How Painful is a Bicep Tattoo?

How Painful is a Bicep Tattoo?
Credit: Sarah Harvey

Seen someone sporting ink on the inside of their upper arm? That’s a bicep tattoo. On the arm just below the armpit? That’s also a bicep piece. And right above the ditch (where the elbow bends)? That’s a bicep tattoo too.

The bicep represents a fairly expansive part of the upper arm, and if you’re considering getting inked in this popular location it’s only natural to wonder: How Painful is a Bicep Tattoo? Will some parts of the bicep hurt more to get tattooed than others?

The answer to this question is quite complex since, according to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research at Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, “pain is highly subjective”. The degree to which each of us feels pain—whether it’s from a stubbed toe, a paper cut, or a tattooer’s needle—depends on our unique physiology and experiences. If you’re preparing to get inked, you can expect the process to result in at least a little bit of discomfort though, and this is true for every part of the body, biceps included.

Physiological pain factor: placement on the bicep

So, how painful is a bicep tattoo? Based on her clients’ reviews, Emily Trajkovski, a self-taught handpoke artist from Toronto whose work focuses on idiosyncratic designs, says the inside of the bicep (the inner, upper arm) “especially towards the armpit” is typically a more painful place to get inked than the front of the bicep.

Skin at the inner part of the bicep tends to be thinner and stretchier than the skin at the front, and Trajkovski finds that this combination leads to skin being more sensitive to pain. “I think the inside of the bicep is generally more painful because the tissue there is much softer than the other areas around the bicep,” she says. And as Dr. Zeichner explains further, another reason the inner bicep is more prone to pain, particularly closer to the armpit, is because of a higher concentration of sensory nerve endings in the area. The front of the bicep, however, is not particularly sensitive. “I would say it’s a very average amount of pain in comparison to all other parts of the body,” says Trajkovski.

Tattoo-specific pain factors: size, style, and (most notably) time

While Trajkovski insists that an individual’s pain tolerance is the top determinant of the amount of pain getting tattooed will inflict, she finds that size and style are also important factors to consider when asking the question: how painful is a bicep tattoo?. The bigger a tattoo, the longer it takes to complete, just as the more complex a tattoo, the longer it takes to complete. Each of these factors “contribute to the overall pain of getting a tattoo simply because the longer you’re enduring the pain, the less resilient your body grows as it runs out of adrenaline,” she says.

As regards to style specifically, Trajkovski notes that her clients often experience more pain when she’s tattooing shaded or full black designs, likely because of the larger needles and faster poking methods these kinds of pieces entail. She also suggests that her signature handpoke method of tattooing results in increased pain sensitivity because the sensation of being poked is amplified when using machine-free techniques. “My shading technique consists of rapid poking and people are often shocked at the change of pace and don’t like the transition. I use a magnum needle [two rows of needles stacked on top of each other to create a wide needle that covers a larger surface area] for black work and clients also tend not to be thrilled at this change due to the larger needle and the rapid poking on one area of the skin for a longer time.”

The same is true of colored tattoos. Because it takes longer to pack color into the skin—it also involves poking the same area several times over in close succession—than it does to outline or lightly shade a design, the skin becomes more tender and sensitive to pain.

How to make the process hurt less

Come prepared: Getting tattooed is hard on the body so taking care of yourself in the lead up to your appointment is important in order to dampen any pain and maintain energy throughout the entire process. Before clients come in, Trajkovski reminds them to eat a proper meal [something healthy and filling, ideally], stay hydrated, and avoid drinking alcohol the night prior. Then, “during a session, if the pain is overwhelming,” she says, “I’ll often offer my clients a sugary snack to kick up their blood sugar which can help them handle the pain.”

Consider numbing treatments: Dr. Zeichner recommends topical numbing treatments like Maxilene®, EMLA® and Zensa to patients who are particularly worried about the pain a tattoo might inflict, and emphasizes that they should typically “be applied to the skin 30 minutes before the tattoo to minimize discomfort.” It’s important to chat with your tattooer before making use of any of these products, however, as some artists prefer not to tattoo over numbed skin.

Distract yourself: Trajkovski finds that her clients are often surprised by how effectively distraction works to limit pain. She recommends “music and friendly chats” as ways some of her favorite ways to take her mind off the sensation of the needle.

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