What Does Getting a Tattoo Feel Like? Managing Pain and Aftercare Like a Pro

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Tattoos have recently grown more popular, with a 2019 IPSOS poll indicating that 30% of Americans have at least one tattoo, regardless of age or gender — a 21% increase since 2012. Additionally, 33% of those with tattoos have more than one.

There are many reasons why people are drawn to tattoos, such as a form of art or self-expression, to highlight individual passions or commemorate someone important to them. Of course, one should always weigh the pros and cons of adding permanent ink to their body. For instance, you should take cues regarding company culture when deciding whether to cover your tattoos for an interview, especially since 76% of people feel tattoos are problematic in the workplace.

Nevertheless, if you’ve considered getting tattooed but the fear of pain is holding you back, you’re not alone. While the experience will be somewhat uncomfortable, several factors determine just how much discomfort you’ll actually feel.  

What Does Getting a Tattoo Feel Like?

Once you’ve chosen your design, your tattoo artist will clean, prep and stencil a rendering of it in the correct placement on your skin. The next thing you’ll notice is a thin needlepoint.

People usually describe tattoos as a bee sting, cat scratch or prick. Others may say they experience sharp knife-like pain. Considering the needle is inserted repeatedly by the machine, you’ll typically feel vibrational throbbing or a jolt. However, the pinch usually subsides as you adjust to the sensations.  

Ultimately, what you feel depends on how well you deal with pain. It’s important to remember that pain is highly subjective and has much to do with the way our brains process sensory and emotional experiences. Your sensory reactions to pain may also differ depending on gender and age. 

Those with high pain tolerances are likely to have minimal complaints about getting a tattoo, while others with low pain tolerances might have extra tenderness. 

Where Does it Hurt the Most to Get a Tattoo?

Depending on what part of the male or female body you get a tattoo on, you may experience varying pain levels. For example, a back tattoo is less painful for a woman than for a man. Likewise, women may have more pain when tattooing their wrists than men.

However, the consensus is that tattooing over a bony area hurts the most. Otherwise, you’ll probably feel less pain where there are fewer nerve endings, more fat and thicker skin. 

Avoid getting tattoos in the following areas if you have low pain tolerance:

  • Armpits — are often considered the most painful place to get a tattoo
  • Ribcage — the second most painful area
  • Ankles, knees and behind the knees
  • Stomach
  • Fingers and hands
  • Anywhere on the neck or face
  • Hips

Instead, perhaps place your tattoo on the upper-outer part of your thighs where there tends to be more fat, the outer part of your shoulders, calves, forearms or biceps — they tend to have more muscle — or the upper and lower parts of the back. While there is no guarantee you won’t feel anything, it’s usually a relatively low-to-moderate sting.

Managing Your Tattoo Pain

Unfortunately, you can do little to eliminate pain during your tattoo session. Yet, there are some practical ways to manage the sting, such as:

  • Staying hydrated with lots of water
  • Avoiding alcohol and caffeine before your appointment
  • Not taking over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Getting a restful night’s sleep
  • Eating breakfast to build stamina

Caffeine and alcohol beverages are blood thinners and make you bleed more during your tattoo session. Some pain relievers have the same effect. 

Speak with your tattoo artist before your appointment to find out if you can use skin-numbing ointments for the procedure. Many of these products contain 5% lidocaine, which you can apply topically to the placement area of your tattoo.

Healing and Aftercare Tips

Once your tattoo session is complete, the tattoo artist will clean and wrap it for you. They’ll also provide aftercare instructions for you to follow at home. 

Aftercare may be the most critical part of the process, helping you manage your pain and ensuring your tattoo heals correctly. Keep in mind that you are most susceptible to an infection within the first three weeks — at which point the top layer of skin should be mostly recovered. 

Although aftercare instructions are rarely universal, many tattoo artists recommend aftercare tips, such as the following:

  • Leave the bandage in place for as long as your tattoo artist tells you to.
  • Wash your tattoo with warm water carefully at least twice a day.
  • Do not rub your tattoo to dry it — pat it gently with a paper towel.
  • Keep your tattoo moisturized with Aquafer healing ointment or a similar product.
  • Do not pick away at the scab to prevent infection and ink fading.
  • Avoid sun exposure and water, such as pools, oceans, lakes, etc.

You can also take over-the-counter pain relievers to remove some of the soreness after your tattoo session. 

So… What Does Getting a Tattoo Feel Like?

There isn’t a straightforward way to explain how a tattoo will feel. What might feel like agony for some may be mildly painful to others. You’ll never really know until you’re sitting in the chair — and if you’ve looked forward to getting a tattoo for a long time, whatever you feel will be worth it.


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