We in the Better Tattooing family understand you hate pain. In fact everyone does, that why we have safe words!
Have a talk about the idea of pain, and that tattoos are a unique type of painful, leads us to an article about the best ways to deal with tattoo pain. In fact, my nearly 20 years of working in the industry has given me a bit of a second-sight into people – how I feel they will take the pain of a tattoo before a procedure begins. Without fail, I have been pretty successful at trimming the proverbial fat of a client’s intention s, fears, and wants before starting a tattoo.
Along the way I have found a few types of client mentalities. More specifically, types of people that are susceptible to the pain of a tattoo over others. This attention to a person’s pain – a type of empathy or something the like – seems to be a unique trait unto myself (at least in my mind), and the experience that I have gleaned over the years has led me to have a decent law-of-tattoo-pain-averages for the run-of-the-mill client (Yes, lots of hyphenated words will be jotted down during the intro to this article.
Highlights of the Article
- The Butt Hole, Neck, Face, Armpits, And Knees Are The Worst Spots To Get Tattooed
- The Average Client Can Benefit From Knowing How They Unwind To Combat Tattoo Pain
- Man Vs. Woman – Battle Of The Sexes And Pain – Women Win.
- Think Before You Ink – Pain Plays A Part In Tattoo Decisions
Onto the Article!
Does it Hurt to Get a Tattoo?
While tattoo pain is a subjective experience, the process of going through a tattoo can be broken into the most likely to be painful to the spots that are easily sat through by the most novice of skin art wearers. Before we get into which spots hurt more than others, let’s talk about the client-types that frequent tattoo shops globally.
If you are a tattoo client, take a peek below and see if you can identify who you are in the world of tattooing. You can learn a couple of tricks about how best to deal with the pain of a tattoo.
Pain – Types of Tattoo Clients
Audiophile Tattoo Clients
Are you a person who likes to unwind with some over-ear headphones and some loud music? Do you close your eyes and drift off into a dream-like state after a hard day’s work by listening to your favorite band?
You might be a client that is stimulate by means of your auditory senses!
People who use sound to unwind and detach from reality are a unique bunch. In fact an article I found published by INC. entitled “Neuroscience Says Listening to This Song Reduces Anxiety by Up to 65 Percent”. While this claim may seem like science fiction to some, I know some of us out there are really quieted by the smooth, soulful sounds of The Alan Parsons Project.
Tattoo Pain Hacks For Audiophiles
Some easy ways to keep yourself from losing it during a long tattoo sesh – Bring some music to listen to during the procedure. Sometimes singing helps even if your artists hates the sound of Rick Astley at 160 Db.
More Reading – The Effects of Music on the Human Stress Response
Visually Stimulated Clients
When you finally get the kids off to bed, or get a chance to unwind after a long day of classes, do you put on a TV show or movie to escape reality?
If so, you may be a visually stimulated tattoo client, or in this article’s case, a cinephile. Some people really need to have something to watch to separate themselves from the world of stress that surrounds them.
More often than not, the person who chooses to watch TV or a movie to unwind is actually wanting to overload their brain so that they can drift off to dreamland. By watching TV, the person who is engrossed in a show shuts off specific parts of their brain while stimulating others, leaving the brain in a limbo before sleep overtakes them. I found an article on VICE entitled, “Is Watching TV Actually a Good Way to Rest Your Brain?” that has some interesting facts about the whole process.
More Reading – Cinema Therapy | Watching Movies For Psychological Health
Tattoo Pain Hacks for Cinephiles
Bringing a movie or show to watch on a tablet or phone can greatly alleviate the stresses on a person during a tattoo session if the person is deemed a cinephile and is one of the best ways to deal with the pain of a tattoo.
Physical-stimuli Focused Tattoo Clients
The white rabbit of tattoo clients – physically stimulated people are the golden ratio of hopelessness for a painful tattoo. People who are physically stimulated will more often than not DIE (proverbially, of course) during a tattoo. It doesn’t matter where or what they are getting, from a single letter to a sleeve, because they will squirm, shake, and scream their way through the tattoo.
Why does this happen? It’s because the person who is getting tattooed is having the calming effect of touch, which normally soothes their tortured soul, bastardized by the needles jabbing their skin 100+ times a second. The calm, sensuousness they normally feel during a massage or while brushing their hair is replaced by a wholly encompassing, obsessive attention to the pain they are feeling. There is little you can do to help them when you are their artist.
