A little-known fact about tattoos: Your body doesn’t want them. When a tattoo artist injects ink deep into the dermis, your immune system treats it as an insult. (Depending on the size of your hawk-on-a-flaming-motorcycle back mural, it might be justified in doing so.) An inflammatory response is created, with cells called macrophages rushing to the site to try and destroy it. These macrophages gobble up whatever ink they can, remaining on the site and adding luster to your work.
What does this have to do with sleeping? Well, in the first one-to-two weeks following a fresh tattoo application, you’re trying to manage an open wound — and how you manage it at night can mean the difference between a beautiful samurai sword and a blotchy, infected mess that looks vaguely phallic. We asked Mike Martin, a veteran tattoo artist and the President of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists, for tips on how to deal with your inky side in bed.
1. Buy some cheap sheets. Then keep washing them
While smaller tattoos benefit from a breathable, non-stick bandage to promote healing and prevent seepage of ink, blood and medically undefined gunk, others may be in an awkward area (the evergreen “tramp stamp”) or too large to cover. Bandages can also come off. In any case, you need a sleeping surface free from months of dead skin cells and assorted bacteria. “People don’t always wash their sheets as often as they should,” Martin says. “Everything needs to be clean.”
You also don’t want your new tat leaching into that 1000-thread count Egyptian cotton. “There may be an imprint of the tattoo left over in the morning,” he says, particularly if it’s a work heavy on color. “The ink probably isn’t going to come out.” So, buy cheap sheets. Wash them every day. When you’re done making like a squid, throw them out.
2. Kick your pets out of bed
Your dog or cat probably enjoys their mattress privileges. Your tattoo will not. Animals tend to be inquisitive about wounds, and you do not want them tasting it. “Do not let pets anywhere near your tattoo,” Martin says. “Sleeping with them is a horrible idea. I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, my dog was licking my tattoo.’ Come on, man.”
3. Don’t sleep on it
Got a big back project? Sleep on your belly. Tattoo on the right bicep? Try not to roll over on that side. In addition to increasing the risk of ink transfer, you might wake up stuck to your sheets. “You’ll wind up pulling out ink that will need to be touched up later,” Martin says.
If you do find yourself one with the bedspread, carefully pull it over to the shower and run lukewarm (not hot) water over the cloth to loosen it up.
4. Keep it high
If you got work done below the waist — particularly on the calf — fluid accumulation during the day could lead to swelling. To remedy this, try propping your leg up on a pillow at bedtime with a bag of ice. It’ll cut down on throbbing, Martin says.
5. Tend to it like the wound it is
A tattoo is a purposeful injury on your skin. Your body wants to heal. Let it. Forgo some late nights out to keep your immune system in the fight. And follow aftercare instructions for washing and moisturizing with unscented lotion. (Scented creams will burn.) If, after due diligence, you suspect the tattoo isn’t healing, contact your artist as soon as possible. “Don’t wait,” Martin says. “It’s not a, ‘Lemme see what happens’ situation. Infections can kill you.”
Heal properly and you’ll have a colorful, vibrant, healthy ink job to be proud of. Assuming, of course, you had good taste to begin with.