Foot Tattoos: Pain and Healing

foot tattoo
MissMessie/Flickr

Some of my friends think I’m crazy for getting tattoos and piercings just for the ability to share firsthand knowledge with readers afterward. Body art procedures are difficult to imagine and describe well in any other way, though.There is a big difference between understanding something “in theory” and having a hands-on experience to substantiate that general knowledge.

You might have gotten tattoos and be familiar with the associated pain, but tattoos on different parts of the body cause varying levels of discomfort and require different protocols for healing.

A foot tattoo, in particular, is reputedly quite painful and tends to cause swelling. I decided to see for myself so I could pass along what I learn.

The Prep, and Why Fear Isn't Wimpiness

If you've gotten tattoos, you already know that a surge of adrenaline hits you as you walk into a studio. At the root of it is fear. This doesn't indicate weakness; fear is your mind's way of making you evaluate a situation. In this particular setting, your brain is asking you if you really want to do this, and your body responds with a jittery giddiness. If you go through with the procedure, you'll feel a different kind of jitters afterward: the rush of having faced down something that challenged you.

Knowing this—and having undergone a painful chest tattoo that required Lamaze breathing exercises just to get through—I wasn't surprised when a healthy dose of pre-tattoo jitters overtook me as I sat down to talk with the tattoo artist.

This isn't an unpleasant sensation. Some people describe it as a "rush" and view it as an exciting part of the tattooing experience.

As with any challenging physical experience, preparation helps. I'd armed myself with gum, my phone and headphones (for music), a snack for afterward, a drink in hand, something to read, and a bottle of Bactine spray.

The Procedure

With the first line of a foot tattoo, you'll understand what makes a foot tattoo so uncomfortable. It's not simply pain. The foot tends to react quickly and rather violently to stimulation (think "knee-jerk reaction"). The artist's poking and prodding anywhere on your foot is going to evoke a nearly irresistible urge to flinch. The more you resist, the more you will tense, and tension aggravates pain. In my case, not even the Bactine I'd brought was able to take the edge off as it usually does.

Thus, the first hour of the tattoo is painful and annoying; you'll probably find yourself, as I did, giving in to the urge to flinch. An experienced artist will expect this and know how to handle it without messing up the design.

Especially if your tattoo is on the large side for the foot, you might find the last half hour nearly unbearable as the artist fills in the outlines; however, being able to see your beautiful body art taking shape will get you through. At this point, even though you're hurting, you'll perceive a purpose to the pain and can look forward to enjoying the results.

The Healing

My sugar skull is absolutely stunning and was worth every wince. The first days of the healing phase were ​quite annoying and uncomfortable, though, mostly because of the swelling.

 Not until day four was I able to put my weight on my foot without causing it to feel like it might pop like an overfilled balloon. Keeping my foot elevated and applying ice packs as often as possible help a great deal.This helps minimize the fluid buildup in your foot (and the pain that goes along with that).

Being laid up in general—unable to get outside or just engage in normal activities—is extremely frustrating, but it's essential to your foot's healthy recovery. Sacrificing just a few days for a lifetime of beautiful ink is a small price to pay. Bearing this in mind helped me tolerate the process and even come to appreciate it as a rite of passage.

Putting Your Best Foot Forward

Body ink fans will tell you that it's addictive, and you might find this to be true when you finally step out sporting your new foot tattoo.The foot offers a canvas that you can hide or display easily, as is your whim, so don't be surprised if you wind up wanting a tat on the other foot, or some embellishment to the one you already have.

After all, having gone through the experience of a foot tattoo, you'll have learned that the pain is temporary and helps you appreciate the ink and the art form even more.