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How Painful are Tattoos?

Posted by Drew Plotkin | Chief Dude Officer on

As many artists would say, ‘sometimes you have to suffer for your art’. But to what extent, exactly?

Let’s face it. Unless you are a sociopath like Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, pain sucks. And tattoos are PAIN. Physical pain. Why? Because to get a tattoo, the skin is pierced by a needle between 50 and 3,000 times a minute.[1] Exactly. It’s essentially the skin receiving thousands (and thousands) of flesh piercing, micro-wounds over a very concentrated area of the body.

Lots of people often wonder – just how bad does getting a tattoo hurt? Do certain areas hurt more than others? Do certain types of tattoos hurt more than others? Does your skin type have anything to do with pain levels? And of course – if your tattoo hurts more, does that affect your aftercare?

All valid questions with different answers. So, let’s take a look.

 

TATTOO PAIN IN GENERAL

General Tattoo Pain - Girl

TextIMAGE CRED: Sacred Heart Tattoo III – @tatiyanawalter

If anyone tells you that getting a tattoo ‘feels good’, then they are 1- delusional, 2- should open an S&M franchise, or 3- are just messing with you…’cause they ALL hurt! It’s not torture, but it’s not a lovely back massage laying on a bed of roses either.

A lot of people would describe the feeling of getting a tattoo as a “prolonged pricking sensation”. Some people say it can feel like multiple bee stings or even being scratched over and over for an elongated period of time. The degree of pain varies from individual to individual since we all have different nerve endings and feel and process levels of pain differently. The more sensitive your skin is, the more the tattoo hurts. Endorphins also play a part. It’s common for bodies to release endorphins in response to tattoo pain, but every person has a different biochemistry within. So, the ‘topline’ answer remains, pain varies from one person to the other.  

Having said that, the pain factor associated with getting a new tattoo also varies based on several factors—design, style of piece, location on body and size of piece.

DOES SIZE MATTER?

Tattoo of Face on Bald Head

IMAGE CRED: @kvrvc

It goes without saying that bigger tattoo pieces, which cover more real estate on the body, typically take more time under the needle — they also cost more money, which inevitably equals more pain. Additionally, the larger and more spread out the tattoo is on your body, the more likely it is to pass through some of the ‘higher pain zones’ versus keeping the tattoo contained to smaller areas that are more tolerable on the pain scale. Makes sense, right?

An important thing to note here. New tattoos can be itchy but it's super important to never scratch your new tattoo. Scratching an itchy tattoo can cause serious damage, so avoid it at all cost.

DOES DESIGN IMPACT PAIN?

Tiger and Snake Chest Tattoo

IMAGE CRED: Darren Brass – @brass305

Single-needle, micro-tattooing, which has become very popular as of late, tends to be less painful for most people. If it’s not obvious, a ‘single’ needle by nature is less painful than the more common tattoo styles that rely on multiple needles to create the desired design.

Most people would also agree that the outlining process of the tattoo is much more painful than the shading. (Although, I personally disagree with that from my own experience). Again, every human being has different thresholds of pain and handles pain differently. But, I will say this—if you were deciding between getting a tattoo this weekend or making a trip to the spa for a massage, the experience will be extremely different.

Blackout tattoos are suddenly very popular. These tend to be more painful for the obvious reason that the more skin that needs to be filled in with the needles, the longer you are sitting and the more painful it may become.

DEEPER COLORS & BLENDING PROCESS IN TATTOOS
Colorful Sleeve Tattoo
SINGLE-NEEDLE, MICRO-TATTOOING
Pain is Power Tattoo

IMAGE CRED: @East_01

THE TATTOO OUTLINING PROCESS
Back Tattoo Outline

IMAGE CRED: Paul Booth – @paulbooth

WHAT AREA OF THE BODY HURTS THE MOST?

Most Painful Tattoo Area

IMAGE CRED: Soctt Campbell Tattoo for Travis Scott – @scottcampbell

As far as body parts go, yes, absolutely there is a significant difference in pain levels. Generally, the closer the tattoo is to any bone, the more “HOLY *&^*$#@ OMG RHHH!!!! are bound to come out of your mouth. That’s because the closer the needle moves to a bone, you feel not only the pricking or stinging sensation, but also a painful vibration. So, while a tattoo on your upper forearm may go fairly-smooth with only mild discomfort, if you are planning on even coming close to the elbow bone, prepare to jump out of the chair and cry for your Mommy!

Areas such as the lower abdomen, obliques or love handles are also known to be higher on the barometer of pain. Ribs can be extremely painful for most people. Anyone getting a first tattoo should avoid such high pain areas until you at least adjust to some of the milder tattoo discomfort zones.  

More often than not, many people find the arms in general to be more manageable in terms of pain – but again, every single body part has specific areas that can take pain levels from a tolerable 3 to a youza 10+++ in a matter of inches. As a rule, tattoos that are placed over large muscle groups (quads, biceps, arms, back), have a tendency to be more moderate in the pain category. But again, it varies by individual and every artist has a different style of tattooing which very much impacts pain levels.

Tattoo Pain Chart

Tattoo Pain Chart

Dealing with Pain During your Tattoo


DO TATTOOS HURT MORE FOR MEN OR WOMEN?