Tattoo Pain Hacks for Physically-Stimulated Tattoo Clients..
Get a good night’s rest.
Take an Advil (if the doctor says it’s ok).
Don’t smoke pot for 72 hours.
Our Tattoo Pain Chart V1.
Most people coming into a tattoo parlor, especially for their first tattoo, ask this question regardless of their design, “Is this going to hurt?”
Tattoo artists the world over are keen to answer this is one way or another:
“Ya, it is going to hurt.”
“Like a selective amputation, your tattoo will hurt more than Jesus’ final day.”
“Ya, they all hurt, ya sissy.”
Whether an artist has the patience to answer the question with class or not, certain parts of the body are a give in to be located at the high-end of the personal pain index. We can make assumptions on what is going to hurt most based on what parts of your body don’t interact with the world around them very often. Parts of the body that have tons of nerve endings, are hidden from daily brushing with door jambs, or those that get tons of sun, all have a different feeling when being struck with a fast moving, heavy handed, tattooer’s needle.
Here is a short list which breaks down what sucks, and what doesn’t.
The Absolute Worst Places To Get Tattooed
Take your fingers and start pinching. Yes, really do it. Don’t like what you feel? Well…
Each part of the body that you don’t want to pinch will fall into this list.
Armpits and Behind the knees
BEWARE!!! The armpits and behind the knees are horrible to get tattooed. While this place may not be the most painful, it is thin skinned, highly stretchy flesh that sweats, has hair follicles (for most of our armpits), and never sees the direct light of day. This area is also directly over a lymph node and the axillary nerve (a nerve which supplies feeling to the entire arm. Striking it with a needle stresses your body something fierce.
These parts of your body are prone to bleeding heavily when being tattooed, heals rough, and itches like crazy when the hairs start to regrow after the procedure… or when you over stretch the skin and make it split apart while the machine is running at high speed.
Looking at the utility of such a tattoo, this spot is only for those who want bragging rights, or those who don’t have much space left to tattoo.
Covered in nerves and sensitive to the touch, nipples are horrific to get tattooed. Like the armpit, these parts of the body are left to those who like to have some bragging rights. Getting the nipples tattooed is like buying a Ferrari, it is flashy and expensive om the pain side of things. This spot is left for those who get a full chest tattoo and don’t want a couple holes poking out in the middle of the design.
Funny story from days past:
“I once had a client come in and for his first tattoo he wanted to blast his entire chest…. In a single sitting. After a longer than normal consultation, he assured me that I was simply ignorant to how tough and vicious he could be. I lamented the day of tattooing this first timer’s chest, yet agreed to do the work because, well, money talks.”
As the session started, after placing a slick design across this young man’s chest and seeing a couple lines crossed right across the nipple, I started the tattoo after a 3 count. My first line started on the sternum, crossed his nipple, and ended in the crotch of his arm.
The screams this young man let out lifted the spirits of the dead – raised an unholy army of the night. He started shaking uncontrollably, nearly vomited, and quit the tattoo session after a rushed 45 minutes of line work.”
Yes, this really happened.
I have not seen him since.”
Getting kicked in the groin can end a fight but getting tattooed around the nether regions is a true session ender. In my experience, Only a handful of clients sit for longer than a couple hours when getting their crotch blasted – a timeline that decreases the closer you get to the actual private parts. If you are going to get this area tattooed, keep it small… or bring a belt to bite on.
Elbows and Kneecaps
The elbows and knees contain a ton of nerves, have little adipose (connective) tissues underlying the dermal layers, and swell a ton when getting tattooed. These spots are also main junctions for the blood delivery of your extremities (popliteal arteries is just fun to say!)
Past the pain of a knee or elbow tattoo (which can be pretty extreme once the initial adrenaline wears off), healing knee and elbow tattoos can be laborious. The decreased adipose tissues increase the chance of tattoo pigment being rejected or absorbed during the healing because adipose tissues are necessary for speedy, effective, healing. Think about it.. As a person ages, their visceral fat increases while the connective tissue density decreases, and if you have ever tattooed an older person’s skin you know – tattoos heal poorly on old skin.
