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The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word "tatu" which means "to mark something". The first known tattoo dates back 4,000 years B.C. to the body of a man found preserved in a glacier. Tattoos have been found on Egyptian and Nubian mummies, but they have also been seen as something other than pieces of art. Greeks also used them as a communication method among spies, and Romans were known to use tattoos to distinguish between their criminals and slaves (Lineberry, 2007).

Today, tattoos continue to serve a variety of purposes, most often to display artwork or to convey a message. As beautiful and intricate as many tattoos are, safety and cleanliness need to be the number one priority when choosing a tattoo artist and tattoo studio. Infection from tattoos is common and can become serious if not treated. Dirty needles can cause the transmission of bloodbourne disease such as Hepatitis B and C, but it is also important to be aware of certain dyes that can cause infections or allergic reactions

Making Decisions about Getting a Tattoo

There are many factors to think about when you are making your decision to get a tattoo. Some questions to ask yourself include:

  1. Why am I doing this?
  2. What does it mean to me?
  3. How will I feel if people see my body art?
  4. Does the placement of your tattoo coincide with your career goals?
  5. Will a tattoo impede your ability to succeed in certain careers? 
  6. Can you afford a high quality artist? Remember a “good tattoo is not cheap and a cheap tattoo is not good!”

How should I pick an artist?

There are many great tattoo artists all over the world, but finding one that is both safe and artistically talented may take a bit of work. The best way to find out if they are safe is to ask all of the questions below and take a good look at their studio.

You may want to begin your research by asking where acquaintances have gotten their tattoos, especially if you really like the work that you see. Look through publications that focus on tattoos for referrals or even attend occasional tattoo and body piercing conventions if you live in or near a large city. Use the Internet to find referrals (e.g., Yelp) and look at their art galleries online.

It is encouraged to visit several studios in your area and ask to see photographs of the artist's work so you are sure you will receive the quality of work you expect. Most often, the pictures will have been taken right after the work was completed, so redness and swelling are common. Despite this, there are clues you can pick up on from the artist’s past work.

Going to tattoo conventions/festivals is a common practice for seeing many tattoo artists' work at one location. Artists from all over the world attend these events and you may find someone that is the best at your request. It is not usually recommended that one get their tattoo during a convention due to the fact that many artists are very busy, charge more for their time, and may be distracted. However, you may find this the best way to get a tattoo from a world reknowned artist who only visits your country once a year or less!

What to Look for:

  1. Are the lines clean and smooth or broken and jagged?
  2. Do the lines meet up?
  3. Is the style of artwork similar to what you are looking for? (e.g., if you want a portrait make sure this is a specialty for the artist)

At The Studio

Make sure the shop is neat and clean. What you see in the front room is a good indication of what you will see elsewhere in the shop, but look in the other rooms just to make sure. Ask questions about the shop's safety procedures.

  1. What are they doing to ensure your health and well-being?
  2. Do they sterilize their equipment or use single service equipment?
  3. Do they have the artist’s permits on the walls and have they been updated?
  4. Are there separate rooms for sterilizing equipment and a clean restroom for customers?

The artists/shop owners should be willing and able to answer your questions. If you feel they are brushing your concerns aside or do not make you feel comfortable, leave and seek out a more professional shop that is willing to answer all of your questions.


What is single service equipment?

All equipment should be single service, meaning each needle and tube set is individually packaged, dated, sealed and sterilized. The artist should open a fresh set of needles and tubes in front of you. Any ointments, pigments, needles, gloves, razors, plastic trays or containers used in applying your new tattoo should be discarded after use. After the tattoo is applied, the artist will disinfect the work area on your skin with an EPA approved virucidal that will kill any surface bacteria or viruses3.

