“Getting a tattoo involves changing the color of your skin by inserting ink into its second layer [the dermis], most often using a needle”, explains Curt Montgomery, the Toronto-based tattoo artist whose signature strong-line minimal tattoos grace the skin of Halsey, Joe Jonas, and Sophie Turner. And while being poked by a needle is likely to hurt at least a little, for people who haven’t experienced getting a tattoo, the pain remains a bit of a mystery.
Just how painful is it to get a tattoo?
If you’ve spoken to friends about the experience and how it feels, it’s very possible that you’ve heard conflicting reviews—tales about the discomfort being so minimal they found the session relaxing or stories about the pain being some of the worst they’ve ever felt. The reality is that pain perception varies. According to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, “everyone has a different pain tolerance, so what is tolerable for one person may be extremely uncomfortable for another.” Montgomery, for example, has never been a huge fan of getting inked—though he has quite a few tattoos—because he finds that his skin is particularly sensitive.
Although pain is highly subjective, there are a few areas of the body that typically experience it more intensely than others. To get a better sense of what hurts and why, and to learn more about how to effectively deal with the pain, we asked Montgomery and Dr. Zeichner to weigh in.
What is the most painful place to get a tattoo?
“We have nerves throughout our bodies that control our pain sensation,” explains Dr. Zeichner. Areas of the body with a higher concentration of these nerves experience pain more intensely which is why, he says, “the hands and feet are uniquely sensitive to pain.” He’s also found that parts of the body where there isn’t much subcutaneous fat—fat that sits under the skin—such as the shins, wrists and neck, are more likely to experience pain or discomfort.
Over the four years that Montgomery has spent working as a tattoo artist, he’s had many of the same learnings, and while he’ll tattoo his clients pretty much anywhere if the project is cool enough, he tends to stay away from feet and ribs due to their increased pain sensitivity. When you get a tattoo in a particularly sensitive spot, he says, you become prone to sudden movement or flinching; your body’s natural reaction to the discomfort. But sudden movements also make it harder for your artist to follow the lines of your design (sort of like when you’re writing a card in a moving vehicle), so in addition to those areas being more sensitive, you could end up with a flawed tattoo.
What are the least painful places to get a tattoo?
Alternatively, the areas of the body that typically hurt least to get tattooed are locations with thicker skin and a lower concentration of sensory nerve endings including the back of the arm, outer arm, upper thigh, calf, shoulder, upper back, and buttocks. Both Zeichner and Montgomery stress that this isn’t an exact science though, and while these areas tend to be less sensitive, they can experience intense pain as well.
Do any tattooing methods hurt more than others?
When you choose to get inked, you’ll have to decide between two different methods of tattooing: machine and hand-poked. The main difference between these two techniques is the way the ink is inserted into the skin; with hand-poked tattoos—also referred to as stick-and-poke or machine-free tattoos—designs are inked manually by poking a needle into the skin by hand, whereas machine tattoos employ a motor that moves the needles automatically. The pain associated with these two methods varies slightly; hand pokes frequently being cited as the less painful option because, according to Montgomery, “the hand-poke process is less aggressive than the mechanized process since artists are manually pushing the needle into your skin. It’s more delicate than a machine.”
While Montgomery exclusively tattoos using a machine, he wears many hand pokes and has found that the pain isn’t better or worse, but it’s certainly different. “When you’re getting tattooed with a machine, usually the line is one and done,” he says, “but with hand pokes, you have to go over the same area a few times to get the same density of line.” This means that hand poke artists must poke your skin in the same spot several times to generate the same thickness of line that a machine could ink in a single pass. The more you poke an area, the more sensitive it becomes, he says, which is why some hand pokes will actually feel more uncomfortable than machine tattoos of a similar size.
Does the size of a tattoo affect the pain?
The size and complexity of a tattoo can also help determine the amount of discomfort you’ll experience while having it done. Large or detailed designs (ones that include fine lines, shading, solid colors, etc.) take longer to complete, and typically the longer you’re in the chair, the more intense your pain. While large, detailed designs are tattooed using the same methods as small, minimal designs, the pain tends to be more intense, particularly with solid or shaded tattoos, because your skin is already irritated from prior cutting in the same spot. When you get a tattoo, the needle punctures your skin leaving an open wound, explains Montgomery, and more complex designs require your artist to poke the needle into the same spot—a spot where there’s already a wound—multiple times, which makes the process more likely to hurt.
Another reason for the increased discomfort is adrenaline. While this may seem counterintuitive since the body produces adrenaline and endorphins as a way to counteract pain, Montgomery says that “when you get a tattoo, your adrenaline spikes and then starts to drift, and it does this over and over again so much so that when you get a big tattoo, your continuous adrenaline spikes leave you exhausted and it actually becomes harder for you to handle the pain.” This is why artists will usually schedule multiple sessions for larger tattoos and cap off appointments at three to four hours.
