Does your teenager want a tattoo? Find out everything you need to know about this popular body modification, from what they really are to how to find a safe and reputable studio.
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Close-up man tattoo artist tattooing a the neck of a woman
Credit: Getty

Some parents loathe them. Some embrace them, and others love them—sporting several themselves. But no matter where you fall on the tattoo spectrum, there is a chance your child may want to get body art, at least someday. Approximately 40 percent, or 4 out of 10 millennials, have tattoos. And while the thought of a permanent change to your little one's appearance may make your skin crawl (my mother hates all of my tattoos; she also cannot stand my ever-changing hair) the truth is tattoos are relatively safe, if you know what to look for in the ink, artist, and shop. They are also a great form of self-expression. With body art, I came into my own.

Here's a parents' primer on safe tattooing, and what you really need to know.

What Are Tattoos?

A tattoo is a permanent mark or design made on your skin with pigments, also known as ink. The "color," which can range from black or white to any shade in the rainbow, is inserted through pricks into the skin's top layer. This can be done manually or with a handheld machine. The ink is then deposited slowly into the dermis, or your skin's middle layer, drop by drop.

Are There Different Types of Tattoos?

The short answer is yes: There are various types of tattoos. Tattoo styles can vary, from old and new school to tribal, words, illustrative, and geometric, and the art can be created in a few different ways. Some cultures (and artists) favor the hand-poked method while others prefer tattoo machines. "Traditional" tattoos aside, there are even permanent makeup tattoos that mimic the look of things like eyeliner and lip liner and have grown in popularity in the past decade.

Why Does My Child Want a Tattoo?

While some parents may not be concerned by and/or with their child's desire to get a tattoo, others find the notion upsetting. They worry about their health—and future implications, i.e. will your child's tattoo keep them from getting a job? They worry about things like remorse and regret. Your child's likes will change, after all, and while they may love Poppy now, she may not be their favorite artist in a decade. And they worry that tattoos make them appear derelict. (Yes, some age-old stereotypes still exist.) But the only way to know why your child wants a tattoo is to ask them. Having a conversation with your child about why they want to modify their body can be informative and insightful. It is the only way to truly understand their reasoning and logic.

How Old Do You Have to Be to Get a Tattoo?

The age requirements for tattooing vary from state to state. In Idaho, for example, minors can be modified at 14—with parental consent. In New York, however, the practice is limited to those 18 and up. That said, you may want to encourage your teenager to wait (even those who are 18 and up).

"Teenagers' bodies and their skin aren't necessarily done growing by age 18," explains an article from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). "This means that a tattoo one gets at 18 could be stretched out, faded, and lopsided by age 24." Still, if they are set on getting a tattoo now, the best thing you can do is help them find a reputable artist and shop.

If Your Child Is Getting a Tattoo, How Do You Find an Artist?

Choosing an artist may seem easy—especially if your child is getting a flash tattoo, or one that is pre-drawn and -designed—but there are actually a lot of considerations. Not all tattooists are the same, and their style may not mesh with yours. Skill levels will also vary, from apprentice to master tattooist. For this reason, you will want to visit various shops and speak to each artist.

Ask about their experience—and to see their portfolio. This book of photographs will give you more information about their style and work. Make sure their lines are straight and even. Shaky, ragged, or jagged tattoos are a red flag. You should also ask for recommendations and read reviews. Yelp is a great place to start.

One other note: While you may be inclined to "shop around" for the best price, when it comes to tattooing and body modification, you get what you pay for. Skilled artists charge more—for good reason. Some areas of the body are also harder to tattoo than others. This can and does affect the cost.

"The price of a tattoo is determined by many factors including the size and location of the tattoo, the complexity of the design, the amount of time it will take to complete, the experience level of the artist, the availability of the artist, and the geographic area the artist is working in," explains an article on Painful Pleasures. Be sure to choose an artist based on their work and portfolio, not the price.

What Should You Look for In a Tattoo Shop?

If you or (more importantly) your child is interested in getting a tattoo, you'll want to help them find a clean and reputable shop. Here are the things you should look for in a tattoo studio, according to the University of Michigan's Health Service department:

  • Gloves. Gloves should be worn during every procedure and should be changed frequently, i.e. they should be removed and replaced if/when your artist touches anything other than you or the equipment. They should also be new.
  • Single-use needles. All needles should come pre-packaged and -sterilized and be single-use. They should then be disposed of properly, in biohazard bags and sharps containers.
  • Single-use ink cups. "Inks used in tattooing should be placed in a single-use cup and then disposed," writes the University of Michigan. "Ink should never be taken directly from the main source bottle or returned to that bottle."
  • Trainings and certifications. While specific training requirements vary from city-to-city and state-to-state, most reputable tattoo artists will be trained in bloodborne pathogens, infections, and cross-contamination. Check with your local department of health for the latest safety laws and/or training requirements.

The environment should also be clean and free of visible dirt or debris. Equipment should be organized. Hand-washing should be frequent, and artists should be sober, i.e. drug- and alcohol-free. They should require clients to be in the same state of mind.

Reviews are also extremely important.

How Should Your Child Care for Their New Tattoo?

While finding a clean, reputable shop (and artist) is important, the health of your tattoo is contingent on how you care for it. Following proper aftercare is essential. Keep the area bandaged for 24 hours then wash it with soap and water. Keep the skin moist by applying an antibiotic ointment or thick skin cream several times daily. Tattoo "goo" or balm may also be used, and avoid harsh chemicals or products. Do not use petroleum jelly, rubbing alcohol, or peroxide. For two weeks, stay away from pools, lakes, rivers, and the sun.

What Are the Risks of Tattoos?

While tattooing is relatively safe—according to an October 2017 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), complications resulting from body modification methods are not common—all body modification procedures come with inherent risk. Some of the most common risks include:

Infection

Any time you have an open wound you're at risk of infection. "Bacteria or viruses [can] enter broken skin after a tattoo session," says Medical News Today. "This may occur immediately after a person gets a tattoo, or in the subsequent days or weeks while the skin heals." Bloodborne pathogens may also be transmitted if the tattoo equipment was not sterilized properly and/or the needles were not single use.

"Tattooing is associated with hepatitis B—especially in teens with other high-risk behaviors," says the AAP. "Additionally, tattooing is associated with higher rates of hepatitis C. HIV transmission associated with sharing tattoo needles or reusing tattoo inks have been reported."

Allergic reaction

While rare, some individuals are allergic to tattoo ink, according to Medical News Today. "Research suggests that certain red pigments may be more likely to cause an allergic reaction." Allergies, however, can occur with other inks, pigments, and colors too.

Keloids

Caused by injury and trauma, keloids are overgrowths—or bumps—of scar tissue. "A keloid is an enlarged scar that resembles a bump on the skin," states Medical News Today. "It consists of extra scar tissue and can occur from trauma on the skin."