Once associated primarily with seamen and convicted criminals, the Western world's relationship with tattoos has come a long way over the past century. While some negative stigma remains, we can't imagine that'll be the case for much longer: Tattoos are arguably more popular — and more trendy — than ever.
Nevertheless, when it comes to body art, people have questions. How young is too young to get your first tattoo? Do they hurt? How do you decide what to get? How do you keep your ink from fading... and how do you protect it from the sun? I spoke to two of Berlin's coolest female tattoo experts to get some answers to everyone's most burning questions, once and for all.
Berlin-based photographer Nora Tabel has been getting tattooed for years. The stars on her face, as well as her hand tattoos, are instant conversation starters, but she has a variety of other pieces of ink, from colourful old-school tattoos to bright new creations. Tabel also just started to cover up some of her older tattoos. If anyone knows what it's like to walk through life as a work of art, it's her.
Which tattoos are the most painful?
Nora Tabel: "Let's face it: Having ink punched in your skin always hurts, but there are spots that are more crappy than others. Finger tattoos, for example — they rank high in our 'freaking painful chart' and just feel extra awful. Another bad one is when a sharp-edged needle digs into the soft skin on your stomach. That's not nice at all. Outlines are always bad, too: The thicker the needle, the nastier the pain.
Physically, it was challenging to get my chest tattoo covered up. I could hardly breathe, that’s how much pain I was in. So, you should think your decisions through very carefully and choose a motif that's timeless and the right thing for you, because cover-ups hurt ten times more than a regular tattoo."
What’s the perfect first tattoo?
Tabel: "Your name in a heart. Love yourself, because nothing is more important than that. Nothing."
Laura Lesser: "There are as many answers as people in the world. Some general tips: If you haven’t mastered the art of dealing with pain, I recommend starting with a small tattoo in a less sensitive place. Long tattoo sessions can be a painful challenge. If you think you can handle it because you’ve been waxing your armpits like a warrior, endured the migraines, headaches, and back pains that come with a painful period, or survived giving birth to a child, you might be good to go for a bigger motif. I tend to tell younger clients to stay away from geometric forms or photorealistic portraits because your body will go through hormonal changes, and shift in shape and size. This will be less obvious when it comes to organically designed tattoos and more obvious when the perfect circle is not so perfect anymore.
If you don’t want to get a tattoo that you'll also see on every other person, just ask the tattoo artist for an honest opinion — they usually offer some great insight, and they know what’s trendy. I had many costumers coming to me wanting tattoos that were super fashionable and thus less unique and they didn’t even know. And let me tell you: They were quite thankful that I told them before I got the needle going. For a perfect 'first tattoo experience,' I recommend taking your time to look for the right tattoo artist. Ideally, you’ll find someone whose style suits your desired motif, who offers great counselling and patiently answers all your questions, someone who takes you and your wishes seriously and makes you feel like you’re in good hands. Man, I would have wanted that for my first tattoo."
What are the best sunscreens for protecting tattoos?
Tabel: "Organic and fair trade — without microplastics and carcinogenic substances."
Lesser: "The stronger the sunblock, the longer saturated shades will last, because the sun bleaches tattoos out. Sunscreen is necessary for tattoos, with one exception: Don't put chemicals on your tattoo if it hasn't healed yet. You should wear dark clothes and cover it up instead, and try to stay in the shade."
Have you ever found your tattoos to cause difficulties in your everyday life?
Tabel: "I had more issues in my rather stuffy hometown in the Rhineland than in colourful Berlin. No one gives a shit in the 'big B' (as Berlin is called by locals). Diversity and different looks define the townscape just as much as the dog poop on the sidewalks. In my hometown, on the other hand, people looked at me weirdly — sometimes they even insulted me. I mean, it’s really none of anyone else’s business how my body looks."
Have your tattoos ever been a problem when it comes to finding jobs?
Tabel: "No. I got every job that I wanted. Be it as an employee or self-employed, my tattoos have never stood in my way. On the contrary, they are often an icebreaker and the beginning of an exciting conversation. I should probably add that I never wanted to work for the police or a corporate financial institution. That probably would've been different."
What's the best age to get your first tattoo?
Tabel: "I got my first tattoo at the age of 15, and I just had it covered up. Anyway, I'm just covering some of my old tattoos up because they don’t fit my new tattoos. I think right now is the best time to get a tattoo! Thanks to the internet, you can find great tattoo artists who make dreams come true with their needles and create art that will still be dope in twenty years. Your age doesn’t really matter at that point. However, I’m still trying to forbid my son to get tattoos, but he doesn’t listen anyway."
Lesser: "That can be 18 or even 80. The important thing is that it feels like the right age for you. If you hesitate, you might want to wait; if you feel like you’re ready at the age of 18, your 40-year-old self might have to buckle up and deal with the decisions of your younger self. That’s just my attitude to life in general. And that's also something that tattoos can teach you: to embrace who you are, inside and out, without taking yourself too seriously."
When do you have to touch up your tattoo?
Lesser: "Getting a touchup is an option, but you can only do it so often. It’s normal that a tattoo fades and ages. It takes four to six weeks until a tattoo is healed, and sometimes tattoo artists ask you to come in for a follow-up appointment to take a final look and prevent unwanted contingencies. Sometimes you’re not a hundred percent happy with how your tattoo turned out, because there are inconsistent lines or larger areas that are uneven. Those would be good reasons to get a tattoo redone. Most tattoo artist do those corrections for free, unless we’re talking about finger or mouth tattoos, which are predestined for imperfection. In those cases you might be charged extra for corrections and follow-ups.
It’s really important to stick to the instructions your tattoo artist gives you on how to take care of your tattoo during the healing process. Different tattoos need different care, and the final look can be strongly impacted by the healing process. A professional tattoo artist will be able to tell if you followed the instructions for the aftercare and might not be open to redoing it if you didn’t."
How much do tattoos cost?
Lesser: "Usually, the tattoo artist estimates the price of your tattoo at an hourly rate and the estimated time they'll spend with you. You can get tattoos in all price ranges: crazy expensive ones from a famous tattoo artist that makes you wait for an appointment for years, or a cheap one on a wild night out that could be covered up for a high price or loved for its imperfection and sentimental value. (Though if you're going for the latter, please make sure you keep everything sanitary.)
Between these two extremes, the starting price for tattoos varies by location and tattoo studio. Small tattoos may seem relatively expensive; however, a tattoo artist needs to provide the same perfectly sanitary station for a small dot as he would for a large back tattoo. That costs a lot of time and material. So-called 'customs,' which are designed for the customer, usually cost more than flash tattoos, which are finished motifs that the tattoo artist has in the studio and wants to work on. If you want to save money and do it right, you should check out the 'Flash Days' offered by many studios, when you can choose from a pool of discounted designs by great tattoo artists and get it done right away."