When Your Teen Wants A Tattoo

by Kimberly Zapata
Originally Published: 
When Your Teen Wants A Tattoo: Mom and son sitting against wall
Scary Mommy and Heide Benser/Getty

I knew I wanted a tattoo when I was 15 years old. I cannot tell you why, at least not specifically; however, I do know the colorful art form appealed to me. I found painted skin strong and sexy. I loved that it could tell a story. The notion also seemed empowering. It was an act of rebellion. A mark of adulthood. A rite of passage.

My mother, of course, disagreed. She refused to discuss the matter (or even entertain the idea) and brushed me and my tattoo dreams aside. “When you’re 18,” she said, “you can do what you want.” And I did.

I skipped school on March 13, 2002 and headed to a nearby tattoo parlor.

Unfortunately, I was very uneducated about tattoos. I didn’t know what I was looking for, or what to expect. I flipped through the wall of flash images quickly and carelessly, looking for something which spoke to me and my heart, but I quickly became flustered and overwhelmed. I thought the artists were judging me for my age and indecisiveness. I could feel my boyfriend’s eyes on me and their eyes on me and so I pointed to the first image I saw: a small celtic cross wrapped in a rose.

The good news is I’m Irish. Well, I’m a quarter Irish. The bad news is I’m not religious… at all. Yet I rationalized the image nonetheless. It was a symbol of life and of faith — which I had. But had I known more about the process, I would have chosen both the shop and image differently.

Here’s everything teenagers and their parents need to know about tattoos.

1. Think about why you want a tattoo (and what you want).

It may be hard to pinpoint the “why.” Many want tattoos for aesthetic reasons — and only aesthetic reasons — and that’s okay. Not every tattoo will tell a story. However, since a tattoo is a permanent modification, you should do some soul searching before you head to the shop.

Figure out what you want, and where you want it. Bring pictures for your artist, and steer clear of trends. (Trust me. Post Malone may be popular now, but you’ll likely regret recreating one of his signature face tattoos.)

2. Make a pros and cons list, particularly if you are looking to get a controversial message or image and/or a tattoo in a highly visible spot.

Why do you want this tattoo? What does the imagery mean and/or convey? Could a tattoo affect your future career opportunities — and, if so, is there somewhere else you can place it? It seems silly but a little foresight can go a long way.

3. Learn how tattoos work.

Tattoos are popular, but most do not understand how the process works. I mean, there is a needle and ink, but how the tattoo stays in the skin is something of a mystery. However, if you are going to get a tattoo, you should know the basics. “Tattoos are created when ink is punched into the skin with several needles moving up and down,” Tyson Weed, the owner of Sentient Tattoo Collective, told Scary Mommy. “The tattoo artist holds the tattoo machine and guides the needles into the skin. The artist dips the needles into the ink. The ink is drawn into a reservoir tube (similar to that of a calligraphy pen) then travels down the needles to the end where the ink is then ‘punched’ into the skin. There are seven layers to the skin, and tattoos float between three and four layers deep.”

4. Learn how to select a quality artist — and reputable shop.

Tattooing is (unfortunately) an underregulated industry, at least in most states. For that reason, Weed suggests visiting potential shops before scheduling your tattoo appointment. “I recommend visiting a shop for a consultation first to get a feel for the vibe and to see the cleanliness level first-hand,” Weed said. “Floors should be swept and mopped daily, and tattoo artists should be wearing gloves and using protective barriers on equipment. Also, do not be afraid to ask for proof of any certifications, like blood-borne pathogens.”

As for artist selection, you can and should do as much research as possible.

“Many tattoo artists specialize in a specific style of tattooing, so if you are looking for a traditional tattoo with bold lines and bright colors, then consider choosing an artist that specializes in that style,” Weed said. “Reading online reviews can also help.”

5. Understand there are health risks.

While selecting an experienced artist and clean, well-kept shop will minimize your health risks, any time the skin is cut or pierced, an infection can occur. Allergic reactions are also possible. Make sure your artist is blood-borne pathogens trained and that the shop does not reuse needles. If you have any allergies, discuss them with your artist ahead of time, and never, ever get a tattoo in someone’s house or at a “tattoo party.” While surfaces may be cleaned, they are not sterile.

6. Realize that while your parent or guardian may tell you to wait until you are 18, they have your best interest at heart. And, if you are a parent, try to be open and understanding about alternative forms of self-love and expression.

You may not agree on the design or see eye-to-eye at all, but being open and honest with one another can improve your relationship and reduce your health risks (because you won’t be sneaking into unclean and unregulated shops).

7. Don’t shop around for the “best price.” Cheap tattoos are cheap for a reason.

Everyone wants a “good deal,” but when it comes to tattooing and body modification, less isn’t more. In fact, if a price sounds too good to be true, it probably is–i.e. your “artist” may not be using single-use needles, quality ink, and/or their studio may not meet cleanliness standards. They also may not be properly trained or experienced.

Whether you like it or not, your teen may (eventually) get a tattoo. The more information they (and you) have, the better.

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