How Much Do Tattoos Hurt?

Posted on 13 February 2012 by Karen L. Hudson

PainHow much does it hurt to get a tattoo? It depends on who you ask. You could ask twenty people, each with one tattoo, and get twenty different answers. Or you could ask one person with twenty tattoos, and they’d probably tell you that each one felt differently from the others. But there are some things you can do to prepare for and relieve any pain you may have, and also some ways to simply overcome your fear.

Since everyone’s different and has different tolerances to pain, we all react to the pain of getting a tattoo differently. And we even react to pain differently on various parts of our body and during various stages of our life.

For example, a woman on her period will experience more pain getting a tattoo than during other times of the month. A man who is forty years old will experience more pain getting a tattoo than when he was twenty. And one person may feel more pain getting tattooed on their foot than on their arm, while another person experienced no foot pain but thought their lower back tattoo was the worst. It’s really hard for anyone to guess how someone else might respond to the pain of getting a tattoo.

The only thing I can tell you is that tattoos do hurt, on some level, for everyone. But it’s not like it’s so painful that it’s unbearable – if it was that bad, tattooing wouldn’t be nearly as popular and tattoos certainly wouldn’t have the addictive quality that so many collectors have succumbed to. People don’t go back for another punch in the face or broken bone, but they do go back again and again for more tattoos.

Nothing Like Getting a Shot

So, I can’t tell you how much it will hurt, but I can kind of give you an idea of what it feels like based on how it works. When you get a tattoo, it’s not at all like a shot even though it involves needles. A shot goes into the fat or muscle, tattoo needles barely break the skin. A tattoo “needle” is actually a group configuration of several small needles called sharps. How large an area needs to be tattooed will determine how many sharps are in the needle configuration. A typical lining needle is a group of five sharps in a circular configuration, and a tattoo machine moves that group of needles up and down about 200 times a minute, each time breaking the skin and inserting the ink underneath. Needless to say, that’s not going to tickle, but each puncture is tiny. Some describe it as a hot cat scratch; others say it’s like a rubber band being snapped against your skin repeatedly.

My Personal Bag of Tricks

There are some things you can do when you go to get a tattoo that will help to relieve some of the pain or at least distract you from it. Here are my favorites:

  • Bactine Spray – Bring a bottle with you and ask your artist to spray you down from time to time. It feels so cool and wonderful, and it contains lidocaine, which is a pain reliever.
  • Music – Put your mp3 buds in your ears and do one of two things – rock out to the loudest, most obnoxious rock music you have (my personal choice) or zen out to some relaxing soundscapes. Whichever suits your personal style!
  • A Friend – Bringing a friend who can talk to you and make you laugh while you’re in pain can make the time go by so much faster! It also doesn’t hurt if they have a strong hand and don’t mind you squeezing the hell out of it. I suggest they remove any rings first.
  • Reading Material – I find that reading doesn’t really distract me enough unless it’s a really engaging story, but a lot of people find comfort in bringing a book or magazine to read while getting tattooed.
  • Gum – Something to bite and chew on when you’re in agony really helps! If you don’t have any gum, there’s always the friend’s hand…..
  • Mirror – Sometimes just seeing your beautiful tattoo coming together makes the pain much more bearable. Bring a mirror so you can check out the progress now and then, so you are reminded WHY you are putting yourself through it!

Pain is Temporary, Tattoos are Forever

If you think about it, lots of great things we do hurt in some way. Working out (pulled muscles), learning to roller skate (and the resultant falls), playing guitar (sore fingertips), and lots of other things. But if you’re passionate about those things, would you stop just because it hurt? No way! The same thing goes for tattoos. If it’s something you really want, you do it anyway and deal with the pain, which is temporary anyway.

If you let the fear of pain stop you from doing things you want, then you’re not living. So live, quit worrying about the pain and get the damn tattoo already.

About the Guru:
Karen L. Hudson has been writing for the body art community since 1999. She is the author of Chick Ink: 40 Stories of Tattoos--and the Women Who Wear Them and Living Canvas: Your Total Guide to Tattoos, Piercings, and Body Modification. After leaving her position as About.com's body art expert in 2011, she founded Tat2Guru to continue her efforts as a safety and acceptance advocate for the body art community. Read Her Full Bio

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