How Much Does a Back Tattoo Hurt?

How Much Does a Back Tattoo Hurt?
Credit: Sarah Harvey

Whether you’re trying to decide where on your body to get your first tattoo, or just where to get the next one, the amount of pain you’re likely to be in while getting that ink is an important consideration for a lot of people.

Even without any tattoo experience, there are certain areas of the body that it’s pretty clear will hurt more than others. Any area sensitive to touch, for example, will be very painful to have tattooed: think armpits, nipples, inner arms, or neck. Parts of the body where the skin is stretched over bone with little to no padding from muscle or fat tissue are also going to be pretty high on that tattoo pain chart. In this post, we’ll be answering the question: how much does a back tattoo hurt?

So where does a back piece fall on the pain scale?

The answer is, it depends. A few factors influence the pain level of that full-back mandala design you’ve been eyeing, and we’ll go over them in a little more detail here: location on the back, length of the session, and individual pain tolerance (as well as physiology).

Back tattoo hurt factor: location

Some areas on the back score relatively low on the pain scale. The lower and upper back areas where you have the most muscle and fatty tissue tend to hurt less than a tattoo on the shoulder blades and the spine. When getting inked in these areas, the needle can hit bone, causing an additional layer of pain on top of just the needle on your skin. This is the same reason tattoos on the sternum, knee, and clavicle bones all rank seriously high on the pain index: when the needle hits bone, it’s no joke.

You can probably already see why the answer was “it depends.” when finding out how much does a back tattoo hurt. If you’re getting a full back tattoo (or even one over much of your back), you’ll undoubtedly end up hitting parts of the spine and shoulder blades. The areas not on the bone, however, will be less intense. Wherever you get a tattoo, it will hurt to some degree; you’re being stuck with needles, after all. Tattoo artist Aka Alvriv, owner of Brooklyn’s Black Iris Tattoo, tells her clients to expect a pretty continuous pain during the tattooing process: “I always tell my clients to imagine a cat continuously scratching them with hot claws. It’s definitely a very acute, in-the-moment kind of pain.”

What’s happening on the micro level when you get tattooed is this: a needle or group of needles at the end of the tattoo machine is puncturing your skin at a rate of 80-150 times per second. In order for that gorgeous ink you paid for to stay on your skin, it has to be inserted underneath the external epidermis layer, inside the dermis. The dermis is the part of your skin which holds sensory cells, blood vessels, lymph vessels-and pain receptors. The tattoo needle hitting your skin is depositing that ink right next to those receptors, sending a swarm of pain signals to the brain. The amount of pain will vary depending on where you’re getting tattooed, but this is one of the main reasons tattoos have such a reputation for being painful.

“I always tell my clients to imagine a cat continuously scratching them with hot claws. It’s definitely a very acute, in-the-moment kind of pain.”

Back tattoo hurt factor: length of the session

Shorter tattoo sessions are, generally, more bearable for most people. An hour or less in the chair is easier to tolerate than sitting for four or five hours, or more. There will be those outliers that have a high pain tolerance, sitting for 12 hours like a rock, but for those getting their first tattoo a shorter session is recommended.

James Withee, owner of Dark Horse Tattoo in Gilbert, Arizona, describes tattoo pain as a reverse bell curve. The very beginning is pretty painful, especially if it’s the first tattoo. Then, gradually, you become accustomed to the pain and learn to tolerate it. Once the session stretches into the multi-hour range, however, the pain comes back as the skin becomes more irritated from prolonged contact with the needle. Withee describes it as sunburn-like, and the longer the session goes, the more irritation results.

For that reason, large tattoos are often broken up into multiple sessions. These chunks of time can vary depending on the sitter’s pain tolerance, and for large or intricate pieces usually last a few hours at a time. Making the length of the session one of the main factors when finding out how much does a back tattoo hurt.

Back tattoo hurt factor: individual pain tolerance and physiology

Pain is different for everyone. Someone who’s gone through a lot of physical pain in their lives will have a different mental yardstick for measuring it than someone who hasn’t. Most people, though, are able to sit through a tattoo just fine, even if they aren’t expecting the level of pain they receive.

Psychological factors like past trauma or stress can affect pain tolerance, and psyching yourself up about how much a tattoo is going to hurt could mean you’re in for a worse time than you need to be. Your emotions, habits, and lifestyle can also influence the amount of pain you perceive. If you’re tired and dehydrated, your mental state is likely to be less sound, and you’ll be more vulnerable to slipping into a bad mental state when the pain hits. When that happens, you can become more physically tense, which will make the pain worse, which will make you feel worse, and on and on.

Physiologically, one person’s nerves can also be mapped differently than another’s, meaning some part of the body will hurt less, or more. People have reported shooting pain when getting a back tattoo and the needle hits the outside edges of their back, closer to the ribs and armpits. With that said, know that every person really is different. Reactions to back tattoos we found while researching varied from “I slept through mine” to an epic quest that left them feeling reborn.

Though it will hurt, don’t let that discourage you from getting a tattoo if you’ve got your heart set on an outstanding back piece. Eat plenty of food and drink plenty of water beforehand, get a good night’s sleep prior to your appointment, and you’ll come out of it on top with an amazing piece of art that’s yours forever.

Or…try a less painful alternative

Not ready to go under the needle? Consider an inkbox Tattoo, which looks like permanent tattoos but only last for one to two weeks, fading naturally over that period of 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.

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Related: How Much Does a Back Tattoo Cost?

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