Mira Mariah, a Brooklyn-based tattooer who works out of Williamsburg’s Fleur Noire, shed a tear while getting her hand tattooed. It’s the only time she’s cried during an appointment and she’s been regularly getting tattoos for over a decade. Bar none, she says her hand pieces were her most painful.
Despite hands being high-action areas of the body, used to daily wear and tear and regularly getting scuffed, scrubbed, and cut, when it comes to tattoos they’re one of the most uncomfortable placements you can choose. So answering the question “how much does a hand tattoo hurt?” is simple. It hurts a lot.
But if you’re toying with the idea of a hand tattoo, you’re probably a tattoo aficionado with a decent amount of ink already adorning your body, says Mariah. If that’s true, you’ll have a pretty well-informed understanding the discomfort tattoos are capable of inflicting. Now imagine that discomfort amplified. That’s more along the lines of what it feels like to get your hands tattooed. Don’t let the threat of pain stop you from getting your dream hand piece though. Ultimately, it’s a small amount of pain for a design that lasts a lifetime.
Why hands hurt more
Because hands are bony and covered in just a thin layer of skin, there’s no cushioning to dampen the pain you’ll feel when getting tattooed there. Hands are also home to a high concentration of sensory nerves, which control our perception of pain. Those sensory nerves, combined with thin skin and little underlying fat, make for a more painful tattoo experience.
“It was definitely the most uncomfortable tattoo I’ve ever had,” says Mariah, speaking about her hand piece. “And I have pretty much my entire legs, arms, and stomach tattooed. But I also have very thin, bony, sensitive hands which I’m sure contributed to the discomfort”.
Pain factors to keep in mind
Although you’re guaranteed to endure some pain during a hand tattoo, there are a couple of factors to keep in mind that can lessen (or worsen) the discomfort. The exact location is one such factor.
Sure, the surface area of each hand is relatively small in relation to the rest of the body, but even across such a limited surface, some parts can hurt more than others. According to Astrid Elizabeth, co-owner of New York’s Somewhere, “the closer to the fingers, the more pain you’ll experience.” As you inch up the hand toward the fingers, sensory nerves become increasingly concentrated, intensifying the sensation of pain. If you’re planning to get a small hand tattoo that straddles your knuckles then you can expect more discomfort than if you were to get that same design across the center or side of your hand.
Another factor that contributes to the amount of pain you’ll feel during the tattooing process is time. Hand tattoos aren’t huge – generally not larger than palm-sized unless the design extends up the fingers or down the wrist – but they often take longer to complete than similarly sized designs placed elsewhere simply because tattooing hands is difficult. Elizabeth explains that hand pieces demand more precision and revision than tattoos in other locations and still typically require touch-ups.
Different styles can also add to the amount of time your tattoo will take to complete, and the longer it takes to finish, the more pain you’re likely to experience. “The time a tattoo takes to finish varies based on the artist,” Mariah continues. “A hand poke artist might spend hours doing a hand tattoo. And artists who do a lot of portraiture or shading will probably take longer as well. It’s really based on what you’re getting, how your artist works and their method of tattooing, and how your skin is accepting the tattoo.”
How to dampen the pain
Besides taking care of yourself in advance of every tattoo appointment, Mariah recommends eating a good meal and staying hydrated. To limit the amount of pain you’ll feel, there are quite a few things you can do. Her pro tips include distraction and meditative breathing.
While she doesn’t allow her clients to put headphones in while getting tattooed because it makes communication too difficult, she welcomes other forms of distraction. “If your artist likes to chat while tattooing and you can manage to stay still while chatting, that’s a great distraction. I also don’t mind if a client is texting or reading because that can help them manage their pain.” In terms of breathing, Mariah, who in addition to being a tattooer is also a mother and amputee who deals with chronic pain, encourages her clients to concentrate on their breathing. “In my experience with pain management in general, concentrated breathing has been such a helpful tool. I do a lot of that while I’m getting tattooed.”
If you liked our post, “How Much Does a Hand Tattoo Hurt?”, check out How Much Do Wrist Tattoos Hurt?