Here is an interesting article covering the details of the tattooing process found on a blog of a fellow tattoo artist. A good read before your first appointment if you wish to know what to expect in the tattoo studio. This information will make you feel more comfortable getting your first tattoo.
Source: http://www.spiritgallerytattoo.com/blog/77-tattoo-process. Written by Blaze Schwaller.
Soap makes you clean
Your tattoo artist will start the tattoo process by cleaning your skin with an antibacterial soap. He or she will prepare an area much larger than the one that is to be tattooed.
This is to make sure that every surface that your tattoo artist touches during the tattoo procedure will be clean. She wants to be positive that any bacteria that might be lurking innocently on your skin’s surface are eliminated before she breaks your skin’s surface with tattoo needles.
By cleaning your whole lower arm, she can safely rotate your wrist or lean on your shoulder without worrying that she might touch a potentially contaminated surface, and then touch your tattoo with that bacteria. She is making sure that there will be no cross-contamination during your tattoo.
Don’t worry if your whole arm gets a rub-down for a small wrist tattoo. It doesn’t mean she thinks you have cooties. She is just doing her job well and preparing you for the tattoo process.
Before your stencil is applied, your tattoo artist will shave the area of the tattoo.
Following the soapy scrub-down, your tattoo artist will prepare your skin by shaving its surface. She does this to prevent the tattoo needles from getting caught in your hair, which would pull and hurt more.
Shaving before beginning the tattoo process also prevents the tattoo needles from pushing a hair down into your skin. If this happens it can result in bumps during healing, as the embedded hair tries to free itself from your skin. If hairs get pushed into your skin during the tattoo, it can result in patchy healing around the places that the hair tries to resurface.
Even though sometimes growing the hair back feels itchy, it’s really all for the best. As long as you don’t scratch your tattoo while healing, you can prevent damaging your fresh tattoo.
Here’s a tip for healing: If your tattoo is on your leg, or someplace that you plan on shaving in the future to show it off – Wait to shave the area for at least two weeks after getting a fresh tattoo! If you shave the area before the tattoo is fully healed, you risk sloughing off an extra layer of skin, which can result in the loss of lots of tattoo ink. Be patient, and your tattoo will heal beautifully and look fantastic for years to come.
Another piece of advice – Let your tattoo artist shave your arm, leg or ribs on the day of your tattoo. Don’t do it yourself.
I can’t tell you how many clients have thought they were helping me out by shaving their leg for me, but had never done it before. These poor guys mangled their leg so badly that I had to send them home and reschedule their appointment for another day!
Your tattoo artist can’t tattoo through a fresh scab. He or she cannot tattoo you through a fresh scar either. (Old scars are a different story.)
So don’t be a hero. Let your tattoo artist prepare the area when you arrive for your tattoo procedure. She knows what she’s doing. This isn’t her first rodeo. 😛
Applying the Stencil
After the area has been cleaned and shaved, the next step is applying the tattoo stencil, or drawing a custom tattoo design onto your body directly with a surgical marker or even a fresh sharpie.
My preferred approach often includes a little bit of each. For large designs, I will draw up the complicated details on paper, and make a transfer with my thermal fax stencil machine. This machine makes a copy of my drawing on a sheet that will leave a purple stencil behind on any wet surface.
Your artist will apply the stencil to your skin using either soap and water, or some kind of special transfer solution. I prefer Stencil Stuff. It’s like a sterilized glue for tattoo stencils, and holds the transfer for a longer time without smudging. I find it to be a great help in portrait tattoos especially.
Applying the stencil can take a long time sometimes in order to get the perfect placement. Relax and feel free to make corrections with your artist, or even try out different placements, and then return to an earlier placement.
Sometimes you get it right in one go. Sometimes it can take almost and hour to get it right. Either way, go with the flow and you will end up with a stellar tattoo.
Letting the Stencil Dry, and Setting Up Tattoo Machines
Once the stencil or drawing has come to a successful conclusion, your artist will want to let the stencil dry. This is to ensure that the stencil is dry enough that it won’t wipe away during the tattoo process.
I use this time to pour inks and set up tattoo machines. Since setting up the tattoo machines takes a few minutes, it’s a great way to use the appointment time efficiently. I like to let my clients show off the transfer to their friend if they came with somebody, or send them to get a soda or water from the fridge if they are fidgety. One last bathroom run wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. Your artist will pour the inks into individual tattoo ink caps. These are small single-use plastic containers that she will use only on you.
She will be using paper towels to wipe the tattoo clear of ink and blood throughout the tattoo procedure. I like to fold lots of paper towels in advance for easy transitions. Other artists will fold as they go.
Your tattoo artist may also check the needles as she opens them from their packages with a magnifying glass. Why? We look for burrs on the needle tips, bent needles, and in the worst case scenario, an upside-down needle! I have only found one upside-down soldered needle tip, but I am sure glad I checked for quality control. My general rule of thumb is, if I wouldn’t use it on myself, I won’t use it on someone else. Doesn’t that make you feel better?
By the time your stencil is dry, your artist’s tattoo machines will be set up, inks poured, water for rinsing readied, and you will be happily sitting in the tattoo chair or laying on a tattoo table ready to start your tattoo.
How Deep Does A Tattoo Go?
You have seven layers of skin. Your tattoo artist uses their expertise to embed the tattoo ink three layers down. This is deep enough to remain in the skin for a long time without shedding off. It is also high enough up that it does not cause raised scar tissue to form as your body tries to protect itself from invading foreign material.
Tattoos that are too high up will heal patchy or light. This is not the end of the world! you can always tattoo again to get the right depth. Sometimes I will purposely go a bit light on a tattoo if I am unsure of how you will heal, knowing that we can always have a second chance.
Tattoos that go too deep into the skin cause permanent scarring. This scarring is irreversible, and will make your tattoo appear raised. The tattoo on my lower back was applied too deeply in places, and I have found that when the humidity changes, my tattoo gets itchy and raises.
Tattoos that are too deep in the skin can heal very darkly, or lose their color altogether in the scarred parts. Scars are unpredictable. You may tattoo over them once they are healed, but there is no guarantee that the rework will be perfect. Once again – there is nothing any tattoo artist can do to make the scarring go away.
If you are prone to keloiding, which is a tendency for your skin to scar easily – tattooing is quite likely to scar on you. Be prepared to have a raised tattoo if you know that you scar easily. Your tattoo may not itch the way mine does, but if it is raised, it is irreversible, even if you decide to remove or cover your tattoo later down the road.
Breaks and Stretching
If your tattoo takes longer than an hour, you will probably take a break at some point during the tattoo process. You will want to walk around, eat a snack, drink some juice or water, and un-cramp your muscles from sitting still.
You tattoo artist will also need to stretch and drink some water. Tattooing is hard work! Both of you will likely be in some uncomfortable positions to get the job done. Speak up if you need to get your circulation back. Chances are, your artist is also a bit hunched over and would welcome a chance to bend in the opposite direction.
A word of caution: Don’t take breaks that are longer than 5-10 minutes if you can help it. Your body will start to think that the session is over, and the longer you wait between tattooing, the harder it is for your system to keep producing endorphins. I have found it particularly hard to get back in the mood for tattooing when I and my artist took breaks that were about 30-45 minutes. It really hurt a lot more! So I tell my clients to be quick with that bathroom break or smoke break so that they won’t have a hard time continuing.
Once the tattoo procedure has been declared complete, you will get a chance to take a look at it and give it the final nod of approval. You will get cleaned with soapy water, and can look in the mirror to see how your tattoo looks.
You tattoo artist may be watching you in the mirror. Lots of people think this is strange, until I tell them what I am doing.
We tattoo artists like to have the chance to see the tattoo we just did from far away. Remember, we just spent 10 minutes to 7 hours of the tattoo process looking at it from about 12” away. Getting some perspective lets us have a final chance to see if there is anything we missed or would like to enhance.
Looking at a reflected version of the tattoo is an opportunity for us to notice anything that we’d like to accentuate. Sometimes after declaring the tattoo procedure “done”, I will see something in the mirror while the client is looking at the tattoo, and ask if they don’t mind if I just add a little more blue, or if I can thicken up a line that I missed.
Every time this has happened, we ended up with an even better, more gorgeous tattoo. So don’t worry that your artist is creepy and checking you out in the mirror. They are probably examining their handiwork to make sure you get the best tattoo possible!
At the end of the session, everything that got used during the tattoo process (except for the machines and non-disposable tubes) will be thrown away. If kept, tubes will be scrubbed, disinfected, run through an ultrasonic, and then autoclaved to sterilize them before being used again. The machines will be disinfected, and if they are pneumatic (my favorite machines!), they can be autoclaved and sterilized as well!
But before the artist starts breaking down her tattoo station, she will talk to you about how to take care of your tattoo. A&D ointment, or some other thin salve such as Tattoo Goo will be applied to the tattoo, and a bandage will be applied.
It’s important that you don’t remove the bandage before you get home. The bandage is an important part of the tattoo process, and we put it on you to protect you on your journey home. A tattoo is a giant flesh wound, when you get right down to it. So keep it covered for an hour or two like you are instructed, and ensure your healthy and happy healing.
PS – A quick disclaimer. What you just read did NOT quality you to be a tattoo artist. Understanding the tattoo process does not make you an expert. Do not attempt to tattoo yourself or tattoo others armed with only the knowledge that you can glean from the internet. It’s a quick way to hurt yourself and those you love. Just say no.