, put gloves on and pulled out brand-new, in-the-package, tools. He was meticulous and had me watch the whole process. I’m guessing so that I would feel confident I wasn’t being exposed to some nasty cooties.

We talked about the design, whether I wanted color (no) and whether I wanted any words (again, no).

He then shaved the area before putting the design on my shoulder. There were a couple of large mirrors to help me really see the location and size of the design. It still looked huge and we talked about it. My daughter and I conferred and gave him the go-ahead.

I had to lay (or is it lie) face down. I wore a tank with straps to make sure the artist had access to my shoulder, so it worked out great.

Before he started, a woman next door heard I was getting a shoulder tattoo and proceeded to tell me how she’d had one. Oh? How did it go?, I asked

It felt like I was getting stabbed, she answered. Lovely.

Finally, what does it really feel like to get a tattoo?

It hurts. I knew it would hurt, but some friends said they found it relaxing. I suspect it’s like childbirth where nature ensures time smoothies some of the edges of our memory so that we will reproduce again.

And by hurt, I mean that it really felt like I was getting stabbed a bunch of times, but just on the surface. Was it tolerable? Sure.

Would I have endured it for more than the two hours it took? I have to say that I would have probably needed a few breaks.

After a particularly painful few minutes, the artist explained that he uses different tools for things like lines, shading and even color (we went with only black ink with a tiny bit of white for shading).

Some tools have more needles than others. The shading definitely hurt more than the lines, and the color even more than that.

On a scale of 1-10, with childbirth being a 10, passing a kidney stone an 8 1/2 and stubbing a toe a 5, I’m gonna put this at a 5 or 6.

It was not fun, but the artist distracted me by telling stories and, a few times, doing a bit of dancing.

I was able to adjust my head and arms many times and he asked me several times if I needed a break. Wanting the pain to stop, I just asked him to keep going.

i whined a bit, but was never in so much pain that I cried or cried out.

After almost two hours, he said he was done. He wiped the design off with disinfectant soap and asked me to stay still for a bit.

He uncovered the design…and told me he needed to do a little bit more work. Thankfully, it only took another 3-5 minutes and we were done.

Did it look like the original design?

The original design had a lot of line work and detail, but I didn’t know that the artist would also add a lot of shading, so the final product has a lot more depth than I ever expected. It’s also a lot darker than I thought it would be.

The piece is beautiful. I kept admiring it in the mirror when he was done. We, of course, wanted to get some nice shots so he could make me “Instagram famous.”

Here’s the finished product:

Oh, and, no, it’s not a running tattoo after all! Instead, it’s the outline of Puerto Rico, including both Vieques and Culebra. It features the national flower, flor Maga, and the yellow and black bird that gave me my childhood nickname of Reinita.

What are some lessons learned?

I chose to trust the artist after seeing his work on Instagram for over a year. Had I not seen what he could do, I would have probably given more direction and weighed in a lot more, and probably would have ended with a design that I asked for, not one that I truly loved.

I tried to merge too many things into the one tattoo. I also wanted a coquí frog (it’s very emblematic of Puerto Rico) and the word “corre” or run. Neither could have worked and I let go of the ideas after talking with the artist.

What are the few days after getting a tattoo like?

After we took some pictures, the artist covered the tattoo with what looked like plastic wrap. He asked me to keep it clean for two days, then remove the bandage and wash it with some soap I bought at the shop for a week. He also recommended I use lotion for at least a week.

He said the design would look shinny and dark at the beginning but will fade in the coming years. In the meantime, it could feel like — and may even itch — like a sunburn.

I just took the bandage off in the shower. It came off a little bit like the glue we used to let dry on our hands and peel when we were kids. It felt a lot like taking off a regular bandage, but I was particularly glad that he had shaved the whole area before.

Any regrets?

None. I am glad I chose this particular design, artist and location. While I can’t immediately see my tattoo all the time, I can glance at it with any mirror.

Have you ever gotten a tattoo? How long ago and where? Do you have any tips to share? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

Written by: lachicaruns

My name is Gisgie. It's pronounced geese (like the birds) and gee (like the letter). Now that we've met, I'm glad you're here. I'm an injury-prone runner who manages to find reasons to keep coming back to the road despite ongoing challenges. Most recently, I've struggled with piriformis syndrome. I'm currently winning. Most days.


Michelle M

I love you new ink!!!! He did a great job capturing your vision. Congrats on being able to endure 2 hours for your first tattoo. I have 2 tattoos and am contemplating a third. Last one was 4 years ago. No tips-you captured the experience.


Loved your post!!! I have 2 tattoos one on my shoulder blade (like yours) and one on the inside of my tricep. Love that you got something meaningful for you! Only thing I can think of to contribute in getting a tattoo is to remember everyone pain scale is different. For some stubbing a toe is a 5 out of 10 and for others 2 out of 10 so the pain experience is different from person to person. 🙂


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