When I walked into my first tattoo appointment I had no idea what to expect. Tattoo pain is a mystery to anyone who has yet to experience it and it’s a difficult discomfort to explain. Even when I ask tattoo artists to describe the pain, they often struggle with their answers.
Part of the reason for this is because tattoo pain varies between people. It also varies depending on area of the body, style, and size of the design. Some tattoos hurt more than others and your experience of tattoo pain in one location doesn’t always indicate your experience of the pain in another. My first tattoo, for instance, didn’t hurt much, but my second tattoo — a rib piece — was a different story. It hurt so much I didn’t think I could sit the appointment through to the end.
Some tattoo enthusiasts say they enjoy the pain of the process — which scientifically speaking could be possible as pain triggers the body’s release of endorphins and endorphins make us happy. But if you don’t relish in pain and want to remain as comfortable as possible, that’s okay too. In fact, craving comfort and attempting to limit pain is human instinct. There are both mental and physical ways to get through tattoo pain, and we’ve rounded up six of the most effective.
1. Control your breathing
Mira Mariah is a Brooklyn-based tattooer, mother, and amputee. She’s been getting tattoos for a decade and has experience managing tattoo pain in addition to chronic pain. She’s found controlled breathing to be one of the most powerful ways of dealing with both kinds of pain. This is something echoed by several tattoo artists including Montreal’s Bastien Jean, who says “breathing evenly and calmly is key. Doing this sends the message to your body to relax and tells it that everything is alright.”
2. Distract yourself
Distraction is the top tip artists share when pressed for ways to get through tattoo pain. And distraction comes in many different forms. Tattooers understand the importance of distraction so most are open to any methods that work for their clients. It’s important to do what feels best for you, but some of the easiest distraction methods include listening to music, scrolling through your phone, squeezing a stress ball, and conversation (whether you’re talking to a friend or your tattooer).
“I always recommend that [clients] bring a friend, partner, or family member along,” says Portland-based tattooer Mariah Woodman. “I think the added support is a great distraction from the overall pain of a tattoo. I always try to bring someone along with me when I get tattooed!”
3. Consider numbing treatments
Numbing treatments such as Maxilene®, EMLA®, Zensa, and Hush are slowly becoming more prevalent in tattooing. I ask nearly every tattooer and dermatologist I speak to for their opinion on topical anesthetics and their reviews are varied — most dermatologists recommend them, but many artists are wary of their effect on the skin. But when applied properly, numbing creams are arguably one of the best ways to get through tattoo pain.
Most numbing treatments must be applied 30 minutes to an hour in advance of a tattoo appointment in order to be effective, and even then their effect only lasts for about two hours. If you’re getting a small to medium sized tattoo that won’t take longer than a couple of hours to complete, topical numbing creams, which typically employ lidocaine to temporarily block pain receptors, can protect you from discomfort the entire time. Before you use one of these treatments though, it’s important to ask your tattoo artist if they’re comfortable tattooing over numbed skin. “Some of these products actually change the texture of the skin and can make it more difficult to tattoo,” says Woodman, which is why many artists don’t work with them.
4. Eat and stay hydrated
Don’t arrive to your tattoo appointment dehydrated or on an empty stomach. Doing either of these things will make the process significantly more painful to sit through.
Your body requires blood sugar (i.e. energy) to produce the endorphins and adrenaline that work to naturally relieve pain. Food provides this energy, which is the reason tattoo release forms typically ask clients to confirm the timing of their last meal. Hydration is important for a different reason. Aside from being requisite for good health, hydrated skin is easier for tattooers to work with and is better at accepting ink. The better your skin is at absorbing ink, the fewer times your artist will have to go over the same area of skin with their needle(s) and the less pain you’ll be subjected to as a result. So while this method of dealing the pain involves some work in advance of sitting down for an appointment, it’s one of the most critical.
5. Stay positive
You’ll get through this! You’ve been through worse, and if you really think about it, this is mere moments of pain for lifelong gain. “A positive mindset can help [alleviate the discomfort of being tattooed],” says Jean. Science seems to agree, with studies suggesting that staying positive reduces our perception of pain. “Remind yourself why you’re getting tattooed. Remember that it’s your own choice and that this is something you were looking forward to,” he says. “That usually brings you back into a positive state of mind,” and can be one of the simplest ways to get through tattoo pain.
6. Take a break
For an activity that involves being sedentary for a long time, getting tattooed can be extremely tiring. Sitting through even mild discomfort for significant lengths of time is draining, so don’t be afraid to tell your artist you need a break — to just sit and breathe, eat a snack, or take a swig of water. A good friend of mine who recently got her second tattoo (a massive leg piece that took over two hours to complete) says that taking breaks made managing the pain significantly easier. So whether your position has become uncomfortable or the discomfort has become severe and you need a bite of food to boost your energy, breaks are your friend in the quest to dampen tattoo pain.