Tattoos definitely play a huge role in the metal community. It’s rare to come across a metalhead that doesn’t have something or other carved proudly into their skin.
Although tattoos are pretty mainstream now, they certainly weren’t always, and the art form went along well with the rebellious and “devil-may-care” attitude of the metal community. Even now, staunchly-posed band photos of heavily tattooed musicians are the norm for album art, and you’ll often meet fellow music lovers at the tattoo parlour.
Tattoos – and the process of tattooing – mean different things to different people. For some people, their designs are deeply personal – memorials to dead loved ones, symbols of love or friendship, spiritual sigils and markers of important events in life. Others like to choose tattoos to honour artists who are influential to them – a raven inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, or the artwork from an Iron Maiden album. Others just like to choose designs that look cool. All reasons are equally valid.
If you’re thinking of getting your first tattoo, this article will have some info that will hopefully demystify the process a bit and help you to ensure you choose something you won’t forget.
Research Your Parlour
Anyone writing a tattoo article will tell you to take the time to get the design right, but to me, it’s even more important to find the right artist/parlour. If someone is going to jab needles into my skin, I’m damn well going to feel comfortable in their presence.
What makes you comfortable is going to vary depending on your person, but at the very least the parlour should be clean, the tattooing space should be separated from the public area, and they should have notices about their practices and aftercare for you to study.
Talk to friends who’ve been tattooed about which parlours they visited and which they recommend. Pay special attention to the recommendations of friends who have tattoos in a style you like. Each artist has a different style, so it pays to find someone who’s just as passionate about your chosen artwork as you are. Then, once you’ve collected some recommendations, research the parlours and artists online – look for reviews, galleries and mentions of awards or guest spots.
Finally, go in to the store for an appointment. Meet, shake hands, and make sure you like each other and you feel comfortable with their demeanour and work.
Don’t go to a place just because it’s cheap or a dude needs someone to practice on. This shit is ON YOUR SKIN PERMANENTLY. This is not a situation where you want to cut corners.
Designing Your Tattoo
Of course, you can have whatever design you want on your tattoo. That prospect is both freeing and daunting. If you can have anything, where do you possibly begin?
If you’re like me, you probably have been thinking about your designs for some time. You might have a fair idea of exactly what you want, even if you can’t draw it yourself. You don’t have to bring a picture to the artist – if they ARE an artist in the true sense, they will be able to draw you something you love. Some people suggest writing a list of lots of different things you love – artists, songs, artworks, poems, imagery, historical eras, etc. Keep going until you have about 50-100 ideas. Somewhere in that list your future tattoo lurks.
My most recent tattoo I took to Jamie at Black Crow with a big descriptive list: a Sherlock Holmes bust in an elaborate frame with the quote “the game is afoot” somewhere, and a dinosaur skull worked in. He took my ideas – and a few examples of cameo tattoos I found online – and came up with something awesome.
If you want a tattoo to represent your love of music, look at album art from some of your favourite bands – there are tons of epic images that would make amazing tattoos. Many metalheads I know also have scenes from history and myth – images of old occult woodcuts and Norse mythology are popular, such as Thor’s Hammer and runic messages.
Look at tattoos online and tattoo magazines for inspiration. You’ll begin to notice different styles and popular themes, and seeing what others have can help you narrow down your ideas.
One of the things I always notice about tattoos is that where you place them is as vital to the design as what it actually looks like. I’m a bit Ancient Egypt mad – what with being an archaeologist in my pre-blogging life and all – but I struggled for five years to think of an Egyptian tattoo design I really liked. The problem with Egyptian drawings is that they’re very linear, requiring 2-dimensional figures walking in straight lines, sitting and carrying straight-sided objects. On the contours of the human body I find they look out of place, and especially on the arms, which is where I knew I wanted mine done.
