Tattoo Pain - How Much Does Getting A Tattoo Hurt?
Ah, this old discussion. The question with no real answer, honestly. Do tattoos hurt? Yes, they definitely do - but how much getting a tattoo actually hurts for each individual person depends on an extraordinary amount of factors, and there cannot be a single correct answer to this question.
This large, detailed article should hopefully give you some insight into what factors should be taken into consideration when it comes to deciding how painful a tattoo can be.
Do All Tattoos Hurt?
I think you already know the answer to this question deep down. Do all tattoos hurt? Unfortunately, yes they do. At the end of the day, your skin is getting stabbed with between 1 and 20 needles at once, over and over again - hundreds of thousands of times over a single sitting (really). There are no two ways about it, all tattoos do hurt.
That being said, not all tattoos hurt equal, and there are many, many different factors that can affect the amount of pain in which you may or may not go through for any given tattoo.
What Does Getting a Tattoo Feel Like? How Bad Do Tattoos Hurt?
Once again, how bad a tattoo hurts is a very difficult question to answer as there are so many variables that can affect what getting a tattoo feels like.
Below are the main ‘feelings’ that you are likely to experience when getting tattooed. Of course, everybody is different and what one person may call one type of pain, somebody else may describe it as another - so keep that in mind.
This is the most common type of described pain that comes with being tattooed. As the tattoo gun move across your skin, it will feel like an intense scratch. To start with, this feeling isn’t too bad, but it can get tedious if the same area is being worked on over long periods of time.
Multiple needles tend to feel ‘scratchier’ than a single needle, so you’re likely to feel this pain more if your artist is shading rather than doing outline work.
This type of pain is normally brought on by a lower needle count on the gun, usually during outlining of your tattoo or adding very fine detail. This pain feels as though the needle is penetrating deep into your skin, causing it to feel sharp and intense.
This type of pain is usually more common on areas covered with thinner/tighter skin, such as your wrists and inner biceps.
The stinging pain isn’t pleasant and will probably make you want to move the body part away from the needle, or swear at your artist (please don't) - but this is tattooing unfortunately, and the motto “no pain, no gain” is the truest thing you’ll ever hear when it comes to this stepping into this business.
Just fight through the pain and you’ll have a kick-ass tattoo by the end of it.
Note - Sometimes, particularly if the artist is inexperienced, they can push the needles too far down and protrude a lower layer of skin. Not only can this be quite a bit more painful, but it can also cause something called a tattoo blowout.
This is a bit of a mix between the two types of pain above, but is more likened to a scratchier pain to a stinging one.
This type of pain is more common on areas that are being repeatedly worked on by the tattoo gun, and areas with a bit more fat beneath the skin.
This pain isn’t so much intense as it is annoying, but like the scratching pain, it can start to wear you down mentally after a little while.
A very strange feeling to experience when getting tattooed. You’ll probably end up feeling this type of pain when you’re being tattooed over anywhere bony – places like the outer wrist, outer elbows, ribs and ankles.
As the needles from the gun come into close contact with your bones, they hit against the area many times at very high speeds, and this can cause quite an intense vibration feeling.
This feeling/pain isn’t normally considered sharp or excruciating in most cases, but it is definitely not a pleasant feeling. The less muscle/fat you have over a boney area, the more likely you are to experience this kind of tattoo pain.
Dull/Background Pain (The Best Pain!)
Probably everybody’s favorite type of pain to be in when getting tattooed (as weird as that sounds!).
When the needle makes its first few passes over your skin at the start of your tattooing day, the pain is probably going to feel quite intense, and if it’s your first time getting tattooed you’ll probably be saying to yourself ‘I don’t think I can go through with this, I want to stop already!’…
…But don’t worry, after a few minutes your adrenaline amongst various other hormones will begin to kick in and the pain will begin to subside and start to feel like a dull background pain. This is your bodies way of dealing with the current trauma.
You will probably continue to drift in and out of this ‘dull pain’ phase throughout the sitting, and will likely experience it more if you’re preoccupied with something else such as talking to your artist or watching a TV.
Once in a while your body will snap back to reality and you’ll have to put up with heightened pain receptors again for a while - but the pain will hopefully fall back into the background again shortly.
You must note though that the longer your sitting goes on for, the more likely it is that your body will start to run low on its pain-lowering hormones. This means that if you’re in for a long sitting, you’re naturally going to be struggling with the pain more towards the end compared to at the beginning.
