Sternum Tattoo Pain - How Much Does It Hurt?

Written by: Claudia

You’ve narrowed down your placement and decided on tattooing your sternum. But now you’re wondering about how much it will hurt. Our Tattoo Pain Series of articles looks at the most popular tattoo locations and gives you the rundown on what you can expect in regards to pain.

Sternum Tattoo Pain

Your sternum is that soft dip between your rib cages, and tattoos here tend to hurt more than other tattoos. This is because of the many nerve endings located underneath this thin skin, and the multitude of oddly shaped bones that are not protected by muscle or fat. In addition to being a tricky spot to tattoo, it can also be quite costly, due to the time and skill level required to tattoo this delicate area.

tattoo pain chart

Other Pain Factors

They’re on Your Ribs

Tattoos on the chest and the ribs are notoriously known for being high on the pain scale, and also well known to be challenging places to tattoo. With so many bones, so little muscle, and barely any fat, this not only comes with challenges for the artist but also pain for the person being tattooed.

The Sensation Can Be Uncomfortable

Some people believe the rattling and jumping of a needle tattooing over a prominent bone is more painful than other forms of tattoo pain. It causes a sense of discomfort that can vibrate through your entire body. People feel that the mental exhaustion of this vibration is too difficult to deal with.

While we know that tattoo artists aren’t tattooing directly on your bone, it’s hard for it to not feel that way. And with a sternum tattoo, this is especially unavoidable.

Breathing Motion

One difficult piece of tattooing on or around the chest area is the fact that the movement of the artist is hindered by the motion of your breathing. You obviously cannot stop your chest from rising up and down as you breathe, and trying to do so during your session would add to your anxiety and the pain of the experience. But this movement does cause some challenges for artists who have to take it slower and be more patient to ensure they don’t mess up.


The sternum is certainly not the easiest spot to tattoo and with how delicate and painful it is, artists also need to be very slow and careful. Your adrenaline, which helps you handle the pain of being tattooed, fades throughout the length of a session. A detailed sternum tattoo takes a long time, and will get more painful as time goes on.

The Anxiety of Intimacy

If you are a woman, whether you like it or not, getting a sternum tattoo means you’ll have to get very comfortable and intimate with your tattoo artist. The added anxiety of feeling exposed or vulnerable will make the experience even longer and more painful for you.

How to Make Sternum Tattoos Hurt Less

Choose a Small/Simple Design

This option is the simplest and most effective way to ensure your sternum tattoo is a less painful experience, and to also get a sense for how much pain you can tolerate in that area. If you are intending on getting a big piece, as large pieces do look more impressive in this region, you can start with a smaller section directly on the sternum and build onto it at a later point in time.

If you discuss this fear with your artist ahead of time, they can suggest how to grow the design through sessions that are more tolerable for your individual pain threshold.

Select Your Artist Carefully

There are a few things you’ll want to factor in when selecting an artist to tattoo your sternum.

  • Pick someone with experience in this region. Ask to see examples of their sternum work.
  • Pick an artist with a gentle hand who will not overwork the skin or cause blowout from difficulty inserting the ink in the dermis.
  • Pick someone you are comfortable with, especially if you are a female and know you’ll be slightly exposed during your session.

Use a Numbing Cream

A numbing cream is a topical anesthetic that will numb your pain receptors and make the session more tolerable. If you are thinking that you may want to use a numbing cream to get your sternum tattooed, discuss this with your artist beforehand.

Numbing creams, especially where skin is thin, can make the tattooing experience more complicated for your artist. In addition, some artists feel that the pain gets too intense after it wears off, and this makes for a more uncomfortable experience for clients in the end.

If you get the go-ahead from your artist, have a look at our article The 5 Best Tattoo Numbing Creams For A Painless Tattoo Experience.

What Else Should You Consider

Choose a Trustworthy Artist

Once again, women need to select an artist very carefully when it comes to tattooing your sternum region. This is an intimate experience, and you will need to pull your shirt out of the way and not wear a bra for an extended period of time. Depending on the complexity of your tattoo, you may need to be topless.

It may help to select a female artist, or to request a private room where you know the door can be closed and no one will walk in on you being tattooed. If this vulnerability worries you, discuss this fear with your artist who will help ease your worries.

Ditch the Bra

Once again, ladies, this one's for you. You’re better off coming into your session with no bra, and you should be ready to keep it off for at least three weeks while your sternum heals. For this reason, it’s sometimes better to get your sternum tattooed in the winter months, where you can wear multiple baggy sweaters while going braless.

We wrote an entire article on bras and tattoos, so if you need more advice, check out, Is It Safe To Wear A Bra With A New Tattoo?

Watch What is Strapped to Your Chest

When it comes to wearing purses diagonally, putting on a seatbelt, or having other things put pressure on your sternum area in day-to-day life, you need to be extra careful. Any items that rub up against your healing tattoo could be troublesome.

Adjust Your Sleep Posture

If you’re a belly sleeper, you’re going to have to find a new position for a few weeks. Laying flat on your back is the best way to get a restful sleep while simultaneously healing your sternum tattoo.

Wear Dark Clothing

In the first week of healing your new tattoo, you can expect a little leaking of ink here and there. For this reason, it’s best that you wear darker clothing. This ink is impossible to wash out of light clothing (consider that it sticks in your skin for your life), so it’s best not to risk that nice summer tank top. You should also consider some darker bedsheets, while you’re at it.

Healing is Generally Easy

Tattoos that are closer to your heart have increased blood flow to the wounded area and generally heal a lot faster. You just need to be sure to maintain a strict aftercare regimen, and to be more cautious about any tight clothing or straps rubbing up against your new sternum tattoo.

Check out our Tattoo Pain Chart to see how much tattoos hurt on different parts of the body

Our Final Thoughts

Sternum tattoos are popular for good reason: they’re really awesome and they’re quite discreet, as well. While they do hurt significantly more than other areas, you’ll only know your own pain threshold if you go through the experience yourself. If you’re at all worried about how much you’ll be able to tolerate, this should be discussed with your artist who can give you suggestions to either break apart sessions, or ways to alter the design to ease the pain.

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