September 28, 2011

Tattoos have been used in many cultures to identify beauty, position or status, and worth. They mark rites of passage, such as a life cycle event (marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, death), change in an individual’s social position, the progression from childhood to puberty, and the initiation into social and different family groups. For instance, both men and women of the Maori tribe of New Zealand are tattooed beginning at puberty. Individuals may also choose to have tattoos done for artistic, spiritual, or other personal reasons. There are similarities between the tattoos of men and women but the tattoos of the female Moko were generally confined to the chin and lips and were designed to attract a mate. It was thought that having a full set of very blue lips was the ultimate in beauty.

A tattoo is a permanent coloration of the second layer of skin (dermis) that is produced by puncturing the skin and inserting indelible inks of a chosen color in a selected pattern or design. The designs that are favored have changed over time and may differ depending upon the particular social context. For instance, some individuals who are members of the armed services prefer patriotic or military tattoos. Other individuals may wish to have the names of their loved ones tattooed on their bodies, while still others use tattoos to memorialize specific events or experiences. Still others wish to use tattoos to have permanent makeup and have their eyebrows and their eyeliner done permanently.

In deciding whether or not to have a tattoo done, it is important to remember that a tattoo remains with you permanently. Decide ahead of time how public you wish to be about your tattoo; some people want the world to see their tattoos, while others prefer to have them done in a more private area of their bodies so that they choose who can see it and when. Although it is possible to have a tattoo removed, this procedure is timely and can be costly. The following guidelines may be helpful in selecting a tattooist.

  1. Make sure that the establishment is licensed if the state in which it is located requires that tattooists be licensed.
  2. Check the cleanliness of the tattoo parlor.
  3. Make sure that the tattooist is using a technique for tattooing that minimizes the possibility of any type of infection. It is important that he or she uses new needles and new ink for each client; all equipment should be “single use.” Used ink from one client should not be poured back into a larger container. Ink should not be poured into a cap that has been used to hold the ink for someone else’s tattoo. New ink should be used in a new disposable container for each client. The tattoo artist should be wearing gloves while tattooing and should change his or her gloves for each client. A failure to follow proper procedures could result in the transmission of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, bacterial infections, and other blood-borne diseases.
  4. Make sure that the tattooist is willing to make accommodations for your ability to tolerate the pain associated with the tattoo procedure. For instance, some individuals find it difficult to sit for a tattoo for more than 20 minutes due to their pain threshold. The tattoo artist should be willing to schedule more sessions of smaller length to accommodate this.
  5. You should feel comfortable with the tattoo artist. Make sure that he or she understands what you want. Feel free to ask to see photographs of his or her work to make sure that the artist’s style matches yours.
  6. Many tattoo artists charge from $125 to $250 an hour, depending upon their skill and experience and the complexity of the design that you are requesting. Do not choose a tattooist on the basis of price. A “bargain” may be no bargain if the tattoo artist does not follow appropriate infection control procedures or does not have the requisite skill and experience to provide the design requested.

After receiving a tattoo, it is important that it receive the requisite care. These guidelines are often used to care for a tattoo.

  1. After receiving the tattoo, the tattooist will often apply an ointment and bandage. Leave the bandage on for the instructed period of time, which may range from 2 or 3 hours to up to 12 hours.
  2. Remove the bandage carefully. If it sticks to the skin, use warm water to gently remove it.
  3. Carefully rinse off any dried blood from the tattoo. (Some, but not all, individuals may have some bleeding when they first get the tattoo.)
  4. Do not put a new bandage on the tattoo.
  5. For up to a few days, the tattooed area will feel as if you have a bad sunburn. Do not use sunburn products on your skin.
  6. Wear loose clothing in the area of the tattoo for at least a few days in order to avoid irritating the area. Women who are tattooed near the breast area may choose not to wear a bra for a few days or may use a bra that does not have an underwire and is made from a stretchy fabric.
  7. Do not use alcohol, Vaseline, or petroleum jelly on the tattoo.
  8. For 1 week, apply Neosporin or a similar cream to the tattoo two or three times a day.
  9. Avoid strenuous exercise for at least 2 weeks in order to allow the skin to heal.
  10. Do not expose the tattooed area to chlorine (as in swimming pools) or the sun for 2 weeks.
  11. Do not soak in a sauna, steambath, or bathtub for at least 1 week to reduce the risk of any type of infection.
  12. After the first week, use a good body lotion on the tattoo to keep it moist.
  13. In a period of 1-2 weeks, the skin on the tattoo will become dry and somewhat harder and will fall off. This is normal. During this time, it is likely that your tattoo will itch a great deal. Do not scratch or pick at the tattoo or pull off the drying/flaking skin. Use the lotion to ameliorate the itching.

See Also: Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, Hepatitis

Suggested Reading

  • Krakow, A. (1994). The total tattoo book. New York: Warner Books. Schiffmacher, H., & Riemschneider, B. (1996). 1000 tattoos. Cologne: Taschen.



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