Once you have settled on a design and a price that you and your artist agree on, the work will either begin right then, or you will be asked to come back for a later appointment (e.g. if the artist has another client coming in in 15 minutes). Once you're in that chair, what can you expect? Most likely, the artist will begin the long process of preparing for your work. This is especially true if the artist is going to do a custom design that you brought in. First, the design will have to be worked on. Most artists will play around with the design on paper first, although some artists will do it freehand. "Freehand" means the artist takes an ink pen to hand and begins drawing a design on your skin without the use of a stencil (NOT where the artist begins work with the tattooing machine immediately--the artist, no matter how good, still needs to envision how the work will look on your skin--proportion, placement, etc.).
When you and the artist are happy with the design, the artist might outline the design with a piece of carbon paper, or use an old-fashioned copy machine to get a working copy of it. This would be when the artist would properly size the design. The artist will then clean your skin where the work will be done (probably an alcohol or antiseptic rub), and will swipe your skin with an "adhesive," which is usually Speed Stick deodorant (for some reason *I* haven't seen any other brands). The artist will then put the carbon side of the design directly on your skin. When the paper is lifted, ta-da! A carbon line drawing of the design should appear on your skin!
The artist will probably let you look in a mirror to make sure you are happy with the design and the placement. Once this is agreed upon, the artist will then begin putting the supplies out.
At this point, your artist should be doing things like dispensing various colors of ink into little disposable wells, and rigging a new set of needles into the tattoo machine. At this time, you will probably try to look cool by looking around the studio walls or occasionally looking to see what your artist is doing. Your artist might have a radio playing, which will help distract you a little.
At this point, it is best for you to try and relax. You can ask the artists about some things, like the colors of the ink. Depending on the work you are getting, the artist will need to mix some colors, for example. You're probably somewhat nervous, but excited at the same time because you're actually gonna get a real tattoo! Whether you realize it or not, your body is going through quite an adrenalin rush. Try to remain calm and not too anxious. Your hyped-up condition and your anxiety about the anticipated pain of your experience by themselves may trigger a fainting spell. It will help if you are not there on an empty stomach. Get a bite to eat about an hour or two before you go in for your session. Having hard candy or some juice on hand during the session is also recommended.
Just relax and try to stay calm. For women, the experience of anxious anticipation is similar to a pelvic exam at an OB/GYN, where you are more nervous about it while waiting for the doctor as you lie prone on the examining table, feet in the stirrups. Just as most exams aren't painful or really all that bad, neither is tattooing.
Bzzzzzttttt....The artist starts up the machine, dips the needle into the ink and starts to work toward your skin! Aaaaaahhhhh!!! Will it hurt? Will it hurt? Grit your teeth! Hang tight!...
Ooohhhhhhh! It *does* hurt! Ow! Ow! Ow! I'm okay, I'm okay, this is fine, it's not that bad. I can grit my teeth. Grit, grit, grit. Try to smile a bit. My teeth are gritting, anyway. Oh, I hope this pain doesn't stay like this!! Breathe. Don't forget to breathe. Relax. Relax. Relax. Okay there, that's better. Not so painful. I can handle it. Yeah--look at all the tattoos HE's got on his arms. I can handle it, too. Yeah.
...The most painful part of the process will pass in a couple of minutes, after which the area will feel abuzz with electricity and warmth. Just try to relax and breathe deeply--enjoy the one-of-a-kind experience that you're feeling. Oftentimes, you end up clenching your jaws, grinding your teeth or grasping the chair with your white-knuckled hands. But once you pass the first couple of minutes, you'll feel silly for having worried about it so much. If you still feel uncomfortable after a few minutes, it may be because you're sitting in an uncomfortable position. See if you can get into a more comfortable, reclining position--but make sure to ask the artist first before you try to move.
Some people try to distract themselves by trying to talk with the artist. This is kind of like with hair stylists--some stylists just love to gab and gab (just ask them an open-ended question), while some stylists would rather concentrate and not screw up your hairdo. Same with tattoo artists. While some will like to "talk story" with you, others would rather concentrate on the work you're paying them to do. After all, their job, income, and reputation are on the line when they have the tattooing machine to your skin. Often, they'll talk during easy parts, and less during complex work. Just go with the flow and not worry about it.
The only thing I don't particularly prefer is if there's a lot of traffic walking around in the studio and the artist has to keep talking to them (either potential clients or tattoo groupies). For this reason, a cubicle or dividing partition is a nice option for privacy.
Most people can sit through over an hour of work, but if you get uncomfortable, just ask your artist if you can take a break. If you feel woozy, you might consider bringing some candy with you to give you a little lift, or some water to drink.