What does getting a tattoo feel like? You can expect it to be uncomfortable, of course, but just how uncomfortable depends on the hand and skill of your artist, the location of the tattoo, and your pain tolerance. You can expect to feel more than a pinprick when you get a tattoo, but that doesn't mean you won't be able to handle it. Curious to know what you're in for? We asked four of our most trusted experts everything there is to know about what getting a tattoo feels like. Keep scrolling for their savvy insight on pain levels, the most painful tattoo spots, the healing process, and more.
What Is Getting a Tattoo Like?
According to Monikka Velvet, NYC-based tattoo artist at High Hopes Tattoo, when it's time for the main event, you can expect your tattoo artist to start by cleaning your skin, typically with a vegetable- and oil-based soap diluted with distilled water. Any hair on or directly surrounding the area will also be removed, tattoo artist Mira Mariah adds. It's important to make sure your artist thoroughly cleans your skin before tattooing, says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rachel Nazarian, as cleansing is a critical safety standard step. Next, the artist will place a stencil onto your skin to act as a blueprint and preview, giving you the final chance to decide whether you like the design and placement. Once you give your approval, your artist will get to work, using the stencil as a guide.
"Tattoo safety is in the hands of the artist," Nazarian adds. Before scheduling a tattoo appointment with a new artist, Nazarian recommends making sure that they use safe ink, aka pure ink, which is ink that is not diluted with low-quality ingredients or contaminated with bacteria. It's also important to make sure your artist is using sterile equipment and bandages the area following industry standards once the tattoo is complete. "It all makes a huge difference in your long-term safety and health," she says.
A typical tattoo session may be as short as an hour or may take multiple visits to complete if the tattoo is extremely intricate and complex, Forte explains.
What Does Tattoo Pain Feel Like?
A needle being inserted and reinserted into your skin over and over again is never going to be pleasant, but how painful the tattooing process is will depend on the individual. What does tattoo pain feel like? Some people describe the sensation as a burning, razor-sharp pain, while others describe it as feeling like you've been cut.
According to Mariah, you might feel "a pinch that may feel a bit intense in the beginning but [will] fade to nearly nothing after a while." Forte adds that it can feel like a slight stinging or pressure sensation, but that most people get used to over the course of the session.
"It depends on the person getting tattooed and the artist doing the tattoo," adds Velvet. "Some clients love pain, some clients hate pain." While few people may feel excited about getting a shot at the doctor’s office, most people are extremely excited to get a tattoo, which can also influence the type of pain they experience, Forte points out. "I've had people tell me they love the feeling but most people just grin and bear it," he says.
Admittedly, some people are also just better at dealing with pain. Imagine a tattoo pain tolerance chart. If you have high pain tolerance, you'll likely sail through the tattoo process with an expected cringe or two, but without any intense pain. If you have a low tolerance for pain, on the other hand, our experts advise that your first tattoo should be small and located in a relatively pain-free spot. For some people, the thrill of the pain even becomes addictive. Some people will seek out a new tattoo as frequently as they can to experience the rush.
The Most Painful Tattoo Spots
"For someone who is pain adverse or who has never had a tattoo before, be mindful of what areas of the body are more sensitive than others," Forte advises.
Our experts share the most painful body parts to get tattooed:
- Bony parts of the body (such as the ankles, wrists, ribs, and sternum)
- Ticklish areas
- Areas with a thin layer of skin (such as the elbow creases, rib cage, armpits, inner thighs, tops of the feet, chest, and neck)
- Areas with a lot of nerves (including the fingertips, head, face, ears, nipples, and genitals)
- Areas with damaged tissue
Some people start with one of these areas for their first tattoo, while others build up their body art before venturing into the more painful spots. For those who want to ease into tattoo pain, your forearm, leg, or any other "meaty" part of your body are good options. The more flesh, the less intense the sensation. Don't opt for the most painful areas if you know you have a low pain tolerance. It's also important to note that the larger the piece, the more pain you'll endure because the process will take longer.
Forte recommends researching the pain levels associated with each body part to prepare for your tattoo appointment.
Other Factors That Impact Pain Level
Our experts add that there are other factors that impact the level of pain you might experience when getting a tattoo, including:
- Pain tolerance
- Skin sensitivity
- Complexity of the tattoo (Multiple colors, heavy shading, and intricate details require a lot more time and therefore can be more painful.)
What Do Tattoos Feel Like While Healing?
Tattoo healing varies from person to person. "You may feel a bit of pulsing or dull pain for a short period after getting the work done," says Forte, "but that goes away quickly." According to Mariah, small tattoos normally don’t feel like much when they’re healing whereas with large and intricate pieces, you may experience slight scabbing or even a tightness in the skin. Some people may feel tenderness surrounding the tattooed area while others may find the area itchy—often from the use of excess ink or from scabbing around the tattoo, Nazarian adds. In Velvet's opinion, a healing tattoo is extremely dry, and "feels like an annoying sunburn."
"You’ll know when a tattoo is fully healed when it feels settled into your skin—you can run your hands over it and it feels like the rest of your skin," Mariah says.
"Ask your tattoo artist for product recommendations to take care of your tattoo," Dillon advises. "A great artist will walk you through the entire process and make you feel comfortable with every step or question you have."
Hydrate your new tattoo with a moisturizing product, which will keep your tattoo in good shape as it heals.
For tattooed areas that are dry or scabbing, Nazarian recommends keeping the area hydrated with Aquaphor, which "helps prevent further loss of skin moisture and prevent[s] infection," she tells us.
Velvet recommends Mad Rabbit Tattoo Balm for tattoo aftercare, revealing that it keeps skin "healthy and unagitated."
When to See a Doctor
If you experience any of the following symptoms, it may be a sign your tattoo is infected or you’re having an allergic reaction to the ink:
- Increasing pain or tenderness
- Raised bumps
- Persistent itchiness
- Oozing or draining from the skin
- Rash around the tattoo
If you have one or more of these reactions, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
The Final Takeaway
If you’re thinking about getting a tattoo and are particularly concerned about pain, research the artist first. Seek out an artist known to have a light hand. Many experienced and highly skilled tattoo artists are very gentle with their machines, which will only help.
That said, if you go into the tattoo process knowing to expect some pain, you'll be better prepared to deal with it. Mental focus is essential, so practice meditation and relaxation techniques that will help you breathe and remain still when the pain becomes difficult to manage. Ultimately, the best thing to do before your tattoo appointment is to not overthink it. "Sometimes the mental fear manifested before going to get the tattoo makes the experience scarier for newbies," Forte reveals.
Consider bringing headphones so you can listen to music to zone out or talking with the artist to distract yourself. Discussing the steps as they occur and asking the artist about their technique can help you take your mind off of the pain. In the end, you'll have a much better tattoo if you can remain still and at ease during the process.
While it may be tempting to try to dull the pain with a drink, you can't get a tattoo while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. You should also keep in mind that you shouldn't take any painkillers that may thin the blood (such as NSAIDs like Advil and Aleve). This means you'll need to deal with the pain of a tattoo naturally or use a non-blood thinning OTC painkiller like Tylenol.
Velvet also recommends getting plenty of rest and eating an adequate meal before your tattoo appointment, explaining that the body needs extra energy and nutrients to withstand the process. Plus, getting a tattoo on an empty stomach may leave you feeling nauseous.
Islam PS, Chang C, Selmi C, et al. Medical complications of tattoos: a comprehensive review. Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. 2016;50(2):273-286. doi:10.1007/s12016-016-8532-0