Tattoo Pain | Women vs Men

IMAGE CRED: Zhou Danting – @Zhou Danting

Men and women may be physically different, however, there really is no difference between male and females with how they experience pain intensity during tattooing. The areas of the body tend to generate the same degree of pain in general. Again, it all depends on the individual’s personal pain threshold or tolerance. Some may argue that because men’s skin is biologically thicker and tougher, they may be able to tolerate the pain more. And others may argue that women have a higher threshold for pain since they are physically built for childbirth. In short, it’s all a matter of opinion. But physiologically speaking, there seems to be no difference when it comes to tattoo pain.

DOES INCREASED TATTOO PAIN INDICATE A “BAD” TATTOO?

Butterfly Tattoo on Wrist

Experiencing pain and discomfort during and immediately after a new tattoo is to be expected. (Again, you are permanently needling ink into your skin). Once the actual tattoo process is complete, the pain should be going down, not up.  

However, if you feel increased or prolonged pain more than a few hours after your tattoo is finished, start to watch the tattoo closely to look for any indication of problems. If you experience an increase of pain or any of the below problems, you may have an infection. It is not common to get an infection after a tattoo – but, signs of infection can occur IF you don’t follow the provided aftercare instructions given by your tattoo artist.

Tattoo Aftercare

Proper tattoo aftercare is critical to ensure your tattoo heals well and completely, and to minimize your risk of infection.

Basically, you should not feel pain too long after the tattoo process is done. Mild tenderness and soreness is fine, but any major pain or discomfort means you should see medical attention.

WHAT TO DO IF YOUR TATTOO BECOMES INFECTED

Infected Tattoo

IMAGE CRED: @xandertaylor2013

Tattoos that are infected will not heal on their own without treatment.

  • Consult with your tattoo artist
  • Seek Medical Attention
  • Follow Treatment Instructions provided by doctor
    • Which may or may not include antibiotics
    • Possible drainage
    • Possible surgery (if severe)

HOW LONG DOES TATTOO PAIN LAST?

Immediately after you get a tattoo, it will be somewhat painful – but the pain shouldn’t last long. Here’s what you can expect:

1st Week:
Your tattoo should be sore and a little red or swollen. The pain level should be similar to a moderate to severe sunburn or bruise.

2nd Week:
This is when the soreness starts to subside and itchiness begins to increase. You may still feel a burning sensation, which is normal. But you should not have any severe pain.

3rd + 4th Week:
Pain should be significantly less to almost non-existent and the itchiness and flaking should begin to subside.

Depending on the size of your tattoo and where it’s placed on your body will determine how long it will take your tattoo to heal – which ultimately will determine how long you have any discomfort. But once your tattoo has healed, it should not hurt at all.

HOW TO MINIMIZE TATTOO PAIN

Tattoos will hurt no matter what – but here are some helpful tips you can do to try and minimize the pain:

Choose a reputable tattoo artist
The more experience the artist has, the more skill which should mean less time required to do the tattoo. Also, check out the cleanliness and hygiene of their shop.

Pick a less sensitive body part
See chart above. Avoid the higher pain zones if pain tolerance is a concern.

Stay hydrated
Drinking a lot of water before helps keep your skin hydrated. Dry skin = pain.

Break up the tattoo session into smaller sessions (if getting a larger piece)
If you’re getting a larger or more detailed piece, try breaking it up into smaller sessions to avoid sitting for too long.

Avoid alcohol
Anytime you drink, your blood thins, and you become dehydrated. Alcohol also can make you more sensitive to pain.

Avoid any pain relievers
It’s common to bleed during a tattoo session. Taking aspirin, ibuprofen or other pain relievers may thin your blood. Avoid taking any at least 24 hours prior to session.  

Get a good night’s sleep before your tattoo
With a solid night’s rest, you’re more equipped to handle pain better.

Never get a tattoo while you are sick
Nothing feels good when you’re sick. But a weakened immune system can make everything hurt more and compromise both your skin and healing process.

Eat well
Skipping a meal before a tattoo session is never good because you run the risk of low blood sugar which can result in getting dizzy or increasing your sensitivity to pain. Bring snacks with you if your session is a longer one to avoid dips in blood sugar.

Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing
You’ll be sitting or lying down a while, so the more comfortable you are, the more relaxed your body will be.

Take Deep Breaths
Breathing exercises help your mind and body relax and can also help you push through any pain or discomfort.

Distract yourself
Bring a friend, listen to music, engage in conversation, watch TV. Whatever it takes, finding something to distract yourself or focus on besides the tattoo will help.

Try Numbing Cream
A good tattoo numbing cream can help take the edge off. This may not work for some, but rubbing the area with a safe numbing cream before going in for ink can help keep some of the pain at bay.

Remember The Purpose
Sometimes reminding yourself why you are getting the tattoo and what it means to you can help distract your mind and push through.

Whether it’s your first tattoo, your tenth, or if it’s the last remaining bare skin on your body–getting tattoos are painful. With a little preparation and taking the necessary precautions, you can help minimize the pain.

Conclusion:

Tattoos can certainly be painful AF and some areas of the body hurt much more than others. Distraction and proper tattoo aftercare protocol is key when it comes to dealing with tattoo pain.

Most importantly, don't be a wuss, dude! J/K

Take it easy, dudes.

-Drew Plotkin (Chief Dude Officer)

 

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