Tattoo Pain - How Bad Do Tattoos Hurt? - What Areas Are The Most And Least Sensitive?

Written by: Claudia
Last Updated:

Maybe you’ve been thinking about a tattoo idea and you are finally ready to dive in, only to be held back by one burning question: How bad do tattoos actually hurt? While pain from getting a tattoo is certainly an individual experience with unique tolerance levels, there are many factors that can influence just how painful a tattoo may be.

Tattoo Pain Chart

tattoo pain chart

Least Painful Places to Get a Tattoo

In general, these are some of the least painful places to get tattooed and their pain level on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest:

Most Painful Places to Get a Tattoo

These locations either have many nerve receptors, thin skin, or multiple bones which make the experience most painful. They are rated on a scale from one to five, with five being the highest.

How Bad Do Tattoos Hurt?

How Bad Do Tattoos Hurt

 

Hurt is a relative term but we can almost guarantee you that you will feel some sense of discomfort with all tattoos. Your skin is being stabbed between 50 to 100 times every minute, by one or multiple needles (depending on whether your artist is lining or shading your tattoo). It pierces through your epidermis and reaches the lower dermis level of the largest organ of your body, your skin. So it’s safe to say that the experience certainly isn’t pleasant.

Of course pain and discomfort can be minimized by keeping a few things in mind.

Factors That Affect Pain

How much or how little a tattoo will hurt depends on a few details. If you have a tattoo idea along with an inkling as to where you want to get it done, keep these things in mind if your pain tolerance is quite low.

Discomfort Threshold

The number one factor that influences the potential pain of a tattoo is your own personal threshold. Some people can handle an hour in an artist’s chair, while some can handle eight. Consider how you react to accidents such as cuts, scrapes, or burns. This will give you an idea of your own pain threshold.

Our pain tolerance can be influenced by so many things such as our age, gender, upbringing, genetics, and more. And don’t be fooled by people who are covered head-to-toe in tattoos; many of them are actually big babies in the chair.

Style

Style includes your size, design, and details of your tattoo. Obviously, a small tattoo that is a few thin, solid lines, or even some dots, all done with single needles, will be significantly less painful than a tattoo that takes up a lot of real estate, has a lot of shading, and a lot of coloring.

If you’re unsure of what needles will be used for your particular design, ask your artist. Single needles generally hurt less than multiple needle guns, such as those you use for shading and color. This is because you need to overwork the skin to make sure that the ink is deposited correctly. This is what causes more pain.

Generally, more tapered needles doing single stroke designs are far less painful than squared edged needles doing fill-in work. A simple smiley face design in black or even some dot work will likely not even cause you to wince, while a giant realism piece will certainly make your eyes water.

tattoo-needles

Examples of tattoo needles. 

With regards to size, this becomes a contributing factor to pain because of the amount of time you have to sit in a session. The more time you spend in the chair, the more your body runs out of adrenaline, and the more you feel the discomfort of the tattoo.

Placement

Placement is a very huge contributing factor on how painful a tattoo will be. Thicker, fleshier, or muscled areas of your body will generally feel less discomfort, while places that are sensitive to touch due to numerous nerve endings, have thin skin, or are exceptionally boney, are generally very painful.

Again, this experience varies from person to person, but this chart is quite helpful in narrowing down pain levels in regards to placement:

Artist Style and Experience

We have said it once and we will say it again: good tattoos aren’t cheap, and cheap tattoos aren’t good. By taking the risk of going with a cheap, inexperienced artist, you’re not only compromising how your ink will heal, you’re also putting yourself on the line to experience more pain during your session.

Experienced artists know exactly where to deposit the ink in your dermis, meaning they are gentle, smooth, and rarely have to overwork the skin. Inexperienced tattooists often rush, go over the wound multiple times, experience needle jumping, and will generally give you a poor tattooing experience.

Some artists are generally slower because that is the pace and style they work with. Though this means your adrenaline will fade, if they work smooth and gently, it may not be a large contributing factor to pain.

The tattoo gun (coil vs. rotary) and machine setup will also play a role in your pain experience, and this varies for every artist. In addition, various art styles are usually more painful. Dot work and line work designs are generally less painful, while realism and detailed old school tattoos can be quite uncomfortable.

Keep in mind that if you go the traditional route and try your hand at stick and poke tattooing, this is even more painful, as the needle is controlled by a person rather than a machine and a lot of estimation goes into depth pressure.

