How Much Does a Forearm Tattoo Hurt?

How Much Does a Forearm Tattoo Hurt?
Credit: Kheila Cruz

Compared to other popular areas of the body for ink—the ribs, feet and wrists, for example—forearms are a relatively painless location to get tattooed, according to Prairie Koo, owner, director, and resident artist at Ink & Water Tattoo in Toronto. But how much does a forearm tattoo hurt? “Everyone has a different pain tolerance so the exact level of discomfort will vary from person to person, but generally the forearm is one of the nicest, least sensitive spots for a tattoo.”

Part of the reason for this, explains Brittany Randell, an artist well known for her linework-based style and focus on tattooing groups traditionally underrepresented by the tattoo community, particularly people of color, is that “there aren’t as many nerves under the surface of the forearm, so tattoos there aren’t as painful until you get to the ditch (the inner elbow) and the wrist,” which is where clients tend to feel more uncomfortable because the skin is thinner and there are more nerve endings. Randell describes the sensation of getting a tattoo as similar to a cat scratch, one that can be more or less intense depending on the style and size of your design.

As with any tattoo, a forearm piece is likely to more painful as you add size and detail to it, says Koo. “If your artist has to go over the same location with their needle multiple times, the skin there becomes more sensitive, so generally tattoos that include thicker lines, heavier shading, or color cause more discomfort than something minimal with thin lines and light shading.” So, when asking the question: how much does a forearm tattoo hurt?, make sure to take your chosen design into consideration.

If you’re worried about the pain of getting tattooed though, artists agree that your forearms are a less sensitive entry point

If you’ve never been tattooed, the pain associated with the process is probably a bit of a mystery—granted, this can be true if you already have tattoos as well, since pain perception varies from place to place on the body. Seven McDougall, tattooer at Rosewater Tattoo in Portland, says that the forearm is an ideal entry point for anyone concerned about the discomfort that getting inked may inflict because “it gives you a good idea of what you’re getting into with pain levels,” and helps you understand the feeling without leaving you in extreme discomfort. McDougall has also found that despite the fact that the ditch and the wrist tend to be more sensitive spots (she has her ditch tattooed and admits it hurt quite a bit) there are people, some of her clients included, who aren’t bothered by those areas at all.

“The middle of the forearm is almost always fine though,” she says.

“About 90 percent of the tattoos I do are on my clients’ forearms,” Koo agrees, noting that the forearm is one of the area of the body he most enjoys tattooing.

Your experience of the pain will typically get better before it gets worse

Over the course of his tattooing career, Koo has learned that most people have a similar threshold for pain when being inked, and very often they can sit through a longer appointment than they initially expect. “If you’re getting a small tattoo that takes less than an hour to finish you might be slightly uncomfortable the whole time because your body doesn’t have a chance to acclimatize to the pain, but normally once the first hour is over you’re not really feeling the discomfort anymore and instead the spot feels sort of numb because you’ve gotten used to it,” he says. “Then around the four to six-hour mark is when the pain starts feeling intense again. If you sit through a tattooing session that’s longer than this you actually risk getting sick because your body goes into shock from attempting to fight off the pain for so long.”

There are a few things you can do to ease any discomfort: make sure you’re well rested and energized, take breaks if you need them, and talk to your artist about possible numbing treatments

If you’re still worried about the pain a forearm tattoo might inflict, McDougall and Randell have a few suggestions for clients to help them better handle any discomfort. First and foremost, McDougall stresses is making sure you eat a substantial meal before any tattoo appointment. “As part of my greeting to every client, I make sure they’ve eaten that day and I include it in my appointment reminder emails. Don’t ever get tattooed on an empty stomach—your body needs something to run off of when your adrenaline and endorphins kick in and if you don’t eat enough, you run the risk of passing out.”

Randell personally highlights the importance of taking breaks if you need them. “You don’t seem weak if you ask for a break, but clients can sometimes feel that way which is why I always ask them throughout their appointments if they need a minute to rest, grab a glass of water or a snack, or go to the washroom.” Taking breaks can help you sit through your appointment more comfortably, she says. “You should never be scared to ask for [a break]. If you are scared, that’s a problem with your tattoo artist’s environment, not with you.”

Some artist and dermatologists will also suggest topical numbing creams to clients who remain afraid of the pain that getting inked could inflict, although it’s unlikely you’ll need these for a less sensitive place like the forearm. These creams block the pain receptors under your skin so you can largely avoid any discomfort associated with the process, but it’s important that before you use any numbing agent you always run it by your tattooer since many artists, Randell included, are not comfortable tattooing over numbed, treated skin suggesting that these creams can actually affect how their inks absorb.

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