Also, you use your arms and legs to interact with the world around you and, having to bend these body parts being inextricably intertwined with such actions, you will continually stress the tattoo throughout the healing.
What does this mean?
Tattoos on the elbow and knees take longer to heal.
Between the Fingers and Toes – The Fingers and Toes
There is not a lot that we need to explain about this tattoo spot. It really, really hurts, but since this is a descriptive article about pain, here is an article that talks about hand and foot tattoos.
Read more about finger and hand tattoos – BetterTattooing.com | How Long Do Hand Tattoos Last and Can You Do Them?
To make the description as brief as possible; getting your singer webbing tattooed feels like hot ash being ground into that skin area. #FML.
Neck and spine
Housing the somatic nerves for your body, the spine is very sensitive to pain. It has to be.
If the spine gets damaged it can create a lifetime of issues – paralysis or decreased mobility – to the person suffering from the injury. Beyond the fact that spinal damage can leave you in traction for years, the spine has very little subcutaneous tissues covering the bony area running the length of your back, which we know will increase the pain experienced by a tattoo client and possibly extend the healing time.
Normally this area isn’t the most painful tattoo spot but, due to its near constant engagement when awake (like shirts and other things touching and rubbing it, or the fact that the skin stretches nearly constantly when you move about), and the fact that sleeping becomes so much more difficult with a wound on your spine, I moved these spots up a category.
Head, face, and ears
If you are getting your face tattooed, you have probably already thought through your life choices and possibilities of employment quite thoroughly. The good thing about face tattoos is that they …really don’t hurt that bad!
What makes these spots so horrible to deal with (past the pain, which is horrific at times) is the societal judgments that you will face for the rest of your life. Be prepared to justify your choices when a senior citizen mocks your fresh AF dot work-half-face-mandala for looking like a doily that covers their grandma’s credenza.
The Lips and Brow line
These spots legit hurt to get tattooed. That is why cosmetic tattoo artists numb the hell out of these areas before dipping and ripping. The skin on and around your lips is generally loose with lots of nerve endings, bleeds a lot, ad heals with a scab when done perfectly.
Imagine singing the HMS pinafore while scabbed at the lips… Jesus…
The tissues inflame quickly, bleed a ton, and if they pick up an infection the possibilities of losing something more than a couple days to antibiotic-riddled bed rest are exponentially increased.
Yes, people get their butt holes blasted. It is horrific to watch and even worse to go through. Sheer torture. There isn’t much else to say except, dayyyummmmn!
Next, we will look at the more commonly tattooed places which hurt like hell.
Very Painful Places to Get Tattooed.
We have passed the irrational places people get tattooed.
Yes, I claimed the above areas are irrational because the pain of going through those spots, and the potential life altering effects of the tattoo afterwards, deem them something more than novel. To be blunt, you got to be an addict to get that done.
Yet, as the above areas are considered kind of crazy the following list is more approachable to those looking to adorn their body without screaming bloody murder.
The Rib Cage
While the ribs are most commonly described as being the worst place to get a tattoo (mostly by men), the rib cage is basically a tossup as to how bad it will be for a person. One thing to keep in mind with any place that is being tattooed – the more use it gets the less it hurts.
I say that as I know of few people who utilize their rib cage daily. No one out there uses their ribs as a table during a dental cleaning. Even fewer utilize the ribs as a place to hold a drink or open a door.
The ribs are an extremely common place to see a tattoo. Men and women alike often get quotes, floral arrangements or even portraits emblazoned on their ribs. Even though this is such a common spot to get a tattoo I still get people coming in repeating various ad-libbed opinions about how bad a rib tattoo hurts.
A Non-sequitur About Tattoo Pain
Let’s get this straight. Tattoos hurt. Regardless of who you are they hurt.
If you are shaking your head and saying, “Well not for me bruh. I sat for 7 hours, and the tattoo didn’t bother me nothin!” you can shut your mouth. If it didn’t hurt, you could sit for 36 hours straight and crush a case of Hagen Daz without dropping a grimace. They hurt. Period.
What we do need to address is the factory outputted garbage about how things will inevitably hurt because they are on “x” body part. That idea is completely untrue.
