Tattoo Pain: Outlining or Shading, Which Hurts More?

  Iuliia Isaieva/Getty Images

Question: "I just recently got a start on my first tattoo, a rather large one of a dragon on my upper back. I just got the outline and it hurt like all hell. For me the pain never really subsided. My question to you is if the shading is going to hurt more or less than the outline. I don't know if I can handle anything more painful."

Answer: I'm sorry you're not having a good tattoo experience. If you're in that much pain, it's very possible that your artist is going too deep. Are your lines nice and thin and even all the way around? Are there any "shadows" of ink outside the lines underneath your skin? Do you see any ink where it doesn't belong? Did you scar much? If you answered yes to any of those questions, it's more than likely that your tattoo artist is tattooing you too deeply and the first thing I'd do is find a new tattoo artist.

Now, if that's not the case and your skin is just more sensitive than some people's, here are a few options. One, make your sessions shorter. If you can only handle 30 minutes worth, then do so. If you're working on a large tattoo, you may feel pressured to sit through longer sessions than your body can handle.

You hold the money and you make the rules. If you need a break, tell the artist you need to stop for five minutes. If you need to go home, then go home and tell him you'll get more done in a couple of weeks. As far as the shading pain level goes, it's difficult to say. I've had some shading done that hurt a lot less and I've had some done that hurt more. The ones that hurt more, though, happened when I was pushing my body too far and was already in pain from a long tattooing session.

When you get shading done, it's done with a group of needles usually in two straight lines that run parallel but "alternating," meaning that the bottom row of needles are spaced between the top row of needles. This is very similar to the guy who can lie down on a bed of nails. If he tried to lay down on just a few nails or several nails in a round shape, it would impale him. However, when the needles are evenly dispersed over the entire surface of his body, they don't hurt him. I think a mag (shader) works in a very similar fashion. Because of more even displacement of skin, many find it to hurt less than the outline. But again, this has a lot to do with the level of skill of the artist.

If you're not sure you got the right person for the job, don't be afraid to search for a new artist to complete the tattoo. This should be a bearable experience at least and an enjoyable one at best. I hope you're able to complete your tattoo without too many complications.