Your State of Mind

Believe it or not, your individual state of mind will play a significant role in how painful a tattoo will be. “Mind over matter,” may sound like a cliche but it rings true; the more you think about how painful your tattoo will be before you even step into the chair, the more painful it will be when they actually start tattooing.

The other issue with overthinking and increasing your anxiety about the pain is that it sends your “fight or flight” adrenaline into overdrive, and once you experience an adrenaline crash, the pain will be amplified to a terrible level.

If you’re ever concerned, ask your artist for some suggestions on how to ease your panic. They may even offer you an alternative placement that makes you feel less frightened prior to going into your session.

Rest

When you sit for a tattoo, your body immediately responds to the injury happening to your organ by putting your immune system into overdrive and sending recovery to the wounded area. A well rested body responds to this injury much better, and, as such, also experiences less sensitivity or pain on the tattooed region.

Alcohol/Drug Consumption

Not only will most well-respected artists not tattoo you if you’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but these substances will thin your blood as well as heighten the sensitivity of your nerve endings, meaning it will have adverse effects on your pain management. The side effect of blood thinners also means you will experience more bleeding during the session, the ink will likely not hold as well, and your healing process will take longer.

Your Skin’s Condition

Skin that is well hydrated (by drinking water) and thoroughly moisturized not only holds ink better but tattoos much smoother, and thus with less pain. Moisturize up to a week before your session and get in those bottles of water, while you’re at it.

What Does Getting a Tattoo Feel Like?

People feel different things when it comes to tattooing, but here is how the pain is often described by others.

Scratching Pain

One of the most common descriptions of tattoo pain is comparing it to being scratched by sandpaper on the same spot, over and over. This is most frequently felt by needles that are specialized for shading and coloring, as it truly scratches over the skin to deposit the ink in a stylized way.

Sharp/Stinging Pain

This pain is common for all needles, and it’s comparable to taking a sewing needle and poking yourself with it. This pain is often felt around more sensitive areas with thinner skin, and you may even be tempted to pull away the body part in reaction to this experience. You just need to fight through it.

For more information about stinging pain, check out our article, Why Does My New Tattoo Sting? - Minimizing The Pain Of New Ink.

Burning Pain

This feeling is often the most uncomfortable. It’s commonly described as a similar sensation as a bad or severe sunburn, only there’s nothing that can be done to soothe it. Though it’s not the most painful, it’s certainly the most annoying and will wear you down during long sessions.

For more information about burning pain, have a look at our article, Why Does My New Tattoo Feel Like It's Burning?

Vibrating Pain

One of the other annoying feelings that could cause you to twitch or try and squirm out of the experience is vibrating pain. This is felt when your artist is tattooing over an area with a prominent bone and thin skin. The vibrations of the needle can be felt in your bone, causing entire numbness in that part of your body which can extend depending on how sensitive you are.

The easiest way to imagine this pain is to consider hitting your funny bone, and how terrible that impact can make your whole arm feel.

Dull/Background Pain (The Best Pain!)

It sounds almost silly to say that any pain is the “best pain”, but the dull or background pain that you feel after you’ve settled into tattooing can actually be rather comforting. While the initial few minutes might shock or irritate you, once you’ve started telling yourself, “This isn’t that bad,” you’ll soon start to lose focus on the experience. This is the power of adrenaline.

There may be moments where you drift back in because your artist tattooed over a sensitive area with high pain receptors, or switched needles to ones that are more difficult to tolerate, but after a few minutes, you’ll slide back into that unaware feeling.

Some people who experience dull or background pain have sometimes fallen asleep while being tattooed. Other people have said they didn’t notice time go by and were surprised when it was over. But keep in mind that the longer you sit in a session, the less adrenaline your body can use to fuel this processing of pain, and the more painful the experience gets.

Pain Based on Time

Ask your artist for a general idea as to how long they think your piece might take. Using that information, in most cases:

  • Up to Thirty Minutes - You almost never feel a thing, depending on placement
  • Thirty Minutes to an Hour - These tattoos are usually irritating but not painful
  • One to Two Hours - This is when you start to feel the stinging pain of tattooing
  • Two to Four Hours - This is usually when your tattoo begins to burn and sting, at the same time
  • Anything Over Four Hours - These can be almost unbearable, as your body runs out of adrenaline to soothe the pain receptors

If you are very worried and this is your first tattoo, get a smaller piece on the area you desire and build upon it later, after you’ve experienced what one or two hours feels like.