Along with low adrenaline levels, you’re also going to be battling bruising and swelling, among other things - therefore so this is the part where you really just have to try to dig deep and fight through the pain barrier.
Keep in mind that the stage at which the pain starts to heighten and gets ‘unbearable’ widely varies from person to person, so if your friend said they could only take 1 hour of pain and had to stop, your threshold could well be over 4/5 hours, so don’t step into the artist’s chair already mentally defeated.
If your tattoo pain starts to become unbearable, there is absolutely no shame in mentioning it to your artist. The vast majority of artists will be more than happy to take a small break so you can recoup and 'get back into the zone’.
Ask the artist if you can go outside to get some fresh air for a few minutes and think about whether you’d like to continue for the rest of the session. Normally a few minutes away from the chair is enough for you to settle down and mentally prepare yourself for some more time under the needle.
Tattoo Pain Worries
The thought of getting a tattoo can worry many people in a number of ways. For most people, getting a tattoo isn’t a common experience, and lots of people will not have experienced it before at all.
Of course, there are many things that you must try for the first time that can bring on some degree of anxiety and apprehension - and being tattooed is no different.
Of the many reasons why people may be worried about getting a tattoo, the actual pain caused during a tattooing session is definitely one of the big reasons. Below are some of the more common tattoo pain worries - along with a bit of advice on how to cope better with each worry.
Jerking and messing up tattoo
Many people who have yet to get a tattoo are afraid that they may jolt or jump when the needle initially touches their skin due to the imminent and sharp pain, causing the artist to make a mistake.
In reality though, although you may feel like this is going to happen, especially if it’s your first time, this is rarely ever a problem.
The pain you feel when the needle first touches your skin isn’t sharp enough or painful enough for you to react by jolting or moving the body part. The pain will feel like a scratch, but should not feel in any way intensely painful.
Coming Across as a Wimp
Again, lots of people are worried that they will come across as wimps and scaredy-cats partway through their tattooing session, either by having to quit or by throwing out all sorts of squirming noises and facial expressions, looking as though they’re trying to suck on a lemon.
But - you must realize that there is no shame in being in pain while getting a tattoo. Tattoos hurt EVERYBODY; and whoever says that they don’t hurt to some extent are liars.
If you’re one for the odd dramatic noise and facial expression when you’re in discomfit, I promise you that your artist will have seen much worse from the many, many previous customers that they will have dealt with before you.
Not Being Able to Finish the Tattoo
Lots of people are scared that they will have to stop the session midway through because they won’t be able to handle the pain. You should realize that the amount this happens is actually quite common, especially on extra tender areas of skin.
If you have a low pain threshold and are certain that you won’t be able to last for very long in the chair, it’s recommended that you try to arrange with your artist to have shorter sessions. Most artists will be perfectly happy to break a piece into smaller time-chunks if the tattoo is on the larger side.
Fear of Needles
A very common fear for many who wish to get a tattoo, but just can’t get past the whole needle aspect of the experience. This can be an enormously strong phobia for some people, and therefor can be a tough one to conquer.
You must remember that these needles are nothing like the hypodermic needles that you most-likely worried about when you go to get a jab at the doctors. These needles are extremely short in length and only actually go about 1-2mm into your skin!
See those veins on the underside of your wrist? Tattooing needles don’t even get anywhere close to those veins; this proves how shallow they actually go.
Also, you never even need to look at the tattoo gun while the artist is at work. Just wait for the artist to stop tattooing and check your tattoo out in the short breaks that your artist will take regularly to change gloves and take a sip of drink.
Fear of Blood
Similar to the needle fear above – some people just don’t like the sight of the red stuff.
Normally, as long as your artist isn’t too rough, there is only a very minimal amount of blood that actually draws out of the area during the tattooing process. The mixing with the ink makes there seem a lot more than there actually is.
Again, you never have to look at the area being tattooed while your artist is working. Just mention the worry to your artist before they start and ask for them to wipe clean your tattoo before each time you look at it so there’s as little blood around the area as possible.
Be aware though that there is likely to be small amounts of oozing during the next 48 hours once the tattoo is complete, but again this should be minimal. Just don’t get too worried if you see some blood and oozy liquid trapped beneath the protective wrapping when you come to take it off – it’s completely normal.
Surprisingly high amounts of people get extremely worried that they may pass out while being tattooed because of the pain. Realistically though, this is quite uncommon, and the main reasons why most people faint is not normally the pain itself (the pain from tattooing rarely ever gets that bad).
