In the lead up to a tattoo session—even if it happens just seconds before the artist’s needle hits your skin—it’s likely that you’ll wonder: how much is this going to hurt? It’s a reasonable question, but its answer is actually quite complex. “Pain is highly subjective and different from person to person. Areas that some people find painless may be excruciating for others,” explains Brooklyn-based tattoo artist, Emma Anderson. So while you can certainly expect to experience at least a bit of pain during the tattooing process, it’s impossible to predict the exact severity of that pain.
In fact, tattoo pain can be so minimal you’ll barely notice any discomfort but it can also be so intense you’ll have a hard time sitting still. With some areas of the body inevitably going to hurt more than others when tattooed, we asked: how much does a shoulder tattoo hurt? Read on to find out.
Shoulders are hit and miss when it comes to pain
I recently got my first shoulder tattoo and, much to my surprise, it was one of my more painful tattoo experiences. This wouldn’t come as a surprise to a tattoo artist though, because my placement is traditionally a more sensitive one. “Areas close to the armpit are very pinch-y,” says Anderson, whose “clients often report feeling pain translate to different parts of the body, like the fingertips or solar plexus,” when getting tattooed there (she suggests this is true of other glandular areas on the body as well). According to Helen Xu, another tattooer who frequently does shoulder work, “closer to the armpit, the skin gets increasingly sensitive [due to an increase in] nerve endings and more thin, delicate skin,” in the area.
If you can handle the pain of getting tattooed around your armpit, it’s likely that the rest of your shoulder piece will be relatively easy to sit through. Both Xu and Anderson agree that other parts of the shoulder—the top, back, side, and front—aren’t particularly painful tattoo locations. Even “boney areas aren’t as painful as one might imagine,” suggests Anderson, “though the sensation is uncomfortable as the tattoo machine’s vibrations reverberate through the bone underneath.”
The longer it takes to tattoo, the more getting tattooed hurts
There are a host of factors that can contribute to answering the question, “how much does a shoulder tattoo hurt?”. A detailed, heavily shaded design will hurt more than something minimal, which will hurt far less than something that’s full color, for example. But the top determinant of pain outside of specific placement is time.
“The first 15 to 30 minutes of a tattoo are some of the most painful as the body begins to release adrenaline,” says Anderson. Once your adrenaline kicks in, it will work to dampen the pain you’re feeling as much as possible, but it can only do this for so long. “The body uses the most easily accessible source of energy for that process, which is blood sugar,” she explains, but “after several hours your blood sugar reserves begin to deplete,” which is when the tattooing process typically becomes most painful. While “the rate of blood sugar depletion is different from person to person and is also dependent on body mass and diet, most tattooers won’t tattoo longer than a few hours anyway,” so their clients aren’t in unbearable pain.
Avoiding the pain is impossible, but lessening it isn’t
It’s not possible to avoid pain entirely when having your shoulder tattooed, but there are several ways to deal with the pain more effectively.
1. Take care of yourself in advance of your appointment: As is true for all tattoo sessions, eat well the day before and day-of, sleep well, avoid alcohol, and drink water (ideally the daily recommended amount) every day in the week leading up to your appointment.
2. Find external distractions: Xu recommends “listening to music or holding a stress ball to reduce tattoo pain.” She finds that clients are surprised by how effective these simple things are at distracting from the pain. Other popular external distractions are phones and friends (most tattoo shops allow clients to bring at least one friend along to their appointments, but you should check with your artist in advance to confirm they can accommodate an extra person).
3. Breathe: Anderson finds that “tensing your body and fighting the pain only makes it worse,” so tells her clients that they have to accept the discomfort of the process rather than try to fight it. One of the ways she helps them through the pain is by instructing them to breathe in counts of five—this is something I do when getting tattooed that works for me—and “maintain that cadence between each time the tattooer touches down on the skin.”
If you liked our post, “How Much Does a Shoulder Tattoo Hurt?”, check out How Painful is a Spine Tattoo?