Outlining or Shading a Tattoo: Which Hurts More?

Updated 03/13/19

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Except for in the case of simple script or symbols, tattoos generally entail two phases: outlining and shading. Whether you're considering your first tattoo, or adding to an existing design, you're likely wondering what you should be preparing for, and how much pain you can (and will have to) tolerate with both outlining and shading. The answers might influence the type of design you settle on.

Some tattoo artists have the reputation of having a "light touch." So long as the ink is placed deeply enough in the skin so that it stays, this is a good trait in a tattoo artist. If your tattoo artist goes too deep into your skin, you'll likely feel a larger, close to unbearable, amount of pain. In the hands of an experienced, expert tattoo artist, you'll feel discomfort, but not excruciating pain.

Pain perceptions, tolerances, and experiences vary widely, of course, but here's a general overview of outlining and shading, and the pain each typically causes.

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Tattoo Outlining

Tattoo outlining is the initial step of the tattoo process, where your artist actually draws your tattoo design onto the skin.

If it's your first tattoo, you'll likely be in for a little bit of a shock. Some people describe tattoo pain as a sharp razor blade cutting the skin. Others say they can actually feel the needle going through the layers of the skin. 

If you've decided you want a larger tattoo design, you're going to have to deal with a bigger outline. This is why small tattoos are a good first choice if you're not certain of how much pain you can tolerate.

If you have your heart set on a grand-scale tattoo design, you will likely want to split your tattoo session into several smaller ones instead. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, such as if your tattoo artist is only in town for so long, or you've waited years for your appointment. But if you opt to get all the outlining done at one time, and add the shading or color later, your body will have time to heal—and you can take a much-needed break from the shock of the needles.

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Tattoo Shading

Tattooist creates a tattoo featuring an image of Albert Einstein.
Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Unlike outlining, shading isn't necessary for every tattoo. Color and shading simply provide more dimension than line work can. 

Contrary to what you might expect, many people report that the shading hurts significantly less than