Looking to get inked? Use these hints and you're on your way to obtaining a great tat.

CHOOSE AN ARTIST. "Read, research, get a referral," counsels independent tattoo artist Paul Roe, who has thousands of tattoos to his credit. (The Web sites Tattooz.net and Tattoodles.com are good places to start looking.) Find someone "whose tattoo you love -- not like, but love -- and ask them who did it," he says. Then, visit several studios.

"Look at photos of the artist's work," adds tattooist Eric Bartholomaus, owner of Keepsake Tattoo in Arlington. "The lines should be consistent, the colors should be solid and the shading should be smooth." Check level of detail and style, and be sure you're looking at healed tattoos. Fresh ones (watch for redness or a wet appearance) almost always look gorgeous, but the healed pics are what they'll look like forever.

ASK QUESTIONS. LOTS OF QUESTIONS. The more information your artist provides, the better. She should answer all your concerns easily and willingly. If she seems uncomfortable -- or if you're just not satisfied with her answers -- go elsewhere.

DO A SAFETY CHECK. Allergic reactions to tattoos are rare, but anyone with sensitivity to a particular metal (such as nickel) should mention it. Risk of transmitting disease through tattooing is also very low, as long as safety procedures are followed. Ask to see the autoclave -- the machine that sterilizes equipment. If it looks as if it hasn't been used in 10 years, it probably hasn't. Also make sure the tattooist employs single-use, disposable needles; the sterile bags that hold these should be opened in front of you. New ink caps, gloves and furniture covers should be used for each customer and thrown away in biohazard bags immediately after each session. When you come into the room, you should watch as everything is laid out and see your tattooist wash his hands thoroughly and put on fresh gloves.

PICK YOUR MOMENT. Before getting tattooed, be sure your tetanus shot is up-to-date, get a good night's sleep and, to avoid fainting, don't get inked on an empty stomach (no, they can't just keep tattooing while you're passed out). Go when the artist is least busy -- you don't want him rushing it, and if he's on his 10th hour straight, he might not be at the top of his game. And if the tattooist is drunk or high, don't let him near your skin.

BRACE YOURSELF. It will hurt: Greg Dietrich of Reston, who has more than 10 tats, likens the experience to "a deep, long, painful brush burn." To minimize discomfort, Roe tells his clients "the three rules of getting tattooed: relax; breathe consistent, regular breaths; don't move." Roe also says that with a correctly applied tattoo, "there should be very little blood. Perhaps a drop or two over the entire thing." Don't drink alcohol or take aspirin -- both thin the blood -- in the 24 hours before or after getting a tattoo.

DON'T FORGET THE AFTERCARE. Ointments, lotions, top-secret formulas -- there are almost as many regimens as there are artists. The best advice? Do what your tattooist recommends. Keep the bandage on for at least two to three hours, then use your hand to wash the area gently with soap and water. Exposure to sun fades any tattoo, new or old, so keep yours covered with sunblock of SPF 30 or stronger.

DON'T RUSH INTO IT. Tattoos are permanent, so think hard. And remember, drugs and alcohol combined with permanent body modification is a recipe for regret. Wait until you're of sound mind, and then decide if you still want those Grateful Dead bears dancing across your behind.

Emily Messner

So maybe all the cool kids are doing it -- just proceed wisely, grasshopper.