What Does Getting A Tattoo Feel Like?
Last Updated on May 7, 2021
written by tattoo artist Steven Martin
What Does Getting A Tattoo Feel Like?
No matter what you’re going to feel at least some pain or discomfort when getting a tattoo. The amount of pain you feel will depend on several factors, including your individual pain tolerance and the location of the tattoo. Pain is subjective, but you can get a feel for how much a tattoo will hurt using a tattoo pain chart.
Fatty areas like the upper arms will likely hurt less than bonier parts of the body, like the hands, rib cage, or any joints. You’ll likely feel other sensations besides pain, such as tingling, itching, and pressure.
What Do I Need To Know Before Getting A Tattoo?
- First off, the tattoo artist will clean the area with rubbing alcohol and shave any hair that may be present. Pain: 0-1/5
- The tattoo artist will transfer the stencil of your tattoo onto your skin using water or a moisture stick so you can approve its placement on your body. You’ll feel a sensation but it’s similar to an itch or tickle, it shouldn’t hurt. Pain: 0-1/5
- Linework begins on the tattoo. This is when you’ll start to feel burning, stinging, or a pricking sensation and most likely the pain level will vary. Take deep breaths and hold still. Pain: 3/5 (Varies)
- Depending on the type of tattoo you’re getting, once line work is complete, the artist will shade and color the tattoo next. Not every tattoo will require this step. Many people report less pain in shading than with the outline, but your personal experience may vary. Pain: 2/5 (Varies)
- Once your tattoo is complete, the artist will put a layer of ointment over it and apply a bandage. Pain: 0-1/5
- Your tattoo artist will tell you how to take care of your new tattoo and what to expect in the next few weeks. Pain: 0/5
- It may feel like sunburn for around a week after your tattoo. Pain: 1/5 (Varies)
What It Feels Like To Get A Tattoo On Various Parts Of The Body
Tattooing involves repeatedly piercing your skin’s top layer with a sharp needle covered with an ink pigment. So getting a tattoo is generally always painful, though people may experience different levels of pain and it is a feeling you can become accustomed to.
Men tend to experience and cope with pain differently from women. In addition, the various parts of the body experience different levels of pain when tattooed. While there is no scientific evidence that says which areas of the body will feel the most and least pain when getting inked, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence and a general consensus among the tattoo community.
The least painful places to get tattooed are those with the most fat, fewest nerve endings, and thickest skin. The most painful places to get tattooed are those with the least fat, most nerve endings, and thinnest skin. Bony areas usually hurt a lot such as the hands and fingers but again, it all depends on your pain threshold
Painful areas to watch out for:
Armpit – The armpit is among the most painful places, if not the most painful place, to get tattooed. Most tattoo artists advise against people getting armpit tattoos.
Rib Cage – Pain here can be severe. The skin around your ribs is extremely thin, and there’s less fat here than on most other parts of your body. Plus, every time you breathe, you move your rib cage and the skin above it, which can make the feeling of being tattooed here much more intense.
Nipples and Breasts – Nipples and breasts are extremely sensitive areas, so being tattooed here can cause severe pain.
Ankles and Shins – Your ankle bones and shinbones lie just beneath thin layers of skin, making it very painful to be tattooed in these areas. Ankle and shin tattoos usually cause severe pain.
Elbows or Kneecaps – Your elbows and kneecaps are areas where your bones lie just beneath your skin. Vibrations caused by tattooing over the bone can cause high to severe pain.
Hips – Because your hip bones lie just below your skin, getting hip tattoos can hurt if you are very thin and have less fat around your hips to cushion your hip bones.
Stomach – Stomach tattoos may cause pain that ranges from high to severe. The level of pain you experience depends on what kind of shape you’re in. People with higher body weights tend to have looser skin on their stomachs than people with lower body weights. A person with tighter skin over their stomach is likely to experience less pain than a person with looser skin in this area.
Head, Face, and Ears – Like the neck, your head, face, and ears contain many nerve endings that can be irritated during a tattoo and may cause severe pain.
Hands, Fingers, Feet, and Toes – The tops and insides of the hands and feet, as well as fingers and toes, are popular places to be tattooed. Being tattooed anywhere on your hands and feet can cause severe pain. The skin here very thin, and it contains numerous nerves that can trigger pain when hit by a tattoo needle. What’s more, when nerves in your hands and feet are disturbed by a tattoo needle, they may undergo painful spasms that make the tattooing experience very unpleasant.
Behind the Knees – The area behind your knees has loose, stretchy skin with many nerves which makes this area very sensitive to tattoo needles.
Inner bicep – While the muscle inside your inner bicep can reduce the amount of pain of getting tattooed in this area, the skin here tends to be soft and loose. Getting tattooed on your inner bicep can cause a high amount of pain, but doesn’t usually cause severe pain.