Back to Rib Pain and Tattoos
When I stated earlier about how rib tattoos are a tossup as to how much they hurt, I literally meant a proper 50/50 split, depending on the client. I find more often than not men are far more sensitive to tattoo pain than women. Making a guess, I would rationalize bras and other tight-fitting clothing makes the rib area more desensitized to women when comparing their pain tolerance to men – this is focalized to specific parts of the ribs though. The floating ribs on a person seem to be a transitional area where pain can go from moderate to extreme on most people (man or woman alike).
This transition also occurs as your tattoo gets closer to the armpit area. Look above to see exactly why I think the armpit is a horrible place to get tattooed.
Ankle Bones and Tattooing Your Shins
The ankles are not the most fun place to get tattooed. Whether it is the inside or the outside, the feeling of a needle bouncing off of the bones just under your skin is enough to make some people faint, other people screech (NOT from SBTB).
The ankles and shins are a visceral experience.
The ankles hurt.
This spot is great for delicate lines and smaller designs that take the place of jewelry or other adornments. Things just look cute and quaint on the ankle but be warned. It really hurts getting that spot of your body tattooed. No adipose tissue, a highly mobile area, and the fact that most people wear socks/shoes sometime of the year keep this spot high on the ouch-list for the average clientele.
While other people may be happy getting a small tattoo on the forearm, others are wanting to place something rad on the front of their lower body. Enter the shins.
Just like the ankle, the shins are horrible to feel during a tattoo.
The actual pain of a shin tattoo isn’t as bad as most places on the body but the fact that you can feel every strike of the tattoo machine makes this spot more than uncomfortable for most clientele.
The Hips and Hip Bones (Front)
We are not talking about your “thicc” thighs, no, no, no. We are talking about your hip bones located near the lower abdomen.
The skin is not very thick and has very little adipose tissue. It is prone to blow outs and bleeding. Your pants will fit too tight and grind against the tattoo as it is healing and no one will ever see the tattoo 20 years from now.
Yes, keep in mind you will age and that sexy little star tattoo will look like a chocolate waffle 50 years later.
You got lots-a-explaining to do to the grand kids once they see you in a swimsuit in Cozumel.
Tops of Hands and Feet
Once again, there is a lengthy article about tattooing the hands and feet found by following this link:
The Abdomen Area
Many people claim that the thinner and more toned you are the less this area will hurt. These claims are nearly right, but also wrong.
The abdomen is a unique area when getting tattooed because the pain you feel is multiplicitous. What does that mean?
It gets worse the longer that the tattoo goes on, just like all tattoos! The thing is, the time it takes for this area to go from OK to Holy-Hell is shorter than most. This occurs for a couple of reasons:
- When the tattoo is being applied the skin must be stretched to a certain tautness. If this is not accomplished, the needle will bounce off the skin causing a decreased saturation of pigment that is being inserted. If this occurs, the tattooer must go over an area multiple times to achieve the necessary density of pigment that makes a lasting tattoo. More often than not, an artist will not stretch the skin well enough to accept the tattoo. This means you will be getting tattooed multiple times over the same spot – this will increase the amount of pain experienced during the tattoo.
- There are no bones behind the skin of the abdomen, it is just guts and muscle. Due to this, the person stretching the skin will most likely be pushing down hard of the underlying structures. This will cause fatigue in the muscles which in turn makes things hurt more.
Because this area is so difficult and requires skilled hands to accomplish correctly, the client will most definitely suffer due to any error in technique. This we have learned is a near constant in the world of tattooing in the West.
The Lower Back
Most people would claim that this spot on the body is not very painful, and I would agree… except the skin here is really stretchy.
Take a normal sized tattoo stencil and place it on a forearm. What you see what you get.
Take the same stencil and place it on a lower back while standing relaxed. Now, go to a mirror and and lean forward, bending at the hip… That same stencil that looked like a quaint butterfly with a little script is now the size of Godzilla’ forearm!
That is why the lower back hurts; the design’s grow in size and in turn the process is time consuming!
Kind Of Painful
Lumping a couple different areas together, we can tell you what places aren’t horrible to get tattooed. These are the places on the body that you will more likely sit for lengthy periods of time – compared to those horrible experiences above.
Men will complain about how crap this area is but, in reality, the inner arm is not a place that we need to worry about… Unless you get close to the armpit or elbow. It really isn’t a big deal until hour 3. Once you pass that milestone you will wish you hadn’t been born.
