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By Sarah Borroum

If you’re going to spend two hundred bucks on that gorgeous piece of art tattooed on your calf, you should protect that investment with proper aftercare. It isn’t difficult to care for your work after it’s finished, but it is a lifetime job. As long as you have that tat, you will want to maintain it. Otherwise, you’ll pay for unnecessary touch-ups and cover-up jobs later.

PHASE ONE: BEFORE THE SITTING

Just because you’ve wanted a tattoo forever and twenty days does not mean that you should necessarily get one. For some people, they are bad ideas because they will not heal properly, won’t show up well, or will complicate personal lives. Some factors to consider before you sit down for your tat include:

Professional appearance.

Getting something on the back of your shoulder shouldn’t jeopardize your chances of landing that perfect corporate job, but obscenities on your knuckles probably will. You can always pick sites that are easily covered or check into tat-concealing makeup before you make a decision.

Your skin tone.

If you have very dark skin (or, worse, a near-solid covering of freckles), the artist can still give you a tat. The problem is that it will either require heavier outlining or not show up as well. If you aren’t sure, ask for a temporary version of your dream tat before you get the real thing. If nothing else, you’ll see how great it will look once it’s done “for real.”

The final outcome.

Look at the various scars all over your body. Are they obvious eyesores because of the way that your body heals wounds, or do they blend well with the rest of your skin? Surgical scars should not necessarily be factored into your decision, especially if they are invasive (i.e. non-arthroscopic). If, however, your body turns paper cuts and briar scratches into hideous, jagged nightmares, you should reconsider. Consult two or three tattoo artists for their opinions before you make a final decision: in some cases, it might not be as bad as you think.

You should also check out the artist and his or her studio before you allow anybody to give you a tattoo. Remember that this is technically a medical procedure, as they are pushing needles beneath your skin. If the artist and his or her workplace are not clean and sanitary, you could risk unnecessary infections. Check the Better Business Bureau for past complaints and reports, or simply ask the artist if you can tour the workplace before you let him or her start work. Most artists are very reputable and take your health seriously, but it doesn’t hurt to check it out first. No tattoo, however gorgeous or well-done, is worth blood-borne diseases, unnecessary infections or other ailments.

PHASE TWO: THE HEALING PROCESS

Depending on your body style, skin type, and tattoo placement, tattoos can take a few days or upwards of one week to heal. Because all of the pores underneath this new tat are wide open when the artist finishes, he or she will often seal it off with plastic wrap and tape until you can make it home. Leave this stuff on as long as you are instructed to do so, even if it is hot and uncomfortable. Your first instinct is to show off that bad mother trucker, but don’t give in just yet: if you wait and do things properly, you’ll be able to show it off proudly for the rest of your life.

You will, of course, have to bathe at some point before the tattoo heals. Do not expose the area to direct water. If you take a shower, keep it out of the spray and clean it separately. Use a mild antibacterial soap or body wash: pat the stuff onto the tattoo then use water to gently splash it off. Do not wipe or rub, even when you dry off. Patting will keep everything in place and prevent irritation, especially if the tat is less than a couple of days old.

Reapply the antibiotic cream or tattoo goop several times a day, and make sure to keep the site covered. When it’s finally ready to show off, it will still look just as great as the day you walked out of the studio, and you can count on it to last for a long time.

Tip: keeping the tattoo moist will prevent most of the itching and other irritation that might tempt you to scratch, pick or rub it. Sometimes you’ll still have these problems. Do not, under any circumstances, succumb to the temptations. It will undoubtedly mess up the tattoo, which will never heal properly and will forever look like a tattoo given to a person who couldn’t keep his or her hands off of it the first week or two. One trick, besides keeping the site moist and germ-free, is to scratch just below or above it. This sometimes convinces your brain that you are, in fact, scratching the real itch. It might seem stupid, but it works for many people and is definitely worth a try.

PHASE THREE: AFTER THE HEALING

Because you have paid an artist to decorate your skin with multi-colored ink, you are now the proud owner of a somewhat-delicate investment. There are certain things that you can no longer do, or must modify somehow before attempting. It seems like a pain in the butt (or wherever you got that tat), but it’s worth it.

First, don’t ever expose your tattoo to the sun without proper precautions, even if you had it done fifteen years ago. The sun will fade it away, slowly but surely, leaving you with a faint and completely uncool version of that awesome Grim Reaper you’d coveted since the third grade. If you must play or work in the sun, wear something over the tattoo (wrapping a handkerchief around it will usually suffice if it cannot be covered with clothing), or wear sunscreen. The more effort you put into keeping the tat out of the sun, the longer it will last.

Stop picking at scabs, blisters or boils. If there is a bump, bite or another potentially-scarring anomaly on your tattoo, don’t mess with it. If it’s bad, consult a physician. If it’s minor, such as an ant bite, leave it alone. You should not pop it, peel it, or pick at it, even if that’s the most tempting thing in your universe. If you just cannot resist the urge, put the bandage back over the tat. This might seem ridiculous, especially if you’ve had the tat for twenty years and have just now developed a couple of ant bites right over the coolest part of it, but it’s better than messing up the artwork.

If your daily lifestyle includes regular risks of cutting, scraping or other such damage to your skin, wear protective gear over tattoos – and areas that you plan to have tattooed in the future. Scars over already-existing tattoos do not look very good, so use gloves or thick clothing if you are doing something that could lead to a cut or scrape.

You might have touch-ups done periodically even with these precautions, but they should be fewer in number. Your tattoo, if done properly and with high-quality inks, will give you a lifetime of pleasure.