The idea of washing the tattoo with cold water is comforting, but horseshit. When you take of the initial bandage (after at LEAST 4 or 5 hours, longer [up to 24 hours] is better), you MUST MUST MUST wash the tattoo thoroughly in water as hot as you can stand it, then a little bit hotter. You want any dried lymph and blood to be able to loosen up a bit.
Showers are great, but for fuck’s sake, do NOT soak it in a bathtub, swimming pool, hot tub, or a fucking lake or ocean.
Although you do NOT want to use a washcloth or sponge on your healing tattoo at all, you DO want to thoroughly and somewhat aggressively wash the living hell out of your tattoo with your fingertips and soapy water to make sure that you get ALL of the coagulated blood and lymph off of the tattoo. Leaving any of this on the tattoo will lead to a scab, which means a rough healing process that can leave you with a shitty, busted tattoo.
After washing, pat the tattoo dry with a paper towel and then apply a TINY amount of either Vitamin A&D ointment (found in the diaper section of your market), Aquaphor, or Bepathin (for you foreign dudes and dudettes). TINY AMOUNT is the key. You do not want to smother your tattoo in a slather of goo, just put enough onto the tattoo to absorb.
Don’t cover your tattoo with another bandage, but you DO want to wash your tattoo off every couple of hours, dry it, and apply the ointment again. Keeping the tattoo clean is imperative to the healing. It absolutely doesn’t matter if the soap is anti-bacterial or not; any mild soap will be fine (I use dove or ivory myself). Just make sure that when you wash your tattoo that your hands are clean before you touch it, so wash your hands thoroughly first (how can you tell if you have washed your hands well enough? When washing, get all the nooks and crannies while singing the “ABC” song. By the time you finish the childhood melody, your hands should be well clean enough to now wash your tattoo.
Remember to do the above steps for THREE DAYS ONLY. Using any kind of ointment for longer than that can lead to complications. You can use neosporin or bacitracin, but I don’t recommend it as some people can get toxic reactions from using medications so much. I know around a dozen or so tattooists who had to go to the hospital because suddenly their bodies reacted near fatally to having neosporin on their new tattoos for days. Not good. Keeping the tattoo clean will be fine.
After the initial three days of washing the tattoo like an obsessive-compulsive ape, just wash the tattoo 2-3 times a day and start applying a tiny, tiny dab of mild, unscented skin lotion to the tattoo on a limited basis. Cetaphil LOTION (not the cleanser) is a good mild brand. Don’t use the lotion too much though. Obsessing on it and applying the lotion too often can lead to clogged pours and pimples on and around the tattoo.
A few days after all this, your tattoo shouldn’t scab, but it will peel like a sunburn. If this is the case, congratulations, you followed the above instructions well. These peelings will be the colors of the tattoo though, and that looks like fucking hell. Don’t worry though, it’s not the tattoo falling out, but rather the epidermis exfoliating and carrying with it any excess pigment. Your tattoo is healing beneath that in the dermis, so don’t freak out if it looks like your arm is excreting some kind of fruity children’s breakfast cereal flakes.
After the tattoo is done peeling, it will look slightly shiny and waxy. At this point you can still use lotion whenever it feels too dry, but it’s pretty much going to be doing fine on it’s own. If the skin feels tight, you can use something like Aquaphore, coacoa butter, etc at this point because the skin is no longer open or abraded. The tattoo will take around 1-2 weeks of really babying it and then an additional 2-4 weeks of going completely back to normal. Tattooed skin actually takes around 6 weeks to absolutely, 100% heal if cared for properly. During that time, please, please, please keep it out of too much sun exposure. ESPECIALLY during the initial 2 weeks of healing. Your new skin has no real protection against UV rays, and going to get a tan on a healing tattoo will fuck it royally.
Also, once your tattoo is healed, start putting a heavy sunblock on it whenever you go out for a day in the sun. What SPF? I honestly advise a SPF 50 or above. Consider your tattoo a long-term investment. Keeping the UV off of it will keep it looking good for years to come.
Other things to remember while it’s healing: Don’t wear tight clothing on your tattoo while healing. It’s especially important if you get a tattoo on your leg to wear shorts, culottes, a dress, or something that won’t rub on the tattoo. Pants rubbing on tattoo = shitty heal. If you got a tattoo on your waistline, wear something that is not constricting as much as possible for the first week. Now is the time to convince your friends that mu-mus and togas are the height of fashion.
Other than the above advice: don’t expose your healing tattoo to any belt sanders, brick dust, or cat shit and it should be fine.