Kevin Strelaeff has seen his share of bad tattoos. (Tim Collins)

The Good, the Bad, and the “What the Hell were you thinking?”

Seven things to know before you get yourself a tattoo

  • Jan. 25, 2023 12:01 p.m.

By Tim Collins, Monday Mag contributor

Not too long ago, tattoos were primarily the realm of military personnel, circus acts, convicts, bikers and… well, you get the idea.

Chris David, the owner of Government Street Tattoo, recalled growing up with an aunt who lived behind a tattoo shop.

“Back then, some of the customers and even some of the tattooists… well, let’s just say I wasn’t allowed in there,” David said, rolling his eyes.

But times changed and the stigma that was once assigned to those who walked around sporting tattoos has largely disappeared. Ink has now become ubiquitous in North America. Recent estimates indicate that about a quarter of the population now have some sort of tattoo.

That’s not to say that all tattoos are created equal or that one shouldn’t be aware of a few facts before settling down to get that first (or next) tattoo.

Here’s a few tips:

• Yup, they’re just about permanent.

Tattoos are pretty much a permanent thing. The ink is embedded under the skin and, although it may fade over many years, it won’t just disappear.

For many people, even those with multiple tattoos that they may no longer love, the ink becomes a part of who they are.

“I like to have things that represent me on my body,” said Darrian Gaudet, an Ink FX customer.

“Even if I get a tattoo that I don’t like, in 20 years I’ll know that it was still something that represented me at the time. It’s sort of a diary of my life…what I felt or thought or liked at points in my life.”

But what if you get to the point where you aren’t feeling the flaming skull on your chest any longer?

Laser tattoo removal has become a part of the industry. It’s a technique that uses pulses of high-intensity laser to penetrate the upper layer of skin, breaking up the pigment that can then be absorbed into the body.

It hurts, but generally not any more than getting the original tattoo.

Over at Ink FX (one of the shops that does laser removals), Madi Brown was having several tattoos removed.

“I have two that were matching with people I’m not friends with anymore. I have one on my wrist representing a family I married into. That was a mistake as well. There’s also this one on my left middle finger.”

• BFFs and everlasting love ain’t necessarily so.

While having your significant other’s or best friend’s name tattooed on your body might seem like a good idea, it often isn’t.

“I don’t do names. It’s a curse to tattoo a name,” said Lynda Shipley, one of the artists at Ink FX.

She believes that tattooing a name on your body is a kiss of death to a relationship.

“One time this woman came in and really wanted her husband’s name on her chest and I did it. She went home, showed her husband, and he flipped. He was furious that she’d done that to her body. They almost separated and she came to have it removed.”

Shipley said that she will make very few exceptions to tattooing names.

“I’ll put ‘Mom’ in a tattoo because I figure that mom is always mom. I’ll also do, like, memorial tattoos. I figure if they’re dead, you’re not likely to have a fight and split up.”

• Location, location, location

Your body may be a canvas, but some common sense should still prevail.

“Face tattoos can have a real impact on a person’s life,” said David, back at Government Street Tattoo.

“Even with more acceptance of tattoos, it can still affect their employment opportunities, and even just the way they’re viewed by others. We try to guide customers away from those choices.”

David went on to say that he’s had requests for tattoos on eyelids, gums, and, yes, private parts.

“We’re a business and we want to serve the customers, but you have to have some awareness. You’ve got to be able to say to someone it’s a bad idea. I’ll tell them that ‘I don’t care where you go, but you can’t get it here’. We take that pretty seriously.”

Kevin Strelaeff points out one of his first tattoos. (Tim Collins)

• Think before you ink

Every professional we consulted said that they make a point of discussing a customer’s choice of tattoo before picking up the tattoo machine.

“I’ve seen people come in here with tattoos that just make you think ‘What the Hell were you thinking?’” said Kevin Strelaeff, the owner of Ink FX.

He recalled a time a young man came in with a request to have the word “HOODLUM” tattooed across his arm.

“I wouldn’t do it, just like I won’t do any hate tattoos. If you come in asking for a swastika or white power message, I just tell you to get out of my shop.”

Strelaeff does, however, do the laser removal of tattoos of that sort.

• It pays to use a professional

It seems that some people who wouldn’t dream of grabbing a brush and bucket of paint for a do-it-yourself paint job on their car will buy a tattoo machine online and go to town on their skin.

There’s a lot of reasons to never, ever, do this.

“People who work in my shop are artists,” said Strelaeff. “They intern for a long time, sometimes several years, before they’re allowed to even touch someone’s skin.”

Interns work with a tattoo artist and start out tattooing fruit, pig skins, and, later, themselves, before ever going near a customer.

They not only learn the artistry behind inking, but the subtle art of guiding customers in the choices they make in choosing and placing a tattoo.

“Having some amateur go at you at a party after a few drinks is a very bad idea,” Strelaeff said.

READ MORE: Vancouver comic brings ‘rant-y’ style to Victoria show

• By the way, planning on travel?

Although tattoos have become much more mainstream in North American society, there are still parts of the world where that isn’t the case. Should your job involve travel or if you’re just one of those folks with a yen to see the world, there are a few things you should consider.

In Japan, tattoos have long been associated with criminals. Although Japan has become a little more relaxed about this, some hotels, spas, restaurants, or swimming areas still ban visible tattoos.

In 2015, tattoos were outright banned in Iran. They are linked to devil worship and a form of Westernization frowned upon in Iran.

Although not exactly illegal, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) consider tattoos a violation of Islamic Law that prohibits the harming of one’s body or temple. The same is true in Turkey.

China and Vietnam associate tattoos with criminals, and in Sri Lanka, one British citizen was actually arrested a few years back because of her tattoos.

“Tattoos are getting more accepted, for sure, but the whole world isn’t accepting. It’s a good thing to consider before placing your tattoo in a spot where it’s going to always be visible. You should really check it out before you travel,” Strelaeff said.

• Use your head

Tattoos can be a beautiful bit of self expression.

They can document important milestones in one’s life, forming a diary of a person’s past and an expression of a person’s core beliefs or inspirations.

Sometimes, they are simply decorative.

But whatever the motivation, it always pays to give the decision to get some ink done the respect that it deserves.

Tattoos, after all, are like stories – symbols of the important moments, beliefs and thoughts in your life. Make certain that they accurately portray who you are.


 

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Kevin Strelaeff points out one of his first tattoos. (Tim Collins)