Tattoos: How Much Do They Really Hurt?

Woman getting tattoo
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The question has been posed time and time again: How much does getting a tattoo hurt? Professional tattoo artists and longtime body art collectors tend to forget what it was like to be on the other side of the chair for the first time. Although the experience is different for everyone—depending on factors like pain tolerance, the tattooist's skill, the needles used, and the tattoo's placement—a few elements are common to all.

Comparisons to Other Types of Pain

Every person has a different threshold for pain. What one person considers not painful at all could be devastating to another. Some people describe the feeling of getting tattooed as a "hot scratch." Others describe it as "annoying." You might feel stinging or burning when the artist outlines or details your design. If you're getting a bony spot inked, you might feel a vibrating sensation. The most common feeling, however, is a low-grade pain that's moderate enough for you to be distracted from by talking, watching TV, or listening to music. In any case, most people say the discomfort was not nearly as bad as they feared—and entirely worth it. 

Fainting and Tears

You might have heard horror stories about people passing out or crying from the intense pain. Pain, however, is usually not the culprit when someone faints during a tattoo. More often, it's due to a drop in blood sugar caused by not eating, or simply a reaction to the stress of anticipation.

As far as crying goes, some people do find the pain too much to bear, but this is unusual. Don't assume you're going to be one of them. Sure, an eight-hour session of inking might be more discomfort and stress to bear without a few tears, but more than likely, you are not going to be facing that (especially for your first tattoo!).

So don't give in to the hype. Remember: People who share horror stories online often do so because those experiences are unusual or extreme in some way. Ordinary, typical stories get far less interest and attention.

Fear of Needles or Blood

If you have a thing about needles, getting a tattoo isn't going to be easy. Before you nix the idea, however, keep in mind how superficial tattooing really is. Tattoo needles do not enter the skin very far—actually, only about 1/16 of an inch. Take a look at a ruler, and you'll see just how insignificant that is. 

If you just can't get past your fear of needles, get your tattoo somewhere on your body where you will not be able to watch the work going on. If you can't see it, the process won't feel like what you expect.

As for any ick factor about blood, don't worry about this much. The needles move in an up-and-down motion, carefully pushing the ink just below the surface of the skin. The damage to skin is so minimal that many people don't bleed at all (or they bleed very little). The tattoo artist also will be constantly wiping up your skin to clean off any traces of blood; it's all done in a very clean, professional manner. Excessive bleeding usually happens only when the patron has been drinking alcohol or taking some kind of blood thinner (like aspirin).

Perceptions of Pain

How you experience pain has as much to do with your mind as your physiology. Talk to almost any mother, and she'll tell you she'd go through the pain all over again. Ask her about a toothache, though, and you'll get a different answer. Pain with a purpose hurts differently than pain from illness or accidental injury. Pain in a situation that's perceived as positive is far easier to bear. Stay focused on the beautiful piece of art you'll soon be wearing, and you're likely to find that the pain is more than tolerable. And when you admire your tattoo later, you'll be reminded of how strong you are.

You're Not Alone

Another thing to consider is the fact that nearly everyone is nervous when they go to get a tattoo. No question: You're going to feel some apprehension when you sit in the chair.

Your endorphins—your body's natural reaction to stress—will kick in to help ease any pain or discomfort. The first 60 seconds are usually the worst. Then, when you realize it's just not that bad, you'll calm down. The rest is smooth sailing.

Learn As Much As You Can

Knowledge is power. Want to get ahead of your pre-tattoo anxiety? Learn all you can about what you're getting into. Research everything you can about the process, from the viewpoints of both patrons and artists.

If you take the time to educate yourself about the process and choose a reputable, professional artist whom you can trust completely, you can walk into the tattoo parlor with confidence and calm. And afterward, you'll walk out with a beautiful, meaningful piece of body art—and the pride of having faced a fear.