The Outer and Middle Thigh
This part of the body is constantly being rubbed by your jeans! That means that the pain you feel on this part of the body is not as catastrophic as most others in comparison. The thigh is a big, thick (thicc), meaty section that is easy for the artists back and can be made to be more comfortable for the client by having them lay flat or sit over the side of a massage table.
The only major downfall to this tattoo placement is the healing.
Healing a thigh tattoo is difficult because, just like it was stated above, the skin is constantly coming into contact with your restrictive clothes. To combat this issue, wear some sweatpants or something loose fitting for a while – until the scabs fall off.
Just like your thighs, the forearms are tough as they come. It’s the least painful spot on the body (in our opinion at The BetterTattooing.com) so get ready to sit for 10 hours without having a difficult time healing that place.
Healing Hacks for a Forearm Tattoo
For those who have a labor-based job and worry about healing a forearm tattoo Follow this simple trick-
- Take a tube sock that is washed or new.
- Cut the toe out of the tube sock
- Apply your aftercare product as you normally do.
- Pull the tube sock over your tattoo backwards – leave the smooth side against your skin.
- Wear for the work day.
- Pull the tube sock off backwards, trapping the dirt and grime on the outside of the sock as you pull it off.
- Wash, air dry, moisturize.
The Easy Places
Shoulders and Outside of the Arm
Next to the forearm these parts of the body are the easiest to sit through.
Why do you think there are so many people who have upper-half-sleeves?
The Calves (Lower Leg Backsides)
This spot on the body is great to get tattooed, as long as you stay far away from the back of the knee. Getting closer to the top will greatly increase the pain you feel when getting tattooed!
The Upper Back
The upper back – or the backside of the shoulder – is really, REALLY, easy to sit through. There are only a couple spots that hurt, a triangular shape that hits the most shallow, non-adipose laden spots on the shoulder.
This list shows most of the spots you may get tattooed covered. What we didn’t cover will be added later.
Things That Factor Into Tattoo Pain
Pain is subjective but there are many things that will add to the total pain value a person feels when getting a tattoo:
Sex (not Gender)
Most of the time women sit better for a tattoo than a guy does. This idea is inclusive to the sittings that are an hour long or less. Once you go past the three hour mark sex doesn’t play a role in the sitting strength of a person. If someone sits longer than 7 hours, it doesn’t matter if they are from Mars, they are tough as all get up.
One thing to add to this:
When women undergo menses (menstruation, also known as a period) their ability to handle tattoo pain is less apparent due to a decrease in their estrogen levels. Keep this in mind if you are wanting to break an all day session but are under the cloud of menstruation’s effects on your body, don’t go in!.
Men seem to sit better for tattoos on the arms (lower) than women. This may be anecdotal due to the amount of dudes getting tattoos that work with their hands.
Women sit better for most tattoos on the back and ribs.
Guys sit better for tattoos on the hands and feet.
In comparing the total area of skin available and who sits better… Women win. Hands Down.
Experience pays in the tattoo world. We all remember our first tattoo and the fear that accompanied sitting in the chair and waiting to feel the needle to strike our skin. Everyone worries that the pain is going to feel like a selective amputation, but hopes for the tattoo to feel like a calm breeze.
We all know that tattoos feel like tattoos. Not a bee sting, not a cat scratch. A tattoo is a tattoo.
Once you have taken the step to sitting through your first tattoo, you know what to expect in the future. Knowing what to expect makes it easier to sit through the pain.
This assumption is taken from years of hearing people set boundaries from previous sessions times/lengths. Once a client bypasses the length of a sitting they had previously accomplished a sense of joy and wonder washes over them.
When this happens, the client will usually only sit about 30% longer than they have already. It is like some invisible boundary pops up and settles their ability to rest in the chair any longer – their brain destroys the lack of pain by limiting their endurance.
Ticklish and Getting a Tattoo?
If you are ticklish, getting a tattoo can be akin to murder. This is even more evident when skin is being stretched and you jump/wiggle to accommodate the strain your body is reacting to that ticklish touch.
Lack of Sleep and Getting a Tattoo.
