Tattoo Pain From Outlining and Shading

Except in the case of simple script or symbol tattoos, getting inked generally entails two phases: outlining and shading. Each involves a different level of pain. Whether you're considering your first tattoo or adding to an existing design, you're likely wondering what hurts the most—tattoo outlining or shading—and how much pain you can (and will have to) tolerate. The answers might have a bearing on the type of design you settle on.

A Word About Tattoo Artists and Pain

If your tattoo artist goes too deeply, you'll likely feel more pain. This is not a sign of a good artist, and you should consider finding a new one to finish the work if the pain is unbearable. In the hands of an experienced, expert tattoo artist, you'll feel discomfort, but not excruciating pain.

Some tattoo artists have the reputation of having a "light touch." So long as the ink is placed deeply enough in the skin so that it stays, this is a good trait in a tattoo artist.

Outlining vs. Shading Pain

Pain perceptions, tolerances, and experiences vary widely, of course, but here's a general overview of outlining and shading, and the pain each typically causes.

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Tattoo Outlining

Tattoo Outlining
Amy Labra / EyeEm / Getty Images

Tattoo outlining is the very first step of the tattoo process. This is when your artist actually draws your tattoo design onto the skin.

If this is your first tattoo, you'll be in for a little bit of a shock. Some people describe tattoo pain as a sharp razor blade cutting the skin. Others say they feel the odd sensation of the needle going through the layers of the skin. 

If you opt for a large tattoo design, naturally you're going to deal with a bigger outline. Small tattoos are a good first choice if you're not certain of how much pain you can tolerate.

If you have your heart set on a grand-scale tattoo design, you might want to consider splitting your tattoo session into several smaller ones instead. If you opt to get all the outlining done at one time, and add the shading or color later, your body will have time to heal—and you can take a much-needed break from the shock of the needles.

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Tattoo Shading

Tattooist creates a tattoo featuring an image of Albert Einstein.
Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Unlike outlining, shading isn't always necessary. Color and shading simply provide more dimension than line work can. This means, of course, that if you want a tattoo with anything more than a script or single line, you will have to undergo the second part of the tattoo process.

Contrary to what you might expect, many people report that tattoo shading hurts much less than the original tattoo outlining. If you've already made it through the tattoo line work, pat yourself on the back: You've conquered the most painful part already. You can do this!

With that said, you should understand what is happening during the shading process. It's not the simple, single pass of an outline. Rather, your tattoo artist will be packing ink into your skin over and over again, often for hours at a time, over the same area of the skin. This is exactly why some people mistakenly expect the shading to be more uncomfortable than the initial outlining of the tattoo.But remember: Outlining is very detailed, and your tattoo artist uses differently sized needles for the process. The level of pain is a function of more than just repetition.

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Anticipating and Managing Pain

tattooed back
James D. Morgan / Getty Images

All told, both parts of the tattoo process have their own positives and negatives. If this is your first tattoo, consider sticking to a manageable, medium-sized design. The pain isn't permanent, but the design is.

You should also avoid some of the most painful tattoo locations, which include the ribs, hands, feet, and knees—any location where the skin is thin and bones are close to the surface.

Once you have your first tattoo, you'll have a better understanding of how your body reacts to the process. From there, don't be surprised if you get excited about adding more body art; many people do. Likewise, you might stop there if you've decided permanent tattoos (and the pain involved) just aren't for you.

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Consider No-Shame Alternatives

There' s no reason to put yourself through the tattoo process just to prove a point or feel tough. If you're unsure you can handle the pain of the procedure, opt instead for temporary tattoos, henna tattoos, or a basic body piercing. These won't prepare you for the discomfort of getting a permanent tattoo, but they can help give you a sense of whether one would be worth it for you. If you enjoy wearing a temporary tattoo enough to consider some temporary pain, go for it! And if not? You'll have discovered less trying ways of displaying beautiful body art.