Lips – The skin on and around your lips is generally loose with lots of nerves. A tattoo on your lips will almost certainly cause severe pain and could lead to bleeding, swelling, and bruising.
Other Factors That Can Influence Pain
Sex – Research suggests that women experience sensations of pain more intensely than men. This is down to physical and chemical differences between women’s and men’s bodies. However, there are also studies that show women have a higher pain threshold than men and can withstand greater levels of pain.
Experience – People who have had tattoos may have a higher pressure pain threshold compared to those who have never had a tattoo. As you get inked more and more you’ll get used to the feeling and are less likely to be bothered by the feeling of the needle.
Age and weight – While not a fact it’s possible that age and weight play their part in the pain felt when being tattooed. Older skin may be more likely to bruise or feel pain than younger skin. Heavier people may have looser skin, which could also be more sensitive to tattoos but on the other hand, people with very low body fat might also find it more painful.
How It Feels
Depending on your pain tolerance and other factors you’re going to have a different experience with the tattoo gun than others will but, there are a few general sensations commonly felt when getting a tattoo. Being familiar with these sensations before getting tattooed can give you an idea of what you can expect to feel and how to tell when your pain isn’t normal.
Burning pain feels like having something very hot pressed against your skin for an extended period and is probably one of the more common feelings.
It’s usually felt in areas a tattoo artist has worked on for a long time, caused by a combination of your skin’s rawness and the repeated trauma resulting from a tattoo needle piercing your skin in the same place. It’s also common in areas with more fat beneath the skin.
Burning pain isn’t usually intense, but it can feel uncomfortable or be annoying.
You may experience vibrating pain when you’re getting tattooed in on a bony part of your body such as your hand or ankle. When a tattoo needle pierces skin above the bone, nerves in your bones may pick up the vibrating sensation, especially if the needle is moving at a very high speed. This causes vibrating pain.
Vibrating pain isn’t intense, but it is something you’ll feel. It’s likely you’ll encounter vibrating pain if you’re thinner and have less skin and fat over your bones.
Scratching pain is the most common feeling experienced when you’re getting a tattoo. This pain can feel like an intense scratch moving across the tattooed area like someone is dragging claws against your skin.
While this pain isn’t the worst kind the pain can build up if your tattooer is working on the same area for a long period of time. It also tends to hurt more when multiple needles are used at the same time, rather than a single needle which occurs when shading begins.
Sharp or stinging pain
Sharp or stinging pain is like suffering lots of small bee stings. This kind of pain is usually quite intense, and it feels like the needle is poking deep into your skin. In some cases, it’s enough to make you want to physically move away.
This kind of pain is most commonly felt when a tattoo artist is using fewer needles, or just one needle, to add very fine detail or make the outline of your tattoo. Body parts with thinner or tighter skin are more likely to feel sharp or stinging pain, like the wrists and biceps.
If this stinging pain feels a little too intense it may be due to the tattoo artist digging the gun in too much but this is more likely a problem that only occurs with newbies. This can lead to a tattoo deformity called a tattoo blowout, which leads to a tattoo’s ink dispersing below just the very top layers of skin that should be tattooed. The end result is a lot of pain and a blurry tattoo.
Dull or background pain
This is the type of pain you’re going to want and hope for. When the needle revs up with its loud buzz and the needle’s sharp prick first hits your skin, your body’s reaction is to start producing stress hormones like adrenaline. These hormones actually work to numb the pain into feeling like a dull ache in the background.
During your tattoo session, you may feel this dull pain change or intensify at times. You’re more likely to stay in the dull pain phase if you’re distracted by another activity while being tattooed, such as talking to your artist, listening to music, or watching TV. While you can feel this on your first time, once you become used to the tattoo process this is more than likely what you’ll feel 90% of the time.
Where Is The Least Painful Place To Get A Tattoo?
Areas where there is a lot of fat or skin are more likely to be the areas that hurt least when getting a tattoo, let’s take a look at some of the parts of your body that have been known to be easier to get a tattoo on.
Forearm – There’s a lot of muscle and thick skin on your forearms, without many nerve endings so there isn’t often a great deal of pain felt when getting a tattoo here.
Outer Shoulders – The outer part of your shoulders has thick skin with few nerve endings, making it one of the least painful places to get tattooed. The pain of being tattooed here is usually low but can progress to moderate for some.
Outer Bicep – The outer bicep has a lot of muscle without a lot of nerve endings, making it a good place for a tattoo that won’t cause a lot of pain. Outer bicep tattoos usually cause low to low-moderate levels of pain.
Upper and Lower Back – Getting a tattoo on your upper or lower back usually causes low-moderate to moderate amounts of pain because the skin here is thick with few nerve endings. The further away from your tattoo from the bones and nerve endings in your spine and hips, the less pain you’ll feel.