Not getting sleep can deprive your body of the chemicals necessary to fight off the pain of a tattoo. Research is a great thing and when researchers show us that sleeping is good for our mental well being, we flock to our fluffy pillows like sheep to a… sheering? Maybe a salt lick? I don’t know…
If sleep is so important to our physical and mental health you can bet that it is beyond important for longer tattoo sessions.
Read this article to earn a little more about how helpful a good night’s sleep can be for your pain tolerance
Learn More – Sleep Deprivation Article – The Independent
Describing Tattoo Pain Effectively
There are a few types of tattoo pain:
- The Burn – This is when a tattoo feels like a hot poker is being brought closer to your skin. The closer it gets, the hotter it – this translates to how long you sit in the chair. The longer you sit, the more it burns.
- The Slice – Feeling like someone is literally slicing your skin off is a byproduct of long sits in the chair. If you enjoy long walks on the beach and getting your skin peeled off, get in the chair for 14 hours and enjoy your life!
- The Gouge – This is where a tattoo feels like a hot ice cream scoop is digging out parts of your body. This feeling is reserved for those really nasty spots like behind the knees or armpits.
- The Vibrato – Getting your skull tattooed makes your eyes shake. It’s unnerving. What’s worse is when your vibrating skin starts feeling like it is being dragged down a length of rope at high speed. You will also feel this pain when your wrists, ankles, elbows, and knees get tattooed.
The Distinct Phases of Tattoo Pain.
The pain of a tattoo goes through 5 distinct phases:
- The Initiation: Ouch. Not for me.
- You have just been struck with a needle and you must second guess your decision.
- The Calm: Yup, I am getting tattooed. This Hurts
- You have accepted the fact that this tattoo is just underway and have prepared yourself to sit for as long as it takes..
- The Numb: Well, We are about ½ hour in. I guess I am resigned to my fate.
- This is where you actually go numb during the process. Life is good and you can have a conversation during the needle jabbing.
- The Awakening: What in the world have I been doing for the past 3.5 hours?
- After sitting for so long you notice that not that much has been done. You second guess your ability to ovary the heck up to finish the tattoo.
- The Retreat: I hate you. I hate everything. I hate the universe. I want this to end. Please kill me. I give up.
- You stop getting a tattoo.
Minimizing Tattoo Pain
Here are a few tips to minimize tattoo pain:
- Taking a short break every hour that lasts no more than 5 minutes will help your rear end not fall asleep.
- Having a clean shop and experienced artist will help your piece of mind overcome a lot of the pain aspects of a tattoo. If you trust the person who is hurting you, you can allow a little leeway when the going gets tough.
- Eating a large meal less than 2 hours before getting a tattoo may make you vomit. Just have a small snack an hour before but a large meal 4 hours before that.
- Aftercare is king. Listen to your artist but trust your own knowledge of your body before their blanket statements,
- Sleep = Good Tattoo Sitting. Get sleep!
- Not doing drugs or smoking pot will help you sit for a long time. Drinking aside, (if you talk with your hands especially) doesn’t matter past the fact you cannot legally give consent while drunk as hell.
- Bring OJ, pop, or something sugary to drink during the procedure to increase your endorphin load. Chocolate also helps.
- Don’t use numbing products. They don’t help for more than an hour and if you are still working on the tattoo after that hour, you get all the pain plus what your body has been ignoring for a while.
Other Aspects of a Session That Can Affect Your Decisions
Tattoos are a permanent modification to your body. Knowing what you want to get can only go so far. You must think about what the design will look like in the future, how you will view the tattoo as you age, and what the possible repercussion of a design may mean to your livelihood.
Take the process seriously but let the process occur organically.
Getting a tattoo is a unique experience. One that blends the artistic vision of the tattooer and the ideas and body of the client. The process is collaborative and if you aren’t involved from the start, you may be missing out. You should always trust your artist but be willing to give feedback when necessary. If the artists isn’t willing to work with you:
WALK OUT AND DON’T GO BACK!
Other aspects of the process you need to consider.
Tattoos are a really, really serious change to your body. You can develop allergies due to the pigment, be allergic to the pigment or its additives right at the start. You can become light sensitive, develop scar tissue – all the while not knowing exactly what is being injected into your skin.
Be a smart client or artist.
Set realistic goals.
And, above all else – trust the process of a skilled artisan and mature through the process together.