If you type in “tattoo” and then the letter “P” on Google, one of the first suggestions to pop up is “tattoo pain chart.” Apparently, that’s one of the biggest things people are wondering about when they’re thinking about getting a tattoo. This may seem like a stretch (or perhaps an obvious suggestion), but think of the other “p” terms that could pop up: “tattoo pricing” and “tattoo placement” seem much more pertinent to most body modification seekers, right? But instead, it is the pain factor that seems to matter most.
It’s understandable. Before you get your very first piece of permanent art etched into your skin, you want to know exactly what it’s going to feel like. That can seem even more important than what it’s going to cost, or even what it’s going to look like after everything is said and done. But the truth is, pain is rather subjective, as we all have varying levels of tolerance and our nerves can be mapped differently.
Still, it’s natural to want to know as much as you can about the process before diving in head first — or whichever part of the body you want to get tattooed first, that is. That’s why we asked the experts. Here, Anka Lavriv, a tattoo artist and co-owner of Black Iris Tattoo in Brooklyn, and Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, share their insights on the intricacies of tattoo pain.
While everyone has different levels of tolerance for pain (and different parts of the body can hurt more than others), Lavriv says she tells her clients to expect continual bouts of pain during the inking process. “I always tell my clients to imagine a cat continuously scratching them with hot claws,” she tells Allure. “It’s definitely a very acute, in-the-moment kind of pain.” Though I’ve never been scratched by a cat, I do have tattoos and can attest to said scratchy feeling.
A freshly cleansed canvas won’t necessarily help dull pain, but it will ensure minimal soreness following the treatment, says Zeichner. “Before the tattoo, the skin should be fully cleansed to remove dirt, oil, and bacteria,” he says. “The tattoo artist will likely use a surgical-grade cleanser or rubbing alcohol.”
Arms and shoulders are typically less sensitive to pain and easier to access for the artist, as well as any area of the body with more fat, says Zeichner. I’ve actually been tattooed by Lavriv before, and a piece larger than the size of my palm took about 70 minutes. She tattooed a California poppy on the outside of my upper arm, and it didn’t hurt as badly as tattoos I’ve gotten on my wrist, behind my ear, on my back, and on my inner arm.
Any part of the body that has a little more muscle and a little more flesh will make for a less painful tattoo, like your thighs, upper arms or forearms, and shoulders. Places where the skin is a little more taut, like the “outside,” or top of the leg rather than the calf, will make for a more pleasant tattoo, according to the artists at Richmond Tattoo Shop. If it’s your first time getting tattooed and you’re not sure how you’ll handle the pain, stick to one of those areas.
Areas of the body that have less fat tend to hurt more. Those areas include “the ribs, feet, elbow ditch, and armpit area,” explains Lavriv. Apparently, ribs are especially difficult for artists and clients. “It’s a very sensitive area, which is also constantly in motion because of the breathing, so we have to really sync up our movements,” says Lavriv. That being said, if you really want your ribs tattooed, you should go for it — just be prepared for an arduous session with your artist.
It’s also important to keep in mind that areas of the body where the skin is close to the bone experience another sensation of pain on top of the getting-a-tattoo discomfort — a sort of “tapping on the bone” feeling, which many people don’t like. This includes the ankles, ribs, wrists, and the tops of the feet. Other super sensitive areas, such as your fingertips and forehead will also likely hurt to tattoo because those places are where your most pain-sensitive neurons are, according to this study published in the Annals of Neurology medical journal.
With that said, Zeichner notes, “For every rule, there is an exception to the rule, and detailed tattoos may be uncomfortable even on fatty areas like the back or the belly.”
Most tattoo shops have pricing minimums and usually base the cost on either a certain size, often a palm-size tattoo, or a certain length of time, like an hour. Artists often set time limits to avoid added discomfort. “I don’t do sessions that last longer than three hours,” says Lavriv. “I really don’t like my clients to have a traumatic experience, so I try to design pieces that mostly take under three hours or break it down into a couple of sessions.”
Initial pain, post-ink, typically lasts a few hours, and there may be slight bruising for a few days, says Zeichner. “If pain persists over several days, especially if the area continues to look red and feels warm, you should get it checked out immediately by your doctor to make sure there’s no infection or allergic reaction,” he says.
For those worried about pain, Lavriv says tattoo newbies should start small. “I always recommend getting a smaller piece — under an hour — as a first tattoo,” she says. “Tattoo pain is a very subjective thing and while it can feel like not a big deal to some people, it can be excruciating for others. It’s always good to test out how your body reacts to it.”