When people faint and pass out during a tattoo, it’s normally due to extreme panicking, or the fear of other things besides the pain such as needles and blood as mentioned above.
Fainting can also be caused by low blood sugar levels, which is relatively common during tattooing sessions due to the effects that the penetrating needles have on the central nervous system - especially during longer sittings (4 hours+).
If you start to feel faint or dizzy, tell your artist immediately. They should be trained to deal with situations like this.
If you ever start to feel unwell or sick, ask your artist to take a brake and get some fresh air.
Also remember to take a sugary snack or drink with you to your sitting as this can help boost your blood sugar levels to prevent and help manage any unwanted ill/dizzy spells during the day.
What Factors Can Affect Tattoo Pain?
There are lots of factors that are able to affect how much or how little a tattoo is likely to hurt during a session. There are also lots of ways to help deal with varying levels of tattoo pain:
Probably the most obvious factor. Tattoo pain can vary significantly between different places on the body. Fatty, fleshy areas are normally the least painful while areas with only very thin layers of skin with not much fat are generally more painful, especially around bony places.
Of course, everybody is different and while one person may have been in agony while getting a tattoo done on one area; somebody else may have found the same area a breeze - and vice-versa.
If you’re wondering which areas are generally more or less painful when getting tattooed, jump to the 'Where do Tattoos Hurt the Least and Most?' section further down this article.
There are many different types of tattoo styles, and all of them are accomplished in various ways. For example, a portrait tattoo will naturally contain lots of shading, meaning that the artist will be using different types of needles in the gun when compared to doing a lot of outlining work.
Alternatively this outline work will probably cause a different type pain when compared to if the artist was doing a style with a lot of shading like portrait work. Outlining will require the artist to use less needles at a time in the gun, meaning that the pain will feel different compared to if the artist was using more shading needles to cover larger areas of skin with a single stroke.
How rested your body is can to some extent dictate how well you’re going to be able to put up with certain amounts pain. Being in a restful and relaxed state will mean that you body is better prepared for various rigorous activates (tattooing included).
On the other hand, if your body is tired and stressed, it will be much more sensitive to pain and other outside factors.
Every artist has their own individual style. Some work fast and some work slow; some are very gentle whilst some are heavy-handed. All of these different styles will feel different to the person getting tattooed. A gentle, slow artist will generally cause less pain when compared to an artist that is rough and quick. (This probably holds true for certain activities outside of tattooing also...)
Just remember on the other hand though – the faster artist will obviously normally finish sooner, meaning that the pain, although greater, will be over quicker.
Also keep in mind that there is no one best method, and artists both fast and slow can be just as brilliant and bad as each other - although a faster artist is likely to lead to your tattoo costing less in the long run.
Everyone has their own personal pain thresholds. While one person might be able to put up with being in the tattoo chair for 5, 6 or even 7 hours; another person may only be able to take the pain for a maximum of one hour before reaching their limit.
Many people believe that if you turn up to a tattoo drunk or under the influence of other substances, your tattoo isn’t going to hurt. In certain cases for some people this may be true, but in many cases intoxication from drugs and alcohol will actually heighten the sensitivity of your pain receptors - therefore making the whole experience feel much more worse than it would do normally.
There is also the issue of turning up to your studio appointment while noticeably appearing to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This will very likely result in you being turned away immediately, and losing your deposit in the process. Don’t risk it.
Last but not least, your tattoo will take much longer to heal if you're in a constantly tired and hungover state in the days leading on from your trip to the studio.
Current Physical Health
Various illnesses and diseases can affect the human body in many ways, and can often make pain feel much worse than normal due to pain receptors and parts of central nervous system being under a heightened level of stress.
If you have a short-term illness it is always best to wait until you’re back to full health before getting a tattoo. Not only will the experience on the day feel much better for you, but your tattoo is likely to heal much better also if you're fighting fit. A lower immune system also increases the risk of contracting an infection through your healing tattoo.
Finally, if you have a long-term illness, always consult a doctor before getting a tattoo. The stress caused to your body from a tattooing session can possibly make your present illness worse than it currently is.
Mental State of Mind
It’s extremely surprising how powerful the human mind can be. The term ‘mind over matter’ really does relate well to experience of being tattooed.
If you go into your session thinking that the pain is going to be the worst thing in the world and that you’ll probably have to quit halfway though, then you probably will quit because you’ve already conceded defeat!