Many people solve this problem by having certain Egyptian artifacts – such as the mask of Tutankamun – tattooed in high detail, which also wasn’t what I wanted. Finally, I saw someone in a picture with an Eye of Horus tattoo, and I realised that was it, that was what I wanted. The Eye of Horus as a symbol also perfectly represents me – it being a magical eye that the god Thoth fashioned for Horus after his real eye was stolen by his brother Seth. The eye offers protection and power to the wearer. On the left side, it is also associated with artists and scribes. In hieroglyphs, the eye represents the verb “to make/do”. I got this tattoo to mark my journey to Egypt – a trip I’d been wanting to take since I was about 7 years old – and all the things that represented to me.
When thinking about your first tattoo, I recommend starting with something small – it can be daunting to start a huge sleeve piece when you don’t know anything about the process. Until you’ve been tattooed you have no concept of what the sensation feels like (a little like a cat scratching you repeatedly). If the only tattoo you want right now is a huge piece, start by finishing one small element first so you get used to the process. This also helps you to budget for a larger-scale piece.
Never take a picture of someone else’s tattoo to an artist and ask them to copy it exactly. It’s considered extremely rude within the tattoo community and most tattooists won’t take on the work. Tattoo artists each have their own unique styles. They are artists – their job isn’t just to copy art onto your body. It can be good, however, to look at other tattoo designs for inspiration.
Words, Names and Spelling
Think twice about proper names – whether this is a person, a brand, or a band. For about four years, between the ages of 16-22, I really, REALLY wanted a Metallica logo tattoo. I am eternally gratefully I never got that tattoo. You never know when you’re going to break up, or a band you like is going to completely sell out.
Instead of a name, think of a symbol that represents that person or band – some album art, or an image associated with a fond memory – my husband has our wedding ring tattooed, which I think is way cooler than my name, and is able to represent that era of his life even if we did end up parting ways (not that that is gonna happen).
Check the spelling! – don’t just rely on your own eyes – run the design past someone else with keen eyes and decent grammar. If your tattoo is in another language, check with someone who speaks that language, even if you speak it yourself. (My husband has words in Anglo-Saxon – he researched and translated the phrase, and took it to his medieval professor to check). I’ve seen many a beautiful tattoo ruined by a spelling mistake. Don’t expect your artist to pick these up – they are usually more interested in the visual aspect than reading and writing. When my artist sent me a mock-up of my design, he’d written “The game is a foot” in the banner. How would he know it was meant to be afoot? Who uses afoot in everyday conversation? The dude is an amazing artist, but he’s not a wordsmith.
Once again, CHECK THE SPELLING, or you will cry.)
“Wear” Your Tattoo
I like to overthink things, especially things that leave a permanent mark on your skin or your life. I pretend to “wear” a tattoo for a couple of years before I actually get it. By this, I mean, I regularly check in with myself, look down at the part of my body I plan to get tattooed, and ask myself if I’m still happy with the design concept, the placement, and the actual idea of having a tattoo. This is how I eventually talked myself out of the Metallica tattoo.
It is probably best not to get a tattoo on a whim. Everyone I know who has had a tattoo while drunk, or just walked past a parlour one day and though, “Oh, I’ll see what I can get!” has regretted their decision. Your tattoo is a work of art you wear on your body – treat the process of choosing that artwork with a degree of consideration and respect.
Getting Tattooed for the First Time
If your tattoo is going to be under clothing (such as a chest or back piece, wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothes.
Eat a hearty meal before you go in to get your tattoo. This is important particularly for tiny people with low blood pressure, like me. Even if it doesn’t hurt too much, you never know when you feel faint, and eating well will help combat this.
Don’t be an idiot and skull ten rum shots before you go in. Alcohol thins your blood, so you will bleed more during the tattoo, which makes it more difficult for the ink to enter your skin – so your tattoo could end up pretty patchy and gross. Also, drunk people can be unpredictable and clumsy, meaning you’re putting the artist and the other patrons of the studio at risk. Parlours are not legally allowed to tattoo inebriated people, but some will, anyway. Don’t be a dumbarse.
The process is basically this:
1. You’ll finalise your design with your artist, book and appointment, bring your ID, and pay a deposit.
2. You show up for your appointment on time. Your artist will take you to a chair or table, depending on where on your body your tattoo will be drawn. The area to be tattooed will be cleaned (probably with rubbing alcohol) and shaved (with a new razor that will be disposed of afterward).
