Like it does with most things in life, having a chronic illness can complicate the process of getting a tattoo. I have put together a list of considerations for anyone with a chronic illness interested in getting a tattoo. However, I should note, my entire tattoo session only lasted about 40 minutes. So if you’re getting a sleeve, or a huge shoulder piece, you probably need better advice than what I can offer 🙂
Pain. Tattoos involve a small needle repeatedly piercing the top layer of skin, so anyone who tells you it doesn’t hurt is trying to impress you. Of course it hurts. What you really want to know is: how much does it hurt. I was nervous about how my heart would respond to the pain, so prior to getting a tattoo, I stuck my arm repeatedly with a safety pin to make sure it wouldn’t cause any unexpected effects. So, I can tell you from experience that getting a tattoo hurts less than stabbing yourself with a safety pin. It feels a bit like you have a bad sunburn and a cat is scratching it. Completely bearable, and if you have a chronic illness (or have broken a bone, given birth, etc.), I promise you have been through much worse. However, the pain does become overwhelming with time, and if you’re getting a large piece, be sure to ask for regular breaks or schedule multiple sessions.
Anxiety. I was excited about getting my first tattoo because I had been planning it for a while, and because it holds special meaning for me. After all, if humans had taglines, it would be mine. But if I’m being honest, I was nervous too. Very nervous. I didn’t want to faint while my tattoo artist was doing her thing, I didn’t want to have my blood pressure plummet and barf everywhere, and I didn’t want to leave the tattoo studio in an ambulance. So, yeah, I was nervous. For the 24 hours prior to my appointment I tried to convince myself otherwise to no avail. Eventually, I decided to accept and embrace the anxiety. It’s okay to be anxious about it. If you want to do it, you’ll be brave when the time comes.
Noise. I was expecting the pain and anxiety might affect me a little. What I wasn’t expecting was that the incessant buzzing noise from the tattoo gun would bother me much, much worse. One of my many dysautonomia symptoms is a sensitivity to certain noises, especially loud, grating sounds. It causes my adrenaline to spike, which causes a whole host of other symptoms. If you’re sensitive to sounds, something to keep in mind.
Vibration. Tattoo guns work by quickly and repeatedly thrusting needles into your skin and depositing ink. The gun is electric, so it’s not surprising that the electric current creates some vibration. When placed on my arm, the tattoo gun made my entire arm and part of my chest wall vibrate. Like loud noises, I tend to be sensitive to vibrations. Initially the vibration caused some heart palpitations, but my heart quickly adapted and the palpitations disappeared.
Swelling. Mast cell activation disorder (MCAD) sometimes causes me to have unanticipated and inconsistent reactions to certain substances. More often than I would like I have a rash on my torso. I should (but often don’t) eat a low histamine diet to reduce MCAD symptoms, but I have no idea if/how much histamine is contained in tattoo ink. Allergic reactions to red ink in non-MCAD persons are not unheard of, and part of my MCAD sensitivities includes red dye used in drinks and foods. So, I knew I should avoid red ink, but wasn’t sure how I would react to black ink. It’s normal for tattoos to swell and scab – after all a tattoo is an open wound that needs to heal. It has been almost a month, and mine is still pretty swollen. It feels like braille 🙂 I think it will fully heal eventually, but MCAD is certainly playing a role in the slow healing.
While I’m certainly no tattoo expert, I do have some advice to share:
Don’t be a “walk-in”. Some tattoo shops allow you to walk in and get a tattoo without an appointment and without meeting with your tattoo artist beforehand. If you have a chronic illness, I strongly recommend setting up a consultation appointment and discussing your health issues and concerns with your artist. Consultations should be treated as interviews. Is this the right shop for you? Will this artist be sensitive to your concerns? If not, you’re under no obligation to book an appointment with him/her. It’s a relationship, albeit a temporarily one. Be
Be prepared. Booking a consultation also allows you to experience the sounds/smells that you will be exposed to during your session. If you explain to your artist that you are sensitive to sounds and/or concerned about the pain, s/he may turn on the gun and show you what it feels like (without ink) to help ease your fears.
Hydrate. This goes especially for those of us with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), but drink lots of fluids. The stress and “trauma” your body goes through when receiving a tattoo will make it dehydrate faster, and symptoms for most chronic illnesses increase with dehyrdration.
Choose your medications wisely. Take all of your regularly prescribed medication, except for anything that thins your blood. You will likely bleed during the tattoo, and you don’t want it to get out of control. Some pain medications like aspirin and ibuprofen are also blood thinners. Knowing that the noise from the tattoo gun would cause adrenaline dumps, I took an extra beta blocker about 45 minutes before my appointment. My HR was still high 4 hours after the appointment, so the extra beta blocker was a good idea.
Think. This one actually has nothing to do with illness, but please don’t ever go into a tattoo shop with no idea of what kind of tattoo you’re going to get. It’s okay if you haven’t seen it on paper yet – after all, tattoo artists are just that: artists. The lady who did my tattoo is a fabulous artist, and I absolutely would have trusted her to draw a design I had in my head. But, for the love, please don’t pick a cartoon character that you haven’t thought about for the past decade out of a tattoo book at the shop. You’re going to hate it in six months.
Ask for what you need. If you need a break, ask for one. If you’re feeling dizzy, let your artist know. I promise, you won’t be the first person that wasn’t feeling great in a tattoo shop. The whole profession of tattoo artist is built around giving you what you want. Your artist wants you to love the experience and the result – communicate how they can help.
Tip. If you have an especially understanding tattoo artist, or one who is sensitive to your condition and your concerns, please, please give them a big tip. When you go back for a second tattoo, your artist will be even more accommodating to your condition knowing that you appreciate and compensate them for it.
Getting a tattoo can be an exciting, and even profound, experience. If you understand your limitations and your concerns, and communicate them to your artist, you can end up with something beautiful.
“The search for something permanent is one of the deepest of the instincts leading men to philosophy.” – Bertrand Russell
Smell ya later.