On the other hand, if you enter the studio with a ‘can do’ attitude and tell yourself that you can fight through this short patch of pain, then you will probably persevere and get through it, because mentally you are prepared for the pain. MIND OVER MATTER.
Best Ways to Help Deal with Tattoo Pain
Although it's inevitable that you're going to experience at least some sort of pain and discomfort during your tattoo session, there are many various things that can be done to help ease the pain and make for a better tattooing experience:
Remember that EVERYBODY Goes Through Pain to Get a Tattoo
Always keep in the back of your mind that not a single person has been able to get a tattoo without feeling some kind of pain and/or discomfort.
Yes, some people experience more or less pain than others depending on various factors mentioned above, but everybody goes into the chair with at least some kind of apprehension/anxiety knowing that it’s going to hurt at least somewhat.
Remember Why You’re Getting Your Tattoo
Many of you guys reading this will be getting a tattoo that you would like to mean a lot to you. If you start to struggle with the pain during your session, always remember why you’re getting the tattoo and how much it will mean to you once it has been completed.
Will a few hours of pain and discomfort be worth it in the end? I think every one of you will agree that it definitely will be.
Educate Yourself About Getting Tattooed
It’s always helpful when you know what you’re going to be getting yourself into before going to the studio in order to prevent any unwelcome shocks and surprises.
Read up as much as you can about the whole tattooing process – this is extremely easy nowadays with the power of the internet. This way, you will be pretty educated about each step of your day of being tattooed.
This should help ease any anxiety that you may have and help to keep you relaxed leading up to the session.
If you are truly worried about getting your first tattoo, ask the studio/artist what their normal daily schedule is like at studio so you know exactly what will happen throughout the day.
Eat Well Beforehand and Take Snacks
Ensure that you eat a big wholesome meal about an hour before your session. This will boost your sugar levels and keep them boosted for the next few hours. A big meal should also keep you energized so you don’t feel sluggish an hour or two into the session.
If you feel lethargic, dizzy or slightly ill during your session, make you try to eat something sugary. The needle continuously puncturing your skin can cause your blood sugar to drop, which can lead to some of these unwanted side effects.
Remember to let your artist know if you feel ill or dizzy and they will stop and let you have a break to get some fresh air and regroup.
Ensure You’re Well Hydrated
Water has so many benefits that it will be impossible to list them all there. Just make sure you get your recommended amount of water in the days leading up to your sitting and you should feel miles better throughout the session.
Wear Comfortable Clothing
The aim is to feel as relaxed and comfortable as possible - and wearing lose-fitting, comfy clothing should go a long way to making you feel relaxed in the chair.
Getting agitated and fidgety because your pair of skinny short-shorts are getting stuck up your bum isn't going to help you when trying to concentrate on fighting through the pain barrier.
As previously mentioned, a positive state of mind goes a long way when going through painful and discomforting situations. Go in with your best outlook on the situation and you will come out feeling proud of your awesome new tattoo and the way you handled the day.
The below video sums up perfectly the difference that positive thinking can make.
Get a Good Sleep the Night Before
There is nothing worse than sitting for hours on end on 2 hours sleep with a hangover. You will enjoy the experience so much more if you’re in the most optimum and energetic state as possible.
A bad night sleep before getting your tattoo can lead you to becoming tired, grouchy and fidgety throughout the day, which won’t help either you or your artist - and you definitely won’t be able to handle the pain as well.
Listen to Your Artist’s Instructions
Your artist will always know what’s best for you and how to keep you as comfortable, relaxed and pain-free as possible.
Follow whatever advice your artist gives you, and you should be better off throughout the session for it. If he tells you to go out and get some fresh air for 5 minutes because you look like you’re struggling, go and do it!
Take Something to Bite On
An old classic tactic! You must have seen at least one war film where a soldier needs to have an arm or leg taken off in the field with access to no anaesthetics - what do the medics do? Give the person something to bite on!
Although not as extreme when compared to an at-war soldier- and you wont look like such a hard-ass by doing it, but by having something to bite on during the struggling parts of your tattoo, it may actually help with pain relief for a little while if the artist is going over a particularly sensitive spot.
Alternatively, many people claim to find some relief from the pain by sucking a lollipop or by chewing some gum – so it may be worth trying these methods if you start to struggle.
Ensure the Area of Skin is in Good Condition
You don’t want to turn up to your session with a huge bruise or cut on the area of skin that is about to get tattooed – this will not feel good when a needle goes into the area a thousand times a minute. Make sure you look after yourself leading up to the day.
