If you’re thinking about getting a tattoo (and, welcome to the club, because 46 percent of the population already has) you’re probably wondering — and, perhaps, worrying — about what it feels like. After all, this involves needles repeatedly puncturing your skin, sometimes for hours at a time. Asking folks who already have tattoos about this will likely result in varying degrees of answers ranging from “It’s not so bad” to “It feels like hell,” since everyone has different tolerance levels when it comes to pain.
But you want the gritty and glorious details, so rather than relying on inked acquaintances for intel on what getting a tattoo actually feels like, we went straight to the source: tattoo artists. They’ve been inked countless times, seen people’s reactions while they’re getting inked, and are basically ink therapists. Here’s what they had to say about what your experience getting inked will be like.
What does getting a tattoo feel like?
Depending where on your body you’re getting a tattoo, the sensation (and the accompanying pain levels) will definitely vary from person-to-person. Dallas-based tattoo artist Zach Mathews likens the feeling of getting a tattoo to a cat scratching a sunburn. In other words, “like a scrape, with a bit of a sting to it.”
“The pain can seem to intensify when the artist moves to a new spot, starting back after a break, when the skin gets thinner over bone or even in random spots,” says Chicago-based tattoo artist Robin Snyder. According to San Francisco-based tattoo artist Amanda Carmel, particularly painful spots can include the inner areas like the inner arm, thigh, ribs, stomach, and “areas close to joints — wrist, knee, ankle — will be a little more sensitive.” But, again, as all the artists point out, these pain points will be different for each client.
Timing can also factor into the pain, especially if you’re getting a bigger piece done. Tattooing will likely hurt for everyone at the beginning, then, as Mathews explains, “your body releases chemicals to help you deal with the pain, so it help you settle into the feeling a bit.” The feel-good chemicals he's referring to are endorphins, which are produced by your nervous system as a coping mechanism in response to the physical pain you're experiencing.
However, after a while those endorphins subside (usually between the 3-5 hour mark) and the pain waves can return. The longer you sit, the more painful the tattoo can feel, he says.
Does it hurt afterwards, too?
Once you’re done getting inked, you’ll probably feel an overwhelming sense of relief, thanks again to those wonderful endorphins, as well as adrenaline (which can provide you with a surge of energy because your body is perceiving that needle as a threat, on some level). When it's all over, you may even feel something of a “high” as the adrenaline wears off, you relax a bit, and get a look at the art now permanently emblazoned on your skin.
In the hours, days, and sometimes weeks after, however, you may experience some soreness at the tattoo site. “During the first few days the tattoo will weep ink and plasma,” Snyder says. “It’s gross but normal.” From there, she explains it will start to dry out and the skin will tighten and begin to flake and possibly scab. This phase can be itchy, so as tempting as it may be, never pick or scratch at a new tattoo.
“Always check with your artist, and a doctor if you think your tattoo may be infected,” she says, adding, “Tattoos are wounds, and it’s important to take your aftercare seriously and never touch your healing tattoo with unwashed hands.” When it comes to the before, during, and after, Snyder says it's essential to practice and prioritize care. “Your body needs to rest and recover.”
Some of the general rules to follow after getting a tattoo, Carmel notes, are no swimming or soaking underwater (showers are fine), no direct sun exposure, and no extensive exercise for about two weeks. “You’ll wash the tattoo with a mild soap and put on an ointment like Aquaphor for 1-2 weeks.”
I'm still nervous. Is there any way I can make it hurt less?
Kind of. A big part of making it as painless as possible is actually in your own preparation, says Carmel. “To manage pain while getting the tattoo I recommend getting a good night’s sleep, don’t drink alcohol the night before, and stay hydrated,” she says. “Get a meal in you before you come into get tattooed. Everything is harder when you’re hungry."
When it comes to the during, there are other methods to deal with the pain. Some artists will apply lidocaine sprays such as Bactine during the tattooing process, Snyder says, which can mildly numb the surface of the skin to relieve pain and itching. “There are also numbing creams on the market which some people use when getting long sessions done,” she says. “They can help a great deal, until they wear off, then the pain can hit hard.” You should always check with your artist first if you plan to use numbing creams or sprays during your session.
While the sprays and creams may be of help to some, Snyder says that when it comes to dealing with the physical pain that accompanies getting a tattoo, it’s mostly mental. “If you’re not accustomed to getting tattooed or being able to hold still for long amounts of time, I’d start with practicing meditation,” she says.
Being aware of your breathing is essential to the overall mindfulness you can practice while getting a tattoo. “I recommend breathing exercises to make sure you don’t hold your breath during the tattoo,” says Carmel. You can also take breaks if the pain gets to be too much when you’re getting a larger tattoo done, or if you’re uncomfortable sitting in the same position for too long. But, all of the artists agree that these breaks should try and be kept to a minimum.
“The best thing to do if you are worried about the pain is to accept that it is going to hurt,” says Matthews. “The pain is uncomfortable, but not unbearable.” Carmel echoes the sentiment, noting that tattoos “don’t hurt forever” and when you have a piece of work on your body that you truly love, “you’ll forget how it felt.”
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