Tattoo Pain: How Much Do They Actually Hurt?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on April 15, 2016
    Last Updated: April 7, 2023

Do tattoos sting a bit? Yes, they definitely do. However, how much a tattoo actually hurts somebody depends on an extraordinary amount of factors.

Many people think the tattooing process is just constant, unbearable pain. But in most circumstances, this isn’t the case at all. Throughout a tattooing session, the average person will experience many different feelings, thoughts, and sensations; and these will all depend on a multitude of factors.

Do All Tattoos Hurt?

I think you already know the answer to this question deep down. 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 during a single sitting. I’m not trying to put you off, but there are no two ways about it. Tattoos do hurt.

With that being said, not all tattoos cause pain equally; 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.

Factors that Affect 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. Pain can vary significantly between different tattooed places and areas 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.


There are many different types of tattoo design styles, and all of them are accomplished in various ways. For example, a portrait tattoo will naturally contain lots of shading, meaning that the tattoo 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 likely cause a different type of pain when compared to if the tattoo artist was doing a design with a lot of shading like portrait work. Outlining will require the tattoo artist to use fewer 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 of 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.

Artist Style

All tattoo artists their own individual style. Some work fast and some work slow; some are very gentle while 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 that on the other hand, the faster artists will obviously normally finish sooner, meaning that the pain, although greater, will be over quicker. You will appreciate this when the tattoo is done on an area of the body that is relatively high up on the tattoo pain chart, like the rib cage, for example.

How a tattoo artist has their machine set up will also slightly factor into the pain levels, depending on needle speed, needle quantity etc.

If you’re opting for a more historic tattooing method, such as a stick and poke tattoo, you will likely experience increased pain as it’s harder for artists to consistently apply the perfect amount of pressure over the area due to the lack of machine aid.

Keep in mind that there is no one best method, and artists both fast and slow can be just as brilliant or bad as each other, although faster tattoo artists are likely to lead to your tattoo costing less in the long run.

Discomfort Threshold 

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.

Alcohol/Drug Consumption

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 and for some people this may be true, but in many cases, intoxication from drugs and alcohol will actually heighten the sensitivity of your nerve endings throughout your body – therefore making the whole experience feel much worse than it would do normally. Alternative pain management tools such as CBD oil generally have unproven effectiveness with limited studies available.

Moreover, alcohol is a blood thinner meaning that you will have a lot more bleeding during the procedure, which can affect the artwork.

Your tattoo will also 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. Your body needs to be fresh and healthy in order to heal efficiently.

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 your pain tolerance and the 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 through, 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 painful inking, then you will probably persevere and get through it because mentally you are prepared for the pain. MIND OVER MATTER.

For people wanting a little extra assistance for dealing with the pain, a good tattoo numbing cream can really help to take the edge off.

One of the most effective tattoo numbing products currently on the market is Zensa Numbing Cream, which contains the highest level of Lidocaine allowed by the FDA for over-the-counter use. The feedback left by thousands of customers for this product is nothing short of exceptional.

Just follow the instructions supplied with the cream and apply shortly before your tattoo appointment is due to begin so that you can look forward to a less painful and more comfortable tattooing experience. The amount of cream you get in a tube also ensures you have more than enough for a large tattoo. Click here to buy from Amazon

While numbing products aren’t guaranteed to work, they do generally produce positive results.

What Does Getting a Tattoo Feel Like?

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.

Scratching Pain

This is the most common type of described pain that comes with being inked. 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 tattoo needle, so you’re likely to feel this pain more if your artist is shading rather than doing outline work.

Sharp/Stinging Pain

This type of pain is normally brought on by a lower needle count on the gun, usually during the outlining of your tattoo or adding very fine detail. This pain feels as though the tattoo needle is penetrating deep into your skin, causing it to feel sharp and intense, like little tiny bee stings.

This type of pain is usually more common in 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 tattooing needle, or swear at your artist (please don’t) – but this is tattooing, 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 – it is temporary after all – 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 tattoo needles too far down and protrude through a deeper layer of skin. Not only can this be quite a bit more painful, but it can also cause something called a tattoo blowout.

Burning Pain

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 in 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.

Vibrating Pain

A very strange feeling to experience when getting inked. 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 inked, 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 and 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 body’s 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 tattoo artist, listening to some tunes, or watching 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, 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.

Brussels, Belgium. Nov. 9th, 2019. A Tattoo artist tattooed a person during the International Brussels Tattoo Convention.

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 tattoo artist’s chair already mentally defeated.

Quick Tips on How To Make A Tattoo Hurt Less:

Why People Worry About Getting A Tattoo

The very thought of getting a tattoo can worry people in a number of ways. 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 the tattoo

Many people who have yet to get any tattoos are afraid that they may jolt or jump when the needle initially touches their skin due to the imminent and sharp pain, causing the tattoo 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.

Not Being Able to Finish the Session

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 tattoo 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 tattoos, but just can’t get past the whole needle aspect of the experience. This can be an enormously strong phobia for some people, and therefore 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 1/16th of an inch 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 tattoo artist is at work. Just wait for the artist to stop tattooing and check your tattoo out in the short breaks that your tattoo 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 tattoo 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.

Bloody Wrap
Don’t get worried if you see a sight like this – it is 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).

Fainting can often be caused by low blood sugar levels, which is relatively common during a tattoo session due to the effects that the penetrating needles have on the central nervous system – especially during longer sittings (4 hours+).

Pain Areas

Least Painful Places to Get a Tattoo

In general, the least painful tattoo spots are normally areas where there are lesser amounts of nerve endings and higher amounts of fat to cushion against the more sensitive muscle and bone – although there are exceptions.

Normally, the least painful areas to get tattooed for most people include:

Most Painful Places to Get a Tattoo

The most painful tattoo spots are usually areas where there isn’t much fat shielding areas of bone and muscle; these are the places where nerve endings typically bunch together in larger quantities – naturally emitting more pain signals to your brain.

Extremely fleshy and loose areas are also likely to be more painful than the areas mentioned in the section above.

Generally, the more painful areas when getting tattooed are:

Related Tattoo Pain Articles