In the US alone, statistics counted an estimated 45 million tattooed adults in 2012, a number that has doubtlessly grown over the years. There’s no question about the fact that tattooing is experiencing a renaissance era, both in the West and globally, thanks to modern media and the Internet. Yet despite the proliferation of the tattoo and the growth of the tattoo parlor industry, people are still generally tackling the same problems today that they might’ve been tackling a few centuries ago: what is the right tattoo for me?

For most people, tattoos are about rebellion and individuality. Even if it isn’t the typical punk-era teens vs. establishment rebellion, many seek tattoos as a way to help themselves seek an identity that separates them from the parameters and stereotypes that they were confined to. Tattoos allow them to figure out a better answer to a pressing existential question. Yet their permanence (and the rather hefty price of tattoo removal) means that tattoos must also be chosen wisely, and carefully. The wrong design can spark regret many years from now, as is the case with roughly 17 percent of people who get tattoos.

We’re here to help you find the right motif for you, regardless of what it might be, and hope that by the time you’re done reading this article, you’ll have a much more concrete idea of what it is that you want on your skin.

How to choose the right motif

If you don’t have a shortlist of designs and concepts in your mind, think in terms of styles and motifs instead. What represents you best? Be honest with yourself.

Do you enjoy a particular artstyle?

Are you a stickler for detail? Are you someone who prefers a simple approach to life, perhaps? Is your life best defined by color and fantasy, or by a monochromatic narrow focus on the most minimalist of details? Are you in love with Oriental brushstrokes, or tribal blackwork, or Arabesque art?

Picking a culture?

What inspires you the most, culturally? Are you an aficionado of the Greek? The Romans? The Egyptians? The Nubians? The Arabs? The Japanese? The Vikings, the Celts, the Mayans, the Yoruba, or someone else?

Religion and spirit

Are you a religious or spiritual person? Do you seek protection? Or do you wish to display veneration? If you’re spiritual but not religious, what embodies your belief? Do you wish to represent yourself, or make reference to a moment or memory or ideal? Would the cunning nature of a fox inspire you towards that motif? Or do you prefer the ferocity of the lion? The pack nature of the wolf? The gentle strength of the ox? The mystique of the black cat? The fantasy of the dragon?

Meaning in language

Does a phrase give you strength or fill you with the means to go on? Is there a language you find beautiful, a script that captivates you, a passage that floods you with emotion?

Finding your own motif

Motifs can be anything. A simplest rock could give you great meaning. Like art itself, it’s largely in the eyes of the beholder – and if this is your first tattoo, it’ll likely be something with great meaning to you. Some people take that to mean that it must be something they consistently feel or believe in or admire – something they’ve been fascinated with for years, or since childhood.

A good way to determine if you’re likely to still like a tattoo is if it’s something that can be interpreted in multiple different ways – that way, it will continue to reveal meaning in your life long after you’ve chosen to get it tattooed. The longevity of the motif might also be determined by how long you’ve enjoyed it or thought about having something to represent it.

What we’re born with

Some people like to pick motifs closest to their heritage, since that’s something that’s predetermined, and can’t really change (unless you make a sudden revelation about your maternal and paternal identities). If you’re, say, 25 percent Scottish, you might feel inclined to dig around in local mythology and find something that strikes your fancy.

Contemporary lore and symbolism

Something that’s been up-and-coming in recent years is the gaming and manga scene. Plenty of symbols and objects are perfect motifs for inking, and if you’ve been a lifelong fan of a series or IP, and feel that you owe it your life in some respect (some feel that the games they’ve played and the series they’ve watched/read helped them through extremely hard portions of their life), then consider a small homage to that part of your soul, whether it’s a tiny Chimchar from Pokémon, Mamoru’s Tuxedo Mask from Sailor Moon, a tribute to Akira, the Swordfish from Cowboy Bebop, Gut’s Brand of Sacrifice from Berserk, the Imperial Seal from the Elder Scrolls, or the Doomslayer’s Mark from Doom.

Some people might equate it to corporate tattooing, and while there is a fine line between art and business in the entertainment industry, there’s relatively little difference in significance between a contemporary Brand of Sacrifice or a tattoo of the ancient Evil Eye, aside from age.

Scope and size

Size is another issue that might inform your choice. Is your first tattoo something you want others to see? And in what context? Should it be visible at a pool party? At work? Or only in your most intimate moments? Or, even more privately, should it be something typically only you would see? Do you want to start with something small? Or are you purposefully seeking a bigger commitment? It’ll be pretty hard to capture some motifs in a tiny frame, just as it would be difficult to blow something relatively simple way out of proportion.

