The 5 Stages of Grief and Your New Tattoo

So I just got my first “real” tattoo.

All of my other 8 tattoos have been script/roman numerals. I’m a writer, ok? I really like words. (There seems to be some type of stigma associated with getting font tattooed on your body in tattoo culture.)

One of my other tattoos.

Anyway! So for my 9th tattoo, I finally got some real art done by an artist based out of Virginia. It was my first big piece of work and I’m a little surprised by how I coped with it.

The tattoo this article is about (one of my biggest pieces!).

Getting a tattoo is a weird process—after the fact, I might add. It’s saying goodbye to the skin on that part of your body forever. You’ll never see it again. You now have to see—insert whatever it is you got tattooed on your body—every day.

What I went through was a little like the five stages of grief with my new tattoo.

Denial: It’s Not Really There!

If you’ve gotten a tattoo before, you have experienced this.

Immediately after you get your tattoo, you love it. You show everyone. It’s fresh. It looks amazing!

You wake up the next morning and you’re like, “WHAT. IS. THAT.”

It’s not that you didn’t remember that you got it done. It’s just that… well, it’s a part of you now. Like really a part of you. For the first couple hours after I got my tattoo, I was like, “Whoa. What is that thing?” By the next morning, I remembered that it was there.

But while it was healing, it didn’t seem like it was a part of my body. It almost looked like a shiny new sticker that I could just peel right off. Despite the fact that while I was washing it and could feel the lines inked into my skin, I thought, “It’s not really there! Nothing’s different!”

Anger: Why Did I Get That?

Not everyone has welcome reactions to your new ink.

Mom: “IT’S HUGE! How much did that cost? What?? Why?!!!”

Bestie: “DUDE IT’S FUCKING AMAZING YOU’RE AMAZING I LOVE IT AHHH!!!!!!!!!”

Partner: “Wow it looks sexy, you’re sexy, I love you.” *kiss*

Grandma: *insert slapping motion here* (Yes, she literally slapped my tattoo three days after I got it. I have not yet forgiven her.)

Regardless of people’s reactions (or on account of people’s reactions, whatever), you start to feel mad. Why did I get that? You think. You also see your credit card statement of how much it cost and, let’s face it, wake up the next morning feeling like shit because that part of your body is swollen and sore and red and you can’t wear clothes that cover it and you feel like you just hate everything.

Bargaining: If Only I Could Change This…

I saw a great YouTube video (it’s no longer live; sorry I had to remove the link!) about tattoo regret and it really resonated with me, not necessarily because I have any tattoos I regret per se, but because the person made a great point about questioning your new ink.

You will always wonder:

  • What if I got it smaller/bigger?
  • What if I got it in color/black and grey?
  • What if I went to a different artist/shop?
  • What if I just had them change this little part of it?
  • What if I had gotten something different?
  • What if I didn’t get anything at all???

You bargain. You wonder what could have been changed. You think about changing it in the future. I usually think about these things as I process each new tattoo. I consider its imperfections and how the piece is different from what I imagined, as well as variations between the actual ink and the stencil I saw.

Because nothing is ever perfect no matter how much we want it to be. My tattoos, like me, aren’t perfect. But, like me, they are still beautiful.

Depression: I’ll Never Have Naked Skin Again

At some point, you start to feel depressed that you have this tattoo. You spent a bunch of money, spent hours in pain, and are now spending weeks taking care of it, resentfully avoiding the bathtub and wondering when you’ll ever feel normal again.

Me getting my tattoo done. That’s my leg ahhh.
I was freezing during this appointment! Next time remember to bring a sweater or a blanket, girl.

And then you realize that you’ll never BE normal again. Because you have this tattoo and you don’t know how to handle it. You know you’ll never see the skin on the other side of that tattoo again. How do you cope?

Coping is different for everyone who experiences tattoo grief (or tattoo dysphoria, as I’ve come to call it). Some people grow to love and accept their tattoo. For others, learning to live with their tattoo is a daily practice that is difficult. Living with an altered appearance can be immensely challenging for some of us with new ink.