3. Your design will be inserted into a thermal-fax machine, which transfers the design on to a stencil. Before the invention of this machine, artists would trace the design on to the stencil by hand, which could take hours for a complex design. The artist wets your skin, then applies the stencil, and when he/she pulls the paper away, you’re left with an outline of your future tattoo on your skin.
4. Check your design in the mirror and make sure it’s placed exactly how you want it. It’s easy for the artist to print another stencil and move it around now, but not so easy to move the tattoo later.
5. Make small talk with your artist while they prepare the tattoo machine. The inks and needles come out of their sterile packages and are placed in the machine. Your artist should be wearing latex gloves for this. They might also apply an ointment to the transfer to help the needle slide along your skin better.
6. Now it’s time for the first line! That didn’t hurt that much, did it? Don’t hold your breath – people who pass out during tattoos usually do so because they are panicking, not because it’s particularly painful.
7. Sit still, chatter away, and watch your tattoo take shape before your eyes! The artist tackles the linework first – once this is done, they don’t have to worry about following the transfer, and will switch to adding colour and shading – maybe even using different needles (called magnums).
8. When the tattoo is finished, your artist may ask for a photo for their portfolio – you don’t have to let them, but it’s a polite thing to do. Then, depending on which school of thought your artist comes from, your tattoo may be wrapped. Essentially, your tattoo is a wound – and like a wound, it needs to be dressed and bandaged so no bacteria can get in. However, new studies are suggesting that wrapping tattoos actually hampers healing, rather than accelerating it. Listen to your gut and your tattoo artist’s advice.
9. Your artist will give you aftercare instructions, which you should follow religiously. This will ensure your tattoo heals without infection (remember, it’s a wound!) and will look badass for the rest of your life.
10. Check out your awesome new tattoo!
Listen to your tattoo artist’s instructions about after care.
Different artists endorse different aftercare products and have different ideas about procedure, but most details remain the same.
A tattoo will take between 7-14 days to heal, although healing below the surface of the skin continues for up to a month. So it pays to listen carefully and follow the instructions exactly to ensure your tattoo heals properly.
If your tattoo has been wrapped with plastic wrap (common in areas that are difficult to wrap), remove up after an hour or two. You don’t want to leave this on too long, as it causes the tattoo to remain moist with blood and fluids, hampering healing.
You’ll need to apply some kind of anti-bacterial cream to the area a couple of times daily. I’ve always been told to use Bepathum, but this will differ according to the studio you use. Wash your tattoo with water to get all the dried blood and gunk off – pad it, don’t scrub it with anything. Don’t use water that’s too hot and don’t beat the water over your tattoo. Also, no swimming or going out in the sun.
Your tattoo will itch like crazy at some point during the healing process. Resist the urge to scratch! Many artists will recommend slapping your tattoo to help reduce the itchiness, but I just grit my teeth and bear it.
Don’t pick at it!
Inked Magazine – popular tattoo culture magazine.
Skin Deep – another popular tattoo magazine, based in the UK.
Tattoo.com – tattoo design gallery. (People upload their designs – it’s a great place to look for inspiration.
Tattoo Do – Another great tattoo website with tons of art and profiles of artists.
The Word Made Flesh – my favourite tattoo blog, dedicated to literary tattoos.
Heavy Metal Tattoo – a blog about metal-inspired tattoos. Tons of inspiration! And also, from Buzzfeed, 17 Most Insane Best-Worst Metal Tattoos (explaining better than I ever could why you need to choose a proper artist and DOUBLE-CHECK THE SPELLING).
And that’s it. Now you have a shiny new tattoo. How awesome is that?
Sing out in the comments if you love tattoos or are thinking of getting one soon. What have you got? What are you getting? Who do you recommend? I want to know!
The Sunken, my dark fantasy novel, is now available on Amazon.
Want updates on the blog and when new books are coming out? Want free books before they hit the market? Sign up for the mailing list.