Upper Outer Thigh -This part of the body is well padded with fat and has few nerve endings. The upper outer thigh is one of the least painful spots to get a tattoo, with pain low to low-moderate in most people.
Currently, in the USA:
- Seven states have no regulations at all on tattoos.
- Six states license tattooists but don’t have any aftercare rules.
- Thirty states license artists and require written or verbal instructions on aftercare.
- Only seven states — Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and North Dakota — require tattooists to provide their customers with aftercare instructions mandated by the public health department.
Dermatologists have called for more legislation to be made for the tattoo industry in general but especially for aftercare as many clients have no idea how to keep themselves and their tattoos safe so they can avoid developing nasty side effects.
Here are some steps to follow after you get your tattoo:
- Be sure your artist covers your new tattoo in a thin layer of petroleum jelly and a bandage.
- Remove the bandage after 24 hours. Gently wash the tattoo with antimicrobial soap and water and be sure to pat dry.
- Apply a layer of antibacterial/Vaseline ointment twice a day, but don’t put on another bandage.
- Gently wash your tattoo area twice a day with soap and water and gently pat dry before reapplying the antibacterial/Vaseline ointment.
- Keep applying a moisturizer or ointment after you clean it to keep it moist.
You should repeat this process for 2 to 4 weeks and avoid wearing clothes that will stick to your tattoo as well as swimming and the sun for about 2 weeks. Take cool showers too as scalding hot water will not only hurt, but it can also fade the ink. Wear a physical blocker sunscreen with at least 7% zinc oxide sunscreen during the daylight hours and/or cover it up (with clothing, a bandage).
If your tattoo scabs a bit or develops hard layers, don’t worry. It’s normal. But never pick scratch, or peel it. You could get an infection or remove the color. If you think your tattoo is infected or isn’t healing properly, go see your doctor.
Things To Look Out For
A quick Google search will show you what your state’s rules and regulations are for tattoo licensing. Each state is different, so it’s important to be familiar with the guidelines in your area.
Once you know what you’re looking for, make sure the shop and artist you’re interested in are certified. The parlors licensing should be prominently displayed on their website and on the shop wall.
While illegal parlors are most likely cheap, it’s not worth risking your safety and your liberty for a discount on some ink. You’ll be happier with your tattoo and enjoy the experience a lot more if you do it with a licensed professional.
Most reputable shops smell like disinfectants and have spotless workstations and floors. If it smells or looks like it hasn’t cleaned then run far and fast. It’s not worth the risk.
Assuming the shop passes your visual inspection, you’ll want to talk to your potential artist about their tattooing practices. Artists are required to use single-use needles and ink to avoid cross-contamination. This also applies to gloves, bandages, swabs, razors — anything that your artist might use must be new.
Courtesy and Consultations
Last but not least, take note of the shop and artist’s general professionalism and personality. You’re about to trust someone to permanently etch a piece of artwork into your skin, and in order to do this, you have to be comfortable with the artist and with their work.
You want the artist to be as excited as you, or at least understand your passion. But remember, the tattoo artist gets the final say on whether they’re going to go through the tattooing process with you and they’re legally allowed to turn you down or your tattoo idea down if they don’t want to serve you.
If you aren’t convinced and don’t feel that it’s the right place for you to get your tattoo done then you can always find somewhere else. Just ensure you’re polite before you leave.
Frequently Asked Questions
How painful is getting a tattoo?
Tattooing involves repeatedly piercing your skin’s top layer with a sharp needle covered with pigment. So getting a tattoo is generally always painful to some degree, though people will find it painful in different ways.
Where is the least painful place to get a tattoo?
The least painful spots to get a tattoo are parts of your body with fewer nerve endings. For example your shoulders, calf, buttocks, and outer arm. However, some claim that it’s more dependent on the size and complexity of your tattoo.
How long will the tattoo pain last?
Tattoo soreness is generally to be expected and on average should last two to three weeks, though soreness can last longer. Tattoo soreness is expected with tattooing as you are being pierced with a needle.
How do you numb your skin before a tattoo?
Definitely! The easiest way to numb your skin before getting a tattoo is with an over-the-counter topical anaesthetic cream that contains 4% to 5% lidocaine, which is a common pain relief compound.
So, what does getting a tattoo feel like? There’s no one answer and you really won’t know how well you handle it until you’re in the chair so the best thing is to just go for it!
But, while you may be itching to get your new tattoo right away, but it takes time to get the details just right. The last thing you want is to cut corners on price or location and wind up with a tattoo that just isn’t up to scratch.
Do your research and make sure you find a tattoo studio and artist that offer what it is you’re looking for. Prioritize hygiene and your artist’s attitude. These are essential and will be the difference between a good experience and a bad one.
Tattooing is fun and once you get your first it’s likely you’ll want to go back for more. You’ll adjust to any painful sensations or may not even feel much at all. So good luck and of course…