Acceptance: I Actually Like It!

Finally, once your tattoo heals a little more and it stops looking like a giant sticker, once the people in your life have stopped commenting on it and you can stop sleeping in weird positions to avoid rubbing it, you might begin to accept and love your tattoo.

It can take a while. For some people, it may only be a week or two. For others, it may be a few months or even years. And some people never really get to the acceptance stage where they feel like they can integrate this tattoo into their lives in a healthy way.

So if you really hate your new tattoo, it has a major flaw you just can’t get over, or you are having trouble coping with it even after it’s been a while, you might not ever get to the acceptance stage.

This was not my experience, but many people have had this experience where they cannot adjust to the tattoo. What are your options if this happens?

  • Consider a cover-up. You can consult a tattoo artist who is experienced with cover-ups and consider cover-up options. I would consider consulting with multiple artists and multiple cover-up options and wait at least six months before going forward with a cover-up or altering the tattoo (trust me, you don’t want to end up with something you hate even more, even if you can’t stand your current tattoo!).
  • Have it removed. Laser removal is also an option, but it is expensive and painful. It also takes a really long time—a minimum of one year and potentially several years (I know from personal experience!). It’s also important to note that lasering may not remove the tattoo completely, depending on the color of your tattoo. Black ink is the easiest to remove and can be fully removed. However, lighter colors like pink, red, blue, and orange are more difficult and may only fade. You may need to have the tattoo “lightened” with a few laser sessions and then covered up.
  • Ask for support. Consider working with a therapist, coach, or another professional to help you process your feelings and experience around your tattoo and how you might consider moving forward with the tattoo as part of your life (or explore how a removal/cover-up would help). I work with people who experience tattoo regret/tattoo dysphoria through my coaching website and offer a free initial session if you want to chat.

A Note on the 5 Stages

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed the 5 stages of grief. However, Elisabeth later said she regretted making these stages, because they have been grossly misinterpreted by the general public.

For the vast majority of people, the 5 stages are NOT a linear timeline that they go through and then are done with. This is true whether you are dealing with tattoo grief (which some people call tattoo dysphoria, which can be similar to body dysmorphia) or have experienced a loss.

It’s important to understand that you may go through these stages, then go through them again. Or you may not go through all of them, only some. Or you may go through one, skip to one, and then go back to another. You may take a long time to be in each stage, and keep going through them throughout your life.

I know that sounds a little daunting, but the point is that your journey is your own, and honoring your journey does not mean subscribing to a “timeline” where you go through the stages and are done. It means honoring your unique process for integrating this ink into your life, whatever that may look like for you. Each person’s experience is unique!

Do You Love Your Tattoo Yet?

It’s taken me a little while, but I love my new tattoo, and while it’s not perfect, I am ok with that.

I’m grateful to the artist and his patience with my first big piece, I’m grateful to have a beautifully designed tattoo, and I’m grateful it didn’t get infected while it was healing.

I’m also grateful that my rabbits didn’t scratch it, although Fiver did bite my leg ridiculously close to it, adorable little thing. He’s literally never bitten me before and he chooses to bite my leg the day after I get a giant tattoo. I think it’s because the tattoo butter I used had lavender in it? Rabbits love herbs!

Don’t let this evil little thing fool you. I love him, though.

Give your tattoo some time, show it some love, and let your body heal. Your experience is valid, and your feelings are normal!

What to Consider When Getting a Tattoo

What to consider when getting a tattoo is a personal question and not one to be taken lightly.

As someone with six tattoos, I speak from experience. While I may not be a full-body girl, I know a thing or two about advising someone whether or not they should get a tattoo and what to consider when getting a tattoo.

So what to consider when getting a tattoo? There are several things to take into account here:

Black and White or Color?

What to consider when getting a tattoo starts with considering whether or not you’d like it to be in black and white or color.

Consider that color will fade over time (as will the black, but not as much) and you’ll need to try and coordinate it with everything you wear for the rest of your life. Unless you get it somewhere people won’t see.