A callback to the ancients

If you’re not sure what direction to take, then consider what tattoos were for in the past. Sailors used them to mark their journeys. Irezumi culture evolved into telling a story on a full body canvas. For many Polynesian and African tribes, specific markings identified a person with the tribe they belonged to. Among the Egyptians, tattoos were both spiritual and therapeutic. And on prehistoric Europeans, tattoos would cure ills and be used to mark weak and painful spots. There have been particularly unromantic uses of the tattoo – cultures used them to mark slaves and criminals, as well – but by and large, there are so many different inspirations to draw on, or give yourself an idea of what you want your ink to mean to you.

Finding the right artist

Regardless of whether you’ve found the right motif and design or not, one of the more important steps towards getting a tattoo is finding the right artist for the job. If you’ve got the resources, and an idea of what you want, you can try to travel for your tattoo. Renown tattoo artists exist all over the world, and if you’re pursuing a particular style, you may be looking to go to a particular expert.

Alternatively, you can commission your work locally, at which point you’re going to have to find a halfway point between your expectation and the style and skill of the artist you’re working with. One way to settle on a design if you’ve got an idea of where you want to take things is to visit a few reputable artists and ask to see their designs. If there’s something you like in particular, you can discuss it with the artist in the context of the work you’d like done on yourself, with the style they’ve displayed in their previous art.

Like with any other purchase or service, it’s important to do your due diligence as a customer or client. That means researching. Look them up. Find reviews. Go through the rave reviews and positive testimonials for the incidents when things didn’t go as planned. Try to filter out the artists that have got horror stories associated with them.

However, beware that depending on how competitive your area is for tattoo artists, you’ll have to worry about fake reviews. The more detailed a review (including pictures), the more believable it is. To further test legitimacy, right-click an image in a review and click ‘Search Google for image’ to see if it’s an original upload or something pulled off the Internet for a smear campaign.

Preparing for your first tattoo

It’s not incorrect to state that your first tattoo will likely be your most nerve-wracking one, and there’s little you can do to completely prepare yourself for it. Yes, it’ll hurt. No, we can’t say how much it’ll hurt. To some people, the pain they imagine is so immense that the tattooing itself ends up feeling more like a tickle. Others underestimate the feeling and are taken aback for a few seconds.

Some people have such a low tolerance for pain that they’ll find it hard to finish. Some areas of the body are physiologically more sensitive than others (the upper inner thigh is notoriously painful), but a lot of the pain is psychological. You can do much to avoid it by breathing slowly, staying calm, and picking a tattoo studio with an environment you find comfortable. Don’t drink any alcohol at least two days before getting your tattoo, and another 48-72 hours after getting your tattoo (alcohol is a blood thinner, which might cause your tattoo to bleed more heavily).

Talk to your artist about other tips and things to observe. If you’re getting yourself tattooed in a particular area, it helps to keep that area clean, shaven, and smelling good. This is particularly important for more intimate ink jobs. While some tattoo artists might be too polite to mention it, the last thing any tattoo artist wants to work with is an unwashed body part. Shaving is a good precaution, but keep in mind that most artists carry a razor and shaving cream to make sure the skin is freshly shaven before the session starts.

The basic dos and don’ts

A tattoo will generally put you out of commission for a while if you’re someone who works outdoors a lot or plays a lot of sports. You’ll want to refrain from strenuous physical activity for a day or so and keep any pressure away from the tattoo for a while after that. If you work out a lot, take maybe two weeks off and avoid resting any weights on the tattoo until it’s completely healed.

If you sweat a lot, adjust your aftercare appropriately and ask your tattoo artist how to best avoid infection. Excessive moisture from sweating is a no-no for the healing process.

If you absolutely can’t take two weeks off strenuous activity, wait until you can. Don’t risk ruining your tattoo or getting a nasty infection (and potential scarring).

Your tattoo artist will have all the information you’ll want to keep in mind for your particular climate or job. If you can’t afford to take more than a few days off work (if you work in construction or a similar field), do the following: wash the tattoo with antibacterial soap in the mornings, get it nice and dry, apply a thin layer of hypoallergenic, non-scented, non-dyed lotion, wrap it in breathable gauze (not plastic), wash it after coming home and let it breathe throughout the evening and night.

As much as possible, you want to:

  • Avoid getting dirt and debris on the tattoo.
  • Avoid getting it moist.
  • Avoid letting your skin dry out completely (hence the lotion).
  • Avoid getting an infection (hence softly cleaning it with antibacterial soap).

Getting a tattoo is a big deal, so take the extra time and effort to make sure it imprints on you perfectly. Keep in mind that some people are allergic to specific inks and ingredients, so it helps to go to a dermatologist or doctor first to see if there’s anything you should be aware of. You can’t get tested for an ink allergy, sadly, but if it’s something you’re concerned about, you can speak to your artist about it. They may be willing to perform a patch test.