Likewise, make sure your skin around the area is nice and supple. Moisturize the area regularly for a couple of weeks before the session and drink lots of water to ensure your skin is well hydrated. The less tight and dry your skin is, the less pain you will likely feel (the difference may be minimal, but every little helps in these situations).
Listen to Music/Audiobook or Watch TV (If There is One)
Basically try to do anything you can that may distract your attention from the pain for any length of time. Switching on and listening to your current favorite album may be the thing that is able to take your mind away from the pain for a little while to give you a much needed break from the constant discomfort of the needle.
Talk to Your Artist (If They Don’t Mind)
Yes, some artists are less keen to converse in small-talk while they tattoo you (concentration and all that), but most will be perfectly happy to talk to you throughout the entire session.
Personally, this is the one method that I find works best for me when trying to take the pain away. Time really does fly by if you find something interesting to talk about with your artist.
Practice Controlled Breathing/Meditation
For some people this can work well, and for some it does nothing. Personally, I struggle with controlled breathing as my concentration levels aren’t very high while getting tattooed, but many people claim it works wonders for them.
Try to breath as deeply as possible, and attempt to focus solely on your breathing and nothing else. Take 10 deep breaths, counting each individual breath, and repeat.
There are also various methods of medication that you could try to learn/practice to see if this helps with the pain. Again, this is very hit and miss for people depending on how well they’re able to concentrate on things like deep breathing and focus.
Try a Skin Numbing Cream
Again, this doesn’t work for everyone, but rubbing tattoo-specific numbing cream onto the area of skin before going in for your tattoo can definitely help keep some of the pain away.
There are a range of numbing creams available that are safe to use on tattoos, including one of the more popular products below.
My Favorite Tattoo Numbing Product
One of the most effective tattoo numbing products currently on the market is a spray called Vasocaine. The feedback left by hundreds of customers for this product is nothing short of sensational.
The fact that you can continue to 'top up' the numbing effect throughout your entire tattooing session without any negative effects to the outcome of the tattoo means that this spray is truly one of the most effective numbing products around today.
The 4oz bottle also ensures that you will have more than enough spray for a tattoo no-matter how big.
Give it a try, and I'm extremely confident that you will not be disappointed.
Read more about Vasocaine Numbing Spray here. Have a quick look at some of the customer reviews and you'll see why it's so popular.
Here's a selection of my other favorite tattoo numbing products.
Always check that the numbing cream can definitely be used specifically on tattoos. There are various numbing cream products on the market created for generalized usage, and some of these creams can affect your skin/blood in certain ways as to be detrimental to the outcome of your tattoo.
Side effects such as tightening/loosing of the skin and thickening/thinning of the blood can definitely cause your tattoo to turn out less-than desired, and it is therefore always recommended that you check the packaging of each numbing cream you think about using to ensure that the product is tattoo-safe.
All of the tattoo numbing creams recommended above are safe for use before getting tattooed.
Where Do Tattoos Hurt the Least & Most?
Although this question will never have a solid, factual answer, personal opinions from thousands of people over time have formed a good solid base for deciding which areas on your body are likely to be the most painful places to get a tattoo.
It's important to remember once again though that everybody is different and everyone will have a different pain threshold for each different area of their body.
Usually though, the areas of the body discussed below generally receive the same opinions about pain levels from the majority of people who have had work done on the said areas of their bodies.
Where are the Least Painful Places to get a Tattoo?
In general, the least painful areas to get a tattoo are normally places where there a lesser amounts of nerve endings and higher amounts of fat to cushion against the more sensitive muscle and bone areas - although there are exceptions.
Generally, the least painful areas to get tattooed for most people include:
Where are the Most Painful Places to get a Tattoo?
The most painful areas to get a tattoo are usually places where there is not much fat shielding areas of bone and muscle.
Extremely fleshy and loose areas are also likely to hurt more than the areas mentioned in the section above.
Generally, the more painful areas when getting tattooed are:
Hopefully this article has answered a lot of your questions, and relaxed some of your worries.
It's always good to know what you're getting yourself into - and therefore you're doing the right thing by trying to find out about what getting a tattoo will feel like before taking the plunge.
Yes, your tattoo will hurt. No, it won't be a comfortable experience for the most part - but just remember - you are going through a few hours of pain so that you can have a beautiful and meaningful piece of art on your body for the rest of your life.