I don’t have any color tattoos (yet); they’re all in black. It’s easy to coordinate and simple when thinking about what to consider when getting a tattoo.

Design Trends

This is a big one to be wary about when it comes to what to consider when getting a tattoo. What’s trendy today will not be trendy forever—and your tattoo is forever!

So just because you’re obsessed with roman numerals or that Florence + the Machine song doesn’t mean you can get tattoos of them.

What you love now will change in the future. Remember when stars were super popular? A tattoo should be timeless—not trendy!

Location on Your Body

This is one of the bigger questions about what to consider when getting a tattoo. Remember that you can’t move it once it’s there.

You can add to it or have it removed—but it’s pretty much stuck there.

Consider your job. Will your boss love your new forearm tattoo? Maybe you have a really casual place of work, and that’s awesome. But if you don’t, consider getting one on your back, torso, upper leg, or inner arm. Something you can easily hide should the occasion call for it.

Also, remember that certain locations hurt more than others—your back will be a killer! Places like arm and leg aren’t bad. Ankle kills. Ribcage kills. Keep that in mind when it comes to what to consider when getting a tattoo!

Your Design or the Artist’s?

If you want something crazy for a tattoo, you’ll need to decide whether or not you’d like to design it yourself or work with the tattoo artist to design it.

I’ve designed all my tattoos myself so that I can control exactly what goes on my body. However, tattoo artists are called artists for a reason. If your design is getting complicated, talk with them about it when thinking about what to consider when getting a tattoo.

They’re usually pretty cool people and will tell you what they think looks good and what doesn’t. Finding a tattoo artist that you really mesh with is awesome!

Which Shop?

So yeah, you need to go to a good place. This is probably the most important thing with getting your tattoo so you don’t get HIV. DO YOUR RESEARCH.

Call shops. Visit them. Talk to the artists. A shop should be clean, friendly, and get good reviews. Even better if you know someone who’s been there and gotten some great ink done. Can’t beat an in-person review!

Which Ink?

All inks are not created equal, so think about this when thinking about what to consider when getting a tattoo.

SOME TATTOO INKS ARE NOT VEGAN AS WELL AS TEST ON ANIMALS. Yes, it’s true.

Call the shop and ask which inks their artists use. Again, do your research. Personally, I don’t really want crushed up animal bones being inked into my skin. Nor do I want tattoo inks that have been tested on puppies.

Timeline

Spontaneous tattoos can be a lot of fun. However, I do encourage you to THINK about what you want, where you want it, etc. for several months at least before actually getting the tattoo.

Choose your design, the location, etc., then just think about it. Remember, this thing won’t go away. You’ll have to see it every single day and so will your significant other. Make sure it’s something that again, is timeless, not trendy, and that you love.

IT Hurts

Getting a tattoo hurts. A LOT. If you don’t handle pain well, this probably isn’t for you.

I’ve gotten tattoos unwillingly crying because they’ve hurt so much. So think about this when thinking about what to consider when getting a tattoo.

It’s not like a piercing where they shove the needle through your ear (or lip or face or whatever else) and it’s over. This needle KEEPS jabbing you. Sometimes for hours, depending on how big your tattoo is.

Size

This is also really important! If you’re unsure about what size you can get, your tattoo artist can help you choose the size that’s best for the location on your body, your size, your design, etc.

While there are some crook tattoo artists out there, remember that most artists are cool people and they’re not trying to get your money—they just want you to be happy with what they deliver. Nothing sucks like an unhappy customer.

The main thing to think about here is to not get it too big—I feel like you’d rather have a too-small tattoo than a too-big one. This is an important thing to think about when it comes to what to consider when getting a tattoo!

That’s about it for what to consider when getting a tattoo. Just remember that this thing is for life, so you should spend time thinking about it, and don’t get something trendy. Choose the best location and size for you, and it’s super important to get a clean and reputable shop/artist to do the work.

Get inked!