Outside of having kids, getting a tattoo is one of the worst mistakes a person can make, yet somehow (much like having kids), millions of people do it every year. For those going under the needle for the first time, The A.V. Club offers six simple rules to getting tattooed, aided by the input of someone who should know: Aviva Yael, co-author of No Regrets: The Best, Worst, & Most #$%*ing Ridiculous Tattoos Ever. (All photos below come from the book.)
1. You can't go wrong with the classics.
There's a reason skulls, dragons, and "Mom" hearts are still popular: They're the Oxford shirt, faded Levi's, and Converse of the ink world. Tattoos are a mark of permanence in an impermanent existence; let timelessness be your watchword. Plus, sticking to the tried-and-true offers the precise combination of devil-may-care and not-being-a-trendy-jackass that a good tattoo should project. (Note that this doesn't apply to stuff like tribal bands or Chinese characters—which, in spite of their troubling ubiquity, are not "classic." Also, avoid Sailor Jerry-style naval motifs unless you were actually in the Navy, you suburban pansy.)
Aviva Yael: "I have to disagree with you right off the bat. Tribal bands, Chinese characters, and Sailor Jerry are totally classics. I mean, they suck, but come on… They totally are. And really, dragon tattoos aren't even that popular anymore. But you're right: Skulls and 'Mom' will never go out of style. Everybody loves their mom."
2. No names unless you're married to them—and probably not even then.
Love doesn't always last forever, and odds are that the person you're head over heels with at the moment is going to break your heart someday. Even marriage is no guarantee: Life is long, divorce rates are high, and there's nothing sadder than bearing the indelible mark of someone you can no longer stand to look at. If you absolutely must prove your devotion, hedge your bets and pick a symbol that means something to both of you. That way, if things go south, you can always invent some other explanation for it. It beats trying to turn "Karen" into "Kill 'Em," anyway.
AY: "When I went on Carson Daly's show, he showed me a tattoo on his ankle that used to say 'love,' for Jennifer Love Hewitt. His next girlfriend wanted him to get rid of it, of course. Now, you'd think that it would be the easiest tattoo to change. It could be "I love mom," "I love meatballs"—you could really make it anything. So he goes to his regular tattoo guy in L.A., and he tells him, 'Do whatever you want.' He'd taken some tequila shots, so he was totally relaxed and trusting this guy. So he's lying there on his side, reading a magazine, talking to people, not really paying attention to what his guy is doing. Finally it's done, and he gets up to look at it, and it's a fucking Swiss Army knife—but instead of a blade, it has a crab claw sticking out of it. I mean, what the fuck? That's what happens. The only name you can get is your mom's. And also, definitely don't trust your tattoo artist to just do whatever he wants."
3. Avoid pop culture.
That band, movie, or celebrity you're currently obsessed with will only get lamer as time goes on. There are a few exceptions—clichéd as they are, Rolling Stones lips, Grateful Dead skeletons, and Metallica logos will probably always carry some cachet—but for all others, just buy the damn T-shirt. Besides, is there anything less imaginative? Okay, you liked A Clockwork Orange enough to get Malcolm McDowell's face on your leg. What does that mean? That you're a film buff? A closet nihilist? Or just a "super fan," only defined through other people's art?
AY: "Some of my favorite tattoos ever have been based in pop culture—Bob Barker, Tony Danza—but only because I'm laughing at the people who have them. In my book, there's this guy I met who had four Gwen Stefani tattoos—which is pretty ridiculous, but at least it's funny to everyone else, right? Oh, I'll tell you the one that I hated the most: Fucking Napoleon Dynamite. Oh my God. I hate that tattoo, I hate the person who got it, and I hate the movie. That one pisses me off so much! And the worst part is that they did it like a skull-and-crossbones, where the bones were Chapsticks. Like, when I was in high school, all the John Hughes movies were out. What if I had gotten fucking Judd Nelson on my arm? You know what I mean?"
4. No funny stuff.
Imagine telling the same joke every single day for the rest of your life. That's precisely what your "hilarious" tattoo is doing for you, including the day you get fired and your mom dies. Besides, most humor has a very specific time and place: Who will laugh at your "Calvin pissing on Osama bin Laden" tattoo in 20 years? Who the fuck is "Calvin," anyway? That also goes for anything "ironic"; good luck explaining how your Confederate flag is meant "ironically" to that pissed-off black guy. And it goes without saying that a "[Blank] smoking a joint" tattoo automatically grants everyone around you the right to treat you like an idiot. Forever. (Note: This does not apply to anyone who gets tattooed on a dare. These people are fearless and deserve your respect.)
AY: "Actually, I think you should only get funny stuff—but you have to be smart to get a funny tattoo. Here's an example of a horrible 'funny' tattoo: This guy I met got 'Stupid' tattooed on his forehead. He's 19, and he thinks that's hilarious. But for the rest of his life, he's going to have 'Stupid' on his forehead—and even worse, on the back of his head he has 'Fuck off.' I mean, what are you doing? That's the dumbest thing. I also met this guy who has a tattoo of Britney Spears with her head shaved. What if she kills herself? It's not going to be funny. It's going to be horribly, horribly tragic. A great tattoo is one that will never not be funny, and that's hard to find. The best tattoo I've ever seen in my life was a shark sitting on a La-Z-Boy, smoking a bong, with a tribal tattoo on its fin. Every element of that is retarded—and thus, it's timeless."
5. Keep it simple, stupid.
A tattoo is the boldest form of self-expression there is, but if that self-expression requires more than five seconds to explain, it's a failure. Aim for artwork that requires no justification at all, or, if you must, a simple slogan (i.e. "Thug Life") with a self-evident meaning. If someone asks about your tattoo and you have to say, "The wizard represents the magic of possibility, and he's holding a camera because I take photos, and the flames are because I'm really passionate about pursuing it as a career, hence these Chinese characters for 'Hope,'" then you lose. Brand yourself with "Tries too hard" instead—that, at least, gets the message across.
AY: "I'm definitely on the same page with this. For example, there's something to be said for people getting weird 'raver' tattoos—maybe you did a bunch of Ecstasy in the '90s, and you want a little 'E' pill or something—but when you get an alien sitting on a mushroom smoking a hookah, then you're out of control. I've also seen a lot of suns and moons—which is fine, but then they had to make it, like, a sun on top of a tribal band with butterflies and dolphins swimming around it and the Tasmanian Devil dancing underneath. This happens a lot with astrological signs, too. People get those 'Buddha eyes,' and then they can't just stop there. They have to put it on top of a landscape with rivers and clouds and mountains and a whole bunch of crap jumbled together. You have to know when to stop."
6. Know thyself.
Remember that a tattoo is not an invincibility cloak, a magic "badass" wand, or a substitute for personality. Tattoos will not automatically make you cooler, tougher, sexier, or more spiritual. Before you submit to the needle, take a brutal self-inventory: Are you naturally meek? That flaming-skull-and-dagger won't make you more intimidating. Is your career goal something beyond auto repair, dishwashing, or janitorial work? Skip the "rotting corpse vomiting locusts" and stick to something you can hide under a nice dress shirt. Plan on starting a family? Someday, they'll want to know why Grandma has "Bad Girl" on her ass.
AY: "Still, what if you know yourself and you just have really bad taste? After you take that brutal self-inventory, you also need to go survey your friends and make sure you're not tacky and dumb. If all your friends hate your wardrobe or your taste in music, there's a pretty good chance they won't like what you choose to brand yourself with, either."