You don’t have to look far in a crowd to see a tattoo today. Among people 18 to 30 years old, one person in four is inked. In the next few years, 40% of this age group likely will be. Once a guy thing, now up to 65% of those with tats are women. Thinking of a tattoo for yourself? Find out why people get them, the health risks involved, and your options if you change your mind.

When I first started tattooing, it almost cost me my career because I was not shown the proper way of doing things. Here’s what I learned.

No Experience, No Problem!

There are quite a few ways to try to break into the tattoo industry, but only a few of these ways will guide you down the proper road. I will admit that when I first started tattooing, I was not shown the proper way of doing things and it almost cost me my career.

All roads on the path to becoming a successful and respected tattoo artist start with the very first step: the apprenticeship. And, like many other things in this world, taking that first step is not always easy. A tattoo artist will consider many things when choosing an apprentice and, while it’s not so simple as asking a bunch of yes or no questions on a predetermined list, there are a few questions they will always ask a potential apprentice.

Types: Amateur Tattoos

Anybody can jab ink, charcoal, or ashes under the skin with a pin. These home-made tats often aren’t as arty as those done by pros. Because such tattoos are often done under unclean conditions, they also have a much higher risk of infection.

Types: Cultural Tattoos

Different cultures have tattoo* traditions. These tats may look a certain way or have a special purpose. They might be done for rituals or as a mark of beauty, for example.

Types: Professional Tattoos

These tattoos are applied by registered artists using a tattoo machine. That’s the term many artists prefer to “tattoo gun.”

Types: Cosmetic Tattoos

Tattoos aren’t always designs or messages. Sometimes they’re used as “permanent” make-up. People have tattooed eye and lip liner, lipstick, blush, eyebrows, or even fake hair. Because tattoos fade over time, the inking has to be repeated to keep colors fresh.

Types: Medical Tattoos

Some people get inked for medical reasons. Someone with a chronic disease like diabetes may use a tattoo* to alert health care workers in case of an emergency. If you’re getting radiation therapy more than once, the doctors may use a tattoo to mark the site. After surgery to rebuild a breast, a tattoo* may be used for the nipple.

Why Get a Tattoo?

Most people get a tattoo for one of two reasons. They want to express themselves and show they’re unique. Or they want to show they belong to a group. Take your time to settle on a design. Also think about where you want it, and who will see it.

Exterior of Pair O'Dice Tattoo Parlor.

Safe Tattooing: Choosing a Studio

Getting a permanent tattoo requires breaking the skin and having contact with blood and body fluids. Above all, make sure the studio is as clean as a doctor’s office. (Hint: Check the bathroom.) Make sure the artist’s business license is up to date. Tattooing should be done in a separate area. It should have a clean, hard surface and no random items that add unwanted germs to the work area.

Close Up of tattoo gun and ink.

Safe Tattooing Tips

  • Don’t drink alcohol or take drugs (especially aspirin) the night before or while getting a tattoo.
  • Don’t get a tattoo if you’re sick.
  • Make sure all needles come from sterile, one-use packages.
  • See that the studio has machines to kill the germs on the instruments after each use.
  • Make sure the artist washes his or her hands and puts on sterile gloves. Many have to be trained in how to stop illnesses spread by blood.
  • Be sure the work area is clean.
  • Get details of everything used in your tattoo*, including color, sometimes called pigment, maker’s name, and lot number.
  • Closely follow all advice on healing. You may be told to use a germ-fighting ointment, for example.
Photo of MRSA infected tattoo.

Tattoo Risks: Infection

Any type of tattoo involves health risks. The worst is a very dangerous infection, like HIV or hepatitis C, from unclean needles. You could also get MRSA or impetigo, which are staph infections, or cellulitis, a deep skin infection. Another danger is impure ink that has mold or bacteria. This can lead to problems with the eyes, lungs, and other organs.

Allergic hypersensitivity to cosmetic tattoo on lips.

Tattoo Risks: Allergic Reaction

Some people are allergic to tattoo inks. This happens most with reds. The woman in this picture developed an allergic reaction to the red used in her cosmetic lipstick tattoo. A bad reaction to dyes or metals used can injure tissue or cause swelling or a rash.

Tattoo on forearm before and after removal therapy.

Tattoo Removal

Tired of your tat? You can have it removed. Results can be good, and look best if the tattoo was done only in black. Don’t expect skin to look the same as before you got inked.

Dermabrasion and laser tattoo removal.

Tattoo Removal Techniques

There are three basic ways to lose a look. The tattoed skin can be cut away, rubbed away (dermabrasion), or removed with lasers. Most doctors prefer to use lasers. That’s how the tattoo shown here was removed. The scar below it was left from dermabrasion removal. Some color inks are harder to remove than others and repeated visits are required. Your tattoo* may never be 100% gone. DON’T use a do-it-yourself tattoo removal product. These products contain acids and can cause harmful skin reactions. It’s best to see a doctor, not a tattoo* artist, for tattoo removal.

Tissue whitening after laser tattoo removal.

Tattoo Removal: What To Expect

Different lasers are used on different tattoo colors to break down the pigment into small bits that go away. Right after treatment, the skin under the tattoo may whiten. More normal skin color usually appears over time.

Exuberant blister in red tattoo pigment.

Tattoo Removal Risks: Allergic Reactions

As lasers break down tattoo pigments, you could have an allergic reaction. In the heart tattoo* shown here, several different laser treatments caused blisters. These blisters got better with routine skin care.

Scar after treatment with Q-switched ruby laser.

Tattoo Removal Risks: Scarring

Not every tattoo* comes off perfectly. This picture shows how a laser tattoo removal left a scar.

Tense Bullae of infected henna tattoo.Even Temporary Tattoos Have Risks

You can avoid a forever tattoo* by using short-term, henna-based ink painted on the skin. Be careful, though. As this picture shows, even these tattoos can cause allergic reactions. Red-brown vegetable henna is approved by the FDA only for hair color, not for skin designs.Stay away from “black henna” or “blue henna” tattoos. The color may come from coal tar, which often causes severe allergic reactions.