I have a foot tattoo of a door copied from a children's book, and despite my mother's best efforts with Spray N' Wipe, it is permanent. (True story.) For reasons involving scientific interest, a limited budget, and a heavy dose of masochism, I chose to go for a foot tattoo as my first experience of the needle, a distinction that means heavily-tatted people tend to look at me with quiet fear in their eyes. You see, foot tattoos have a painful reputation, and that reputation is severe, searing, cry-for-your-mommy pain.
"In order for tattoos to be permanent, the pigment has to be placed deep in the dermis," Dr. Aimee Paik, medical director of online dermatological service Apostrophe, tells Bustle. "Needles are used to drive the pigment below the skin's surface, which hurts!" She adds some places on your body have much more nerve endings than others, which explains why foot tattoo pain may be worse than, say, pain from getting a tattoo on your back. "The procedure itself may be more painful because the foot is more highly innervated, and it may be a little bit more tender during the recovery process," she says.
In spite of the fact that they're so painful, foot tattoos are increasingly popular. Pinterest is flooded with inspirational images of delicately inked, clean feet; their designs standing out more starkly than Madonna at the supermarket, looking dark and permanent and clear. I am here to tell you that this is a very nice lie.
If you set off down the road of foot tattoos, you'll be introduced to the wonders of ice bundles, diaper rash ointment, ink spillage, and flip-flops in winter. That pretty floral design will cost you at least one panic in the tub as you realize you've accidentally submerged your foot in water and Oh god what if all the ink seeps out sh*t get the Saran Wrap.
No tattoo is for the faint of heart, but foot tats are especially worth knowing about in advance. So if you are thinking about taking the plunge, here's what to expect.
1. It Will Hurt, But Not In The Way That You Think
Tattoos have two elements: line work and shading. The line work on a foot tattoo, where the artist is laying out the lines of the design, is actually more confusing than painful. Ever been scratched by a cat? That's what it feels like: the needle scratching your skin, putting in ink underneath, and repeating. (Side note: you may irrationally hate your cat afterwards.)
But the bit that will make you bite back swearwords and grip the side of the chair is the shading, or more specifically the part where already-shaded skin is gone over again to darken the color. That feels like pure pain, because there is no flesh or muscle padding to dull it. (Although on several parts of the foot, you do get the cool sensation that the the tattooing is actually vibrating the bones, which may take your mind off it slightly.)
2. Tattoo Artists Don't Like Doing Tiny Ones
My tattooist, a burly dude in Manchester who was openly confused by my decision to get a door on my body, explained that my initial idea — a piece two or three centimeters long — was not ideal. Foot tattoos bleed ink over time, as the foot is used so regularly, and small tats can become tiny smudgy masses if they're placed on parts of the foot you use. Behind the ankle, you're safe, but anywhere else, scale up.
Some tattoo artists refuse to do foot tattoos at all, on the grounds that they can be dangerous if infected and fade very fast in the wrong places — so do your research and talk to a bunch of artists first.
3. You'll Have To Decide Whether The Tattoo Is For You, Or For Others
I am fairly unusual in that my foot tattoo is facing towards me. I look down and the door looks up at me in the correct orientation. This is unusual: many people, if they're getting tattoos on the front or side of the foot, will have it oriented away from them, so that other people understand its meaning immediately. Display or personal use? You've gotta pick, with feet.
4. Placement Is Notoriously Tricky
Look: if your foot tattoo's on the very side of your feet, where your shoe rubs, it's going to rub off. If it's on the very top of your foot, it's going to hurt like rubbing a chili pepper on your intimate bits. If it's on your ankle, it might fade from the sun.
Figuring out foot tattoo placement can feel like one of those nightmares where every door leads to something inconvenient, like a tiger, or a flesh-eating spider. I went for slightly-to-the-side, above my shoe line, and negotiating that took the tattooist and I about five tries with a marker pen and my foot in the air.
5. You Will Come To Fear The Sun
Aftercare of foot tattoos is neither cool nor fun for the whole family. However, protecting your tattoo from the evil daystar isn't just a problem for the healing period (which can be over six weeks): it's a problem for the rest of your days. You are entering into a committed relationship with a piece of flesh that fades if burned, and you'll be slathering it with sunscreen all the time.
6. Saran Wrap Will Become Your Best Friend
Aftercare of a foot tattoo 101 is based on the healing wonders of Saran Wrap. Got to go to bed? Saran Wrap. Got to go outside? Saran Wrap. You'll become an expert on cleansing and wrapping your foot in record time, complete with fancy sticky-tape sutures to keep it in place. This is a skill you will, alas, never need again.
7. Your Shoe Choices Will Be Reduced
Picking the best season for a foot tattoo is a tricky one. Flip-flops and ballet flats are generally your only options for letting it heal safely in the open, so obviously it's good to either be on vacation or work in a casual office. (You can wear shoes over it, but it's not optimal.)
You can't submerge it in water or expose it to sun for at least two weeks, though, so if you get it in the summer, fun will be strictly curtailed. Be prepared to treat your foot tattoo like a fussy baby that curtails a lot of the stuff you like doing for a while.
8. You Will Become Neurotic About Cleaning It
Foot tattoos are more prone to infection than others, because they're so low to the ground. If you're anything like me you'll take the tattoo advice on healing — use small amounts of lotion (diaper rash lotion, weirdly, is a good one), never touch it with unclean hands, wash it three to five times a day for the first few days — and follow it like a religious text. People will want to poke it, and you'll find yourself drawing away yelling "GERMS!"
9. Fading Will Happen, And You Will Need To Retouch It
That glorious fresh look just after you've had your tattoo done and the bruising and redness have faded? That doesn't last. A lot of the ink from an initial application will gradually wash off, wear off, or rub off — and scabs will form over the healing skin that take ink with them, too. Chances are, you're going to have to go in for a redo. But the good thing is, if a reputable tattoo parlor has done your tattoo, they'll do touch-ups for free. (And no, it won't hurt any less the second time.)
10. You Will Pick The Scabs And Then Feel Terrible
The aforementioned scabs need to stay in place until they flake off on their own. Otherwise, if you pick them, they'll take a bunch of ink with them, and you'll be left shoving your foot at your significant other saying "I MADE IT PATCHY I AM A BAD PERSON."
11. You Will Occasionally Forget That You Have It
The interesting thing about foot tattoos is that, because they're not staring you in the face, after the initial ridiculous caring period of pampering and neuroses, you can sometimes look down and go "Oh, yeah, I got that!" Memories of pain fade if they're not tied to an emotional stimulus like childbirth, so it can be like the present you give yourself again and again in the bathroom mirror.
12. You Will Want Another
This was advice given to me by a tattooed friend: the adrenaline high of a new tattoo, particularly a risky and highly painful one like a foot tattoo, can be addictive. A lot of tattooists see the phenomenon of increasingly repeat visits: the tendency of first-time tattoo-holders to delve into their second and third rapidly afterward is a scientifically recognized thing.
Be sensible and resist the first rush for six months, at which point the first tattoo will have completely healed and you can assess whether you really want a matching one on the other foot.
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