Tattoo Pain From Outlining and Shading

Whether you're considering your first tattoo or adding to an existing design and are wondering how much discomfort you can tolerate, you may be asking what hurts the most—tattoo outlining or shading?

Both tattoo outlining and shading are necessary to create most tattoo designs, except for simple script or symbol tattoos. While pain variances and experiences will always vary, here's a brief overview of both steps, and how one or the other may feel the most painful.

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Tattoo Outlining

Tattoo Outlining
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Tattoo outlining is the very first step of the tattoo process. This is where your artist will begin to draw 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 like a sharp razor blade cutting the skin. Others may feel the sensation of the needle going through the layers. 

If your tattoo artist goes too deeply, you'll likely feel more pain. This is not a sign of a good artist, and you may want to consider finding a new one to finish the work if the pain is unbearable.

Some tattoo artists have the reputation of having a "light touch". So long as the ink is placed deep enough in the skin so that it stays, this is an asset to find in a tattoo artist.

If you opt for a large tattoo design, you're going to deal with a bigger outline. Small tattoos are a good first choice if you're not certain you have enough tattoo pain tolerance. If you're insistent on a grand scale tattoo design, you may decide to split your tattoo session into increments instead. If you opt for all outlining at one time, and add the shading or color later, your body will have time to heal and you can take, perhaps, a much-needed break from the shock of the machine.

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Tattoo Shading

Tattooist creates a tattoo featuring an image of Albert Einstein.
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Unlike outlining, shading is only necessary when your tattoo design has more dimension than line work. This means anyone opting for anything more than a script or single line tattoo will need to experience the second part of the tattoo process.

Many people feel tattoo shading hurts much less than the original tattoo outlining, so this can be good news. If you've already made it through the tattoo line work, pat yourself on the back. You can do this!

With that said, it helps to understand what is happening during the shading process. Unlike a simple pass, your tattoo artist will be packing color or ink into your skin over and over again, often for hours at a time. This is exactly why some people believe the shading is more uncomfortable than the initial outlining of the tattoo.

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Expect the Unexpected

tattooed back
James D. Morgan / Getty Images

Both parts of the tattoo process have their own positives and negatives. If you are opting for your first tattoo, we recommend a manageable, medium size tattoo. You should also avoid some of the most painful tattoo locations, which include the ribs, hands, feet, and knees.

Once you have your first tattoo you'll have a better understanding of how your body reacts to the process. From there you can begin to get excited about adding more body art, or stop there if you've decided permanent tattoos just aren't for you.

There' s no reason to put yourself through pain just to prove a point or feel tough. Instead, opt for temporary tattoos, henna tattoos, or a basic body piercing. You can still modify your body and style in ways that are more comfortable. And there's nothing wrong with that at all.