With the advent of many communicable diseases, some which can be fatal, it has become necessary to institute certain isolation and sterilization procedures in the tattoo process to assure the public that they will receive a safe, risk-free tattoo. Professional tattoo artists working with local, state and national health authorities have prepared the following advice:

  1. Always insist to see your tattoo artist remove a new needle & tube set-up from a sealed envelope immediately prior to the session
  2. Make sure that you see your tattoo artist pour a new ink supply into a new disposable container. These should only be used once.
  3. Make sure your artist puts on a new pair of disposable gloves before setting up tubes, needles and ink supplies
  4. Satisfy yourself that the shop furnishings & tattoo artist are clean & orderly in appearance.
  5. The cleaning process should be similar to what you would see in a medical facility. Sometimes you might notice that shops are cleaner and practice better infection control than clinics!!
  6. Ask about their experience & qualifications in the tattoo field If the tattoo artist is qualified professional, they will have no problem complying with standards above & beyond these simple guidelines. If the artist or studio does not appear up to these standards or if they become evasive when questioned, leave and find a more professional tattoo artist

Feel free to question the tattoo artist about any concerns that you have, including his or her sterilization procedures and isolation techniques. Take time to observe them at work because it will help you to feel more at ease with the entire process.

What to Expect

Getting your first tattoo should be an exciting and fun event as long as you are prepared for what will happen and how to be prepared. It is extremely important for you to be well rested and fed to keep your blood sugar high. It is not advisable to drink alcohol before getting tattooed because it causes severe dehydration and can cause you to bleed more, which will negatively impact the outcome of your tattoo.

A typical tattooing procedure starts with the artist washing his or her hands with germicidal soap, followed by disinfecting the area where the tattoo will be applied. The artist should then put on a pair of unused gloves while also providing you with an explanation of the sterilization procedure, which includes the single-use equipment. The new and unused needle will be attached to the tattoo machine for the artist to begin the outline of the image under your skin. After the initial outline is applied, a thicker needle will be applied and shading will begin. Tattoos often cause bleeding, so disposable sterile cloths are used to wipe up any bleeding. After the artist has completed the tattoo, they will clean the area and apply a fresh bandage.

There will be blood.

While bleeding is likely to happen, the amount of blood lost varies between people. Pain levels can also vary between individuals, but most find the pain to be tolerable even though uncomfortable. Often, first time receivers of tattoos are tense and worried, so it is recommended that you try to relax while going through the process because tensing will only increase your discomfort. Sometimes having a friend or loved one accompany you will help relieve tension and make the process easier.  

If you start feeling sick or as if you might faint, let your artist know. Taking a break from the tattooing process will not affect the outcome of your tattoo and can help a person to relax before finishing up the session. If you need to change position or stretch, go to the bathroom, sneeze or wiggle for any reason, let your artist know before you do it.

Your new tattoo will not look exactly as planned for a little while. After the artist finishes, the tattoo often gets a sheet of shiny skin overlaying it, causing the decorated area to scab over. Leave the scab alone and wait for it to heal. If you do pick your scab you may run the risk of infection or damage to your tattoo. The scab will come off gradually within the first week or two of getting it completed. While the tattoo heals, be careful not to touch it directly and keep it clean by using antibacterial soap. Any form of alcohol or peroxide cleaner can dry out the tattoo, so it is best to stick to soap and antibiotic ointments. Even after the tattoo has fully healed, it is still more likely to be damaged from direct sunlight, so it is encouraged to use SPF 30 on the tattoo when outside to protect your skin and potential fading of the tattoo.

Skin Reactions

It is imperative that you take care of your tattoo after application by cleaning and protecting it. It is common for skin infections like allergic reactions, scars called keloids and dermatitis to occur if improper care is used. If you already know of an existing skin condition, such as eczema, you may be more susceptible to flare-ups after the application of a tattoo.

For further questions, feel free to call or visit the Health Resource Center for more information or guidance. It may also be beneficial to visit your local health department to learn about any recent reports of unsafe tattoo salons. Be sure to do your research before choosing an artist, and keep the area as clean as possible!


Alliance of Professional Tattooists  (2010). Basic Guidelines for Getting a Tattoo. (2010. Retrieved from

Lineberry, C. (2007). Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History retrieved from

Nemours Foundation. (2009). Tattoos. Retrieved from