If your tattoo requires multiple sessions—the number of which depends on the size of your design-—artists will most often use the first appointment to outline the piece, and subsequent appointments to ink finer details including shading or color. And while the amount of time you’ll need to wait between appointments varies, Montgomery suggests waiting “between a week and a month, depending on how well you’re healing from the previous session.”
What does the pain of getting a tattoo actually feel like?
Despite the fact that getting a tattoo involves being punctured by a needle, the pain isn’t comparable to something like a blood test or a flu shot because the needle is puncturing your skin multiple times, each poke in extremely close proximity to the last, and it isn’t going as deep. According to Montgomery, the pain of a tattoo is unique and probably best described as a “continuous sharp scratch”—imagine running your hand across a wire fence and scraping it on a protruding piece of metal—or “small pinches.” At its very worst, often when a design takes longer to complete, tattoo pain “sort of feels like something sharp is scratching you on top of a fresh wound,” he says.
What can you do to make the pain more manageable?
If you’re set on getting inked and are gravitating towards putting your design in a particularly sensitive area, there are actually quite a few ways to deal with the pain. Although the tips below won’t stop your tattoo from hurting altogether, they can certainly help.
1. Consider using a topical numbing treatment
If you’re worried about pain, Dr. Zeichner suggests consulting a dermatologist before getting your tattoo. “A dermatologist can give you a prescription for a topical numbing cream that can make the experience much more tolerable,” he says. When applied the correct length of time prior to your appointment, creams such as Maxilene, EMLA, Zensa, and Hush can lessen your discomfort. Each of these topicals makes use of the popular numbing agent lidocaine which works by temporarily blocking pain receptors where applied. Most numbing creams need to be applied 30 minutes to an hour in advance of an appointment and their effects last for about two hours, so if you’re getting a large tattoo and are planning to use one of these products it’s important to note that it could wear off before to the end of your appointment (which is typically when the process is most painful). You should also ask your tattoo artist if they’re comfortable tattooing over these products, on numb skin, before use.
2. Take care of yourself, mentally and physically, prior to the appointment
If you arrive at your tattoo appointment tired, sick, on an empty stomach, hungover or even stressed, you may be more sensitive to pain. “If you’re not fully energized or you’re fighting off an illness or feeling the effects of a night of heavy drinking your body is focused recovering and your pain tolerance is lower,” says Montgomery.
Take care of yourself leading up to your appointment by drinking water—Montgomery suggests drinking the recommended daily intake (2.7 to 3.7 liters) for an entire week before getting inked, eating a substantial meal about an hour prior to so you have enough energy to sustain yourself through the session, and trying your best to be in a positive, relaxed headspace. It’s also important to note that certain health problems or vitamin deficiencies, such as anemia—which can lead to above average dizziness or tiredness while being inked—can make getting a tattoo more uncomfortable, so it’s worth checking with your doctor and talking to your artist beforehand if you’re worried that your health might affect your experience.
3. If you’re going to invite friends to your appointment, only bring the ones you’re very comfortable around
Going to your first tattoo appointment alone can be scary, but bringing friends along can be distracting (for both you and your artist) and sometimes lead to increased discomfort or stress. While this isn’t always the case, Montgomery has found that often, “when clients bring a group of friends with them, they’re worried about not looking like they’re in pain which actually leads them to focus on their pain and can make it feel worse.” To avoid this, many artists and studios only allow clients to bring one person to their appointments. If you opt to bring a friend with you, make sure it’s someone you’re very comfortable around. Having a good friend with you can help distract you from any pain you’re feeling, but having friends’ eyes on you while you’re uncomfortable may also have the opposite effect.
4. Understand that the pain doesn’t stop when your tattoo is done, and aftercare is extremely important
The pain of a new tattoo doesn’t stop when your artist has finished the piece—it’s a fresh wound that takes time to heal and will likely be sensitive for a couple of days following your appointment. Like any wound, tattoos risk becoming infected if you don’t take proper care of them, so Dr. Zeichner suggests that if your tattooer allows, “immediately after [your appointment, you] apply an antibiotic ointment like over the counter bacitracin, and make sure to keep the skin well moisturized to maintain a healthy barrier function.” Your tattoo artist will also walk you through proper aftercare at the end of your appointment to ensure you know how to take care of your tattoo throughout the healing process.
Not ready to go under the needle? Consider an Inkbox Tattoo, which looks a like permanent tattoo but only lasts for one to two weeks, fading naturally over that time. Just a heads up, Inside Out is powered by the folks at Inkbox. It’s all part of our shared mission to empower you to tell your unique story, be it for now or forever.
Related: More Guides to Tattoo Pain