Firstly, it is important to mention that being tattooed is not agonisingly painful – if it were, no one would be heavily tattooed.
Everyone’s pain tolerance is different and while tattoos are uncomfortable for most people, they aren’t anywhere near things like childbirth and kidney stones – most people you talk to should confirm this.
How much or how little your tattoo hurts depends on numerous factors, and a surprising amount of what you feel is up to you. A tattoo involves placing ink under the outer layer of skin with a sharp needle, or collection of needles. This will hurt, but you can control the discomfort a lot or a little by thinking it through and preparing yourself for the best possible experience.
A major factor involved in the pain is placement – choose a less painful area for your tattoo if you are really sensitive, or really worried.
Padded areas tend to hurt the least; muscles or fleshy places like your arms, shoulders, legs, maybe upper back / torso, or bum!
Prime pain spots tend to be closer to the bone or have a lot of nerve endings, such as; underarms, groin area, ankles, hands, feet, ribs, head & face.
The above pain chart is a general representation of the pain levels of different areas on the body.
Size and Detail
Stick to a small tattoo at first, until you see how you do. Go for the full sleeve after you’re a veteran with your pain management strategies (more info on this later).
All tattoos are not created equally. The pain level of your tattoo can also be affected by what, exactly, you’re getting put on your body. There are some exceptions, but in general:
· The smaller and simpler a tattoo is, the less painful it will be. Large, detailed designs hurt much more;
· Black and grey tattoos are less painful (and take less time) than multi-colour tattoos;
· Areas of solid colour hurt the most because they require the artist to go over their work several times.
Getting a large tattoo is a lot for your body and immune system to deal with, and if you’re sitting for a large tattoo you can reduce your discomfort too:
· Avoid alcohol (including the night before) and drugs – alcohol thins your blood and both mess with your head. Do your ink focused;
· Try and get a good night’s sleep so you are rested and relaxed;
· Bathe or shower for squeaky-clean skin;
· Eat a sensible / balanced meal, that includes a good source of protein, before your appointment (low & fluctuating blood sugar is why some people get light-headed or sick during a tattoo, a decent meal should combat this);
· Sweets & sugary drinks can quickly reverse low blood sugar but can also produce insulin spikes and are not the best thing before or during your tattoo.
· Wear loose, comfortable clothing that lets you sit or lie down without restriction (for hours if you’re getting an ambitious tattoo!);
· Arm yourself with a good book or your playlist, earbuds and phone for a long session;
· Bring a friend or family member with you. Having someone who cares for you makes the experience much easier – you’ll have someone to talk to about your jitters beforehand and someone to give words of encouragement when you run into pain;
· Limit coffee to one cup, and limit stimulants in general – you want to be in the zen zone for this adventure, not hopped-up and wired.
· Reschedule if you’re sick.
Getting a tattoo is a mind game – train your mind to win at the game!
Relax & Breathe
A relaxed state of mind is THE most important thing – this cannot be stressed enough.
Studies have shown that meditation can be more powerful at pain relief than morphine. Even if you are not a meditation master, pay attention and focus on slow breathing and try to empty your mind. The pain goes with the thoughts. Staying relaxed helps relieve the temporary pain more than any medication, and while you’d have to be a meditation master to feel nothing, you can diminish the pain’s power by shifting your attention away from it.
Learn some simple yoga breathing for the tense moments and you’ll unclench and feel it less. Long breath in, nice and slow long breath out – try it three times, focusing on the breath. Don’t hyperventilate for your whole session, save that for when the artist pauses to reload ink.
Try to exhale when you feel the worst pain – exhaling during stress or exertion makes it easier to “power through” the pain. Try to resist the urge to hold your breath during painful moments as this can make tattoo pain worse and more distracting.
Know that your body will produce pain-blocking endorphins once the session starts.
You can put yourself in a self-hypnosis “trance” and chill in the tattoo chair. Give your artist the heads up so they won’t think you’ve checked out – then close your eyes and consciously relax every part of your body from your toes to the top of your head. Slip into a vivid daydream about the most peaceful place you can imagine – work all five sense to experience this place, almost like being inside a movie. The downside is, you miss the tattooing experience. The upside is, you miss the tattooing experience. Your call.
Squeeze & Chew!
Squeeze or chew something to relieve pain. Squeezing something in your hand, or biting down on something, can actually reduce pain significantly. It’s a technique that’s used to reduce pain for women during labour – and it works quite well. Consider bringing one of the following:
· Stress ball;
· Grip Exerciser;
· Protective mouthpiece / gum shield;
· Chewy sweets;
· Towel / Wooden spoon etc;
· DON’T bite down if there is nothing soft in your mouth, simply gritting your teeth can cause dental damage.
*Disclaimer – we are not pharmacists and cannot advise taking any of the following. We do not know your medical history or any reactions you may have – speak to your doctor or pharmacist before proceeding.
Some people find relief with over the counter (OTC) medications such as paracetamol. DO NOT TAKE ASPIRIN – this stops clotting and will make you bleed more, leading to a crap final tattoo. The same goes for alcohol, including drinking the night before.
Prescribed medications such as Tramadol, Valium and Co-Codamol have been used over the years, and perhaps unsurprisingly (as they are strong drugs) can seem to help. These are obviously not available to everyone and may have side effects.
Sedatives help you deal with pain, not stimulants. Interestingly they don’t actually relieve pain themselves, they just help you stay in that calm, relaxed state of mind that makes all the difference.
Stimulants such as energy drinks, caffeine or cocaine. Stimulants increase alertness, anxiety, blood pressure and heart-rate – making it challenging to sit still during a tattoo.
How can you stop a tattoo hurting? You can’t really, but get a good night’s sleep, eat a decent breakfast with as little sugar as possible, no stimulants and possibly try some OTC medication if you feel the need – and leave numbing creams alone! They’re really not worth it. (See our Numbing & Anaesthetics page for more information)
Above all, stay calm and relaxed – the mind is the most powerful thing of all.