Why People Worry About Getting a Tattoo

Along with pain, there are a few other factors that cause people to worry about getting a tattoo.

  • Jerking and Messing Up the Tattoo - Considering how we often respond to pain by pulling away or twitching away from the cause, many people worry they’ll do the same during a tattoo. It is actually very rarely a problem during a tattoo, as the pain is not as severe as something like touching a hot pan may be, for example.
  • Not Being Able to Finish the Session - Don’t worry: that’s what multiple sessions are for! If you can’t handle the pain, you can always schedule to continue the art after your first session has healed. It’s important to discuss this fear with your artist so that they’re able to get any crucial outlining or detailing done in the first session.
  • Fear of Needles - Believe it or not, many people who fear needles get tattoos. But the fear of needles usually stems from the fact that it inserts itself past the skin and deposits something into your bloodstream. Tattoo needles never actually go as deep as medical needles do, and they’re not depositing something into your bloodstream, rather having the ink settle on its own terms into your dermis.
    Tattoo needles only go 1/16th of an inch deep, while medical needles go one to 1. 5 inches deep. This is a significant difference!
    Tattoo aficionado Claudia AlzraaTattoo aficionado Claudia Alzraa is deathly afraid of needles, but says tattoo needles are not comparable.
  • Fear of Blood - Again, because your artist is not hitting your bloodstream, you should experience minimal bleeding from a tattooing session. Most of the bleeding appears during the first two or three days of your healing, but this also depends on the size and detail of your tattoo. If you are concerned, speak to your artist about it.
  • Fainting - Not only will an artist stop tattooing you if you were to faint, it’s simply not likely from the pain alone. The pain is not that intense, and it’s very uncommon. Fainting is more commonly caused by not eating prior to your tattooing session.

How To Minimize Pain From Getting A Tattoo

Apart from placement, researching your artist, and adjusting your design, it’s important to remember that this experience is not unique to you and many people experience tattoo pain. But here are a few other things that you can keep in mind to minimize the pain.

  • Remember what comes at the end of it all. Keep in mind how much you loved your design and how cool you think it will look; this will give you the strength to keep going, especially if your piece is important to you.
  • Educate yourself. The easiest way to eliminate fear about an experience is to learn more about it. Our website has numerous articles about tattoos and the tattooing industry which may help ease your mind. You should also thoroughly research the artist you choose.
  • Eat well and bring water and snacks. Though you will likely not be allowed to eat it while being tattooed due to contamination, you can request breaks to refuel and keep your blood sugar up. The nutrients from your food will also help your immune system fight the swelling and irritation.
  • Wear comfortable clothing. This helps you to be as relaxed as possible during the session. Skip the skinny jeans and the crop top for some baggy slacks and a sweater.
  • Take your artist’s suggestions. They will give you instructions or guidance to help ease the experience.
  • Breathe deeply. Meditation brings about a sense of zen for good reason, and it all comes down to the breathing. Careful, slow, and deep breaths will help ease the pain.
  • Keep yourself distracted. Watch a show or movie on your phone, text a friend (if you have a free hand), or listen to music to keep your mind off of the pain. It’s important to ask your artist if you can wear earphones because they may need to discuss things with you during the session.
  • Use numbing cream. It’s important that if you wish to use a topical anesthetic on the area you’re going to tattoo that you talk about this beforehand with your artist. Many tattooists do not like tattooing on skin that has used numbing cream. For more information about this option, check out our article on The 5 Best Tattoo Numbing Creams For A Painless Tattoo Experience.
  • Bring a friend. If your tattooist allows, you can bring a friend for moral support and to help distract you. Keep in mind that some tattoo artists do not consider their work to be a “show” so you should ask if this is okay before you start your session.

Our Final Thoughts

Pain is so unique and is influenced by factors such as your age, your genetics, your culture, gender, and even your social environment. Even our individual nerve cells play a part in how much pain we can tolerate. As such, the experience of tattooing is vastly different for each and every person.

There are many ways that we can help minimize or eliminate the discomfort of tattooing, from choosing our placement carefully, deciding on a design style that is less likely to overwork the skin, or even preparing the health of our skin before our session. If you’re ever concerned about how much you’ll be able to tolerate, discuss this with your artist who may recommend strategies that work best for your needs.

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