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Lessons People Learned from Their Bad First Tattoos

"I thought it would be hilarious to get a gang tattoo with a picture of an uzi, but now I can't take my shirt off on the beach. Joke tattoos are only funny for a little while."

by Simon Doherty
Aug 1 2016, 4:35pm

Rosie Evans and Sam Layzell in MVL Tattoo. Photos by Paul Jones

A lot of people get their first tattoo at a fairly young age. This—no matter what you scream at your parents the day after your 16th birthday—is not the best idea. Think about the other stuff you did as a teenager. Think about whether or not you would, as an adult, tape a 2 liter bottle of cider to each hand and not have them un-taped until you've finished the both of them. Consider: Would you still attach a wallet to your person with a ball-bearing chain?

Same goes for tattoos: Aren't you glad, in retrospect, that you never got that hand-drawn portrait of Tom DeLonge permanently scarred into your skin forever? Or that really earnest quote about all the hardship you'd already endured as a private school student?

Tattooist couple Sam Layzell and Rosie Evans run a cosy little studio in Leeds called MVL Tattoo. They're fully acquainted with the common pitfalls of the first tattoo as they're often asked to cover up unfortunate decisions. "Do your research," says Evans while tattooing a rat climbing up a skull onto a client's left arm. "Make sure you really know the person you're getting your first tattoo from. You should be well aware of the kind of stuff they do and their competence level beforehand. Seeing some of their healed tattoos also wouldn't be a bad idea."

Layzell nods his head in agreement. "Yeah, I wouldn't be afraid to travel for the tattoo you want. If you really like someone's work, but they live on the other side of the country, it isn't too hard to get a ticket. It's better to go to a person who does work that you know you like, rather than trying to get your local guy to emulate it."

"I wouldn't advise drawing a design yourself and taking it in to get done," says Evans when I ask about some of the likely causes of regrettable first tattoos. "That's like going to a dentist, having done half the job already. Allow the artist to work on the design for you because a good picture on paper will not always look good on the skin."

Both Evans and Layzell agree—shockingly—that getting a new tattoo while on vacation with your friends almost never ends well, and not just because you're likely to be shitfaced when you're choosing the design. "A lot of the big no-nos when it comes to tattoo aftercare involve things you will encounter while you're on holiday," Evans explains. "You're likely to be submerged in water in the pool or the sea, be exposed to the sun, and you might find it hard to keep it clean in beach or clubbing environments."

So there's a bit of wisdom from the experts, but I was also interested to hear from some people who'd disappointed their moms at a very young age, and find out the lessons they learned from getting their first tattoos.

MACCA, 26

It was my friend Greg's fault. We were both 18 and drinking during the day in Blackpool. We decided to have a nap before we went out. I woke up with my hand over my face and straight away noticed that I had the word "STEAMER" on my wrist, but it just looked like someone had written it in normal handwriting with a biro—it wasn't even straight.

I tried rubbing it off then realized what I'd done. I didn't remember a thing. So I woke Greg up, and he remembered and started laughing—he had exactly the same tattoo. He spent the next month at home with a sweatband on so his mom couldn't see it.

I suppose the lesson I learned is: Don't do it drunk. Think about what you're doing, and don't get anything big that can't be covered.


CEZ, 23

When I was 18, we were chilling in an abandoned orphanage. We had some spray paint and someone sprayed that design on the wall. Being 18, we thought it was hilarious, and we all started drawing that image—a guy bending over with his balls out—everywhere. We got drunk one night, and I said, "I'll just get it tattooed," and I did. It's really funny, but I've got a daughter now. I can't have that on me any longer.

My advice would be: Think about it more, I guess. And if you think of an idea, put your research into the right artist who will be able to do it.


PAUL*, 27

I'm from a suburb that has practically no crime at all. There was a running joke with my friends where we would tell people that we were in a hardcore street gang called the "Greenie Posse." We'd always argue about who had "top boy" status in the group. Apparently this is really funny when you're in your mid teens.

Anyway, here are the events that led to me having an uzi tattooed on my chest: We were all going to Bolton one day because my friend was getting a tattoo. On the bus journey, we were taking the mick, talking about how funny it would be if we all got gang tattoos. Then it was like, "Well, if I got the tattoo, I'd definitely be Greenie's top boy." So I was like, "Why not?" That was years ago now and I don't regret it, but I'm not glad I've got it either. I couldn't go to the beach and feel comfortable taking my top off.

Joke tats are only funny for a certain amount of time. It soon wears off and then, instead of making a joke, you become the joke. A joke you're not in on. I mean, imagine if I got randomly sent down now—I'd be fucked; they'd think I was actually a gang member.


BECKY, 27

I originally drew the design myself: a really simple black outline of a heart, which I wanted on my wrist. That was definitely the thing to do in the emo epidemic of 2007. At the time, I was 19 and was hanging around this tattoo shop quite a lot because I was seeing the body piercer there. I guess I was influenced by being there with people that were all covered in tattoos; I decided I had to get one.

When I took the design in, they said, "We'll just spruce it up" to make it a bit better. I agreed. But when I returned a week later, it had turned into a shaded, full-color black and red design. I basically went with it because I was young and stupid and surrounded by these cool people with heaps of tattoos. I clearly wanted to be part of the gang.

I've had six sessions of laser now, and it feels like being stabbed with a hot needle and being burned with oil at the same time. It's nearly gone. If you're going to get a tattoo, stick with what you really, really want, and don't let other people influence you to change it or make it bigger.

*Name changed at the request of the subject.

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