If someone from the future came to me when I was 18 and told me that when I was 26, I would have 57 tattoos—25 of which would be on my hands—I wouldn’t have believed them.
Ever since I could remember, I had always wanted one tattoo, maybe two. I was always worried about people perceiving me as this crazy person with a ton of tattoos or not taking me seriously professionally. I grew up in a somewhat aesthetically conservative family as well – nobody had any tattoos or piercings other than their single earlobe piercings. I also didn’t see a lot of visibly tattooed Asian people in the visual media I consumed growing up, just the occasional heavily tattooed white male actor in a film every once in a while. Because of my fear of how people–especially my family–would perceive me, I didn’t end up going under the needle until I was 22.
I was fresh out of undergrad when I got my first tattoo; a crow with magnolias and blossoms on my shoulder. I had planned it for over a year, and I was enamored with both the tattoo and the adrenaline rush of getting it. By the time I was out the door of the shop, I was already planning my next one.
In all of my planning for my first tattoo, something I didn’t plan for was how much I would love getting tattooed. Every time I got a new tattoo, I felt more “me” and closer to being the person I wanted to be than I had ever felt in my life. To go out of my way and make a deliberate choice about changing my body made me learn to love and trust myself in the moment, and totally redefined my sense of bodily autonomy. It is so empowering to have direct control over what happens to my body and how I get to present myself in society. I have gotten tattoos as adornment, and I have also gotten tattoos as self-care to remind myself of my power and agency as a person of color.
I have tattoos that mean very much to me and tattoos that mean very little to me, and I love them all the same. I don’t have any tattoo regrets (yet!) but I do wish I could have told myself a few important things at the outset of my body art journey.
Find an artist you trust.
The most important thing to me about getting a tattoo is feeling safe and at ease with the person tattooing you. After all, it’s your body, and it’s going to be there for the rest of your life (unless you choose to get it removed later on). Honest, open communication about how you feel about the scale, placement, and color of the design will help ensure that you feel good about it in the years to come. No matter how talented an artist is, the most important thing is for you to feel heard and validated. Tattooing and receiving a tattoo is incredibly intimate––it’s an encounter that literally marks you forever.
I have only backed out of getting a tattoo once. At the consultation when I met the artist, I found out she was a white woman with dreadlocks. As a person of color, it made me feel really uneasy. I didn’t feel like she had the racial and cultural sensitivity I needed her to have in order for me to trust her with my body as a person of color. So I backed out and waited for a long time for someone else to do that piece. I was bummed in the moment, but in hindsight now I’m so glad I waited to work with someone who I felt really saw my humanity as a person of color.
Go to your appointment solo.
As much as you want to share the experience of getting tattooed with someone you love, I have found that it’s better for me and better in general not to bring a friend or loved one to the session. It’s difficult enough already to decide and commit to placing art on your body, but having the input of someone else other than you or your artist makes it even harder.
Tattoos are deeply personal adornments that you wear and have to look at every day. I think about this in the same way as going shopping with a friend – you likely both have different aesthetic tastes and sensibility. The perfect design and placement for you isn’t the same thing your friend would get for themselves. And you’re the one who has to live with it, not them. Show them afterward and celebrate it together.
Placement is everything.
This one is a no-brainer, but make sure that you love the design AND where you choose to place it on your body. Do you want people to see your tattoo? Do you want to have it be able to be easily hidden for work or your family? Keep those questions in mind when you make decisions about ink. I have my arms mostly covered from a neck wreath to my hands, and in the summertime when it’s hot and I’m living in tank tops, people sometimes stare at me on the street. I love my hand tattoos, but I deal with people asking me about my hands and my arms almost every time I go out in public. I’m mostly used to it now, but I do wish it were easier to blend in when I don’t feel like interacting with people.
Wait for the tattoo you really want to have.
You only have so much space on your body. Only put the things you love on it. It’s always better to wait and save up for a tattoo you really want but can’t afford to spend on it right away. It’s always better to wait until you can work with the artist you want to work with instead of getting something similar from another artist. Generally speaking, outside of a heavier coverup, you can only fill a spot once, so make it count. It’s so tempting to get something in the spur of the moment, but really committing to getting exactly what you wanted will keep you happier in the long term.
Don’t let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t put on your body. The only people you should listen to when you decide to get any tattoo, whether your first or your 58th, are you and your artist. Tattoos should be something you do for yourself and no one else, and the people who are in your life need to trust you and accept you as you are, and respect your bodily autonomy.
Getting a tattoo can be a very beautiful and empowering experience, and at the end of the day, it’s for you. It should always make you feel good about yourself and only you can define what that is for yourself. The most important relationship you will ever have is the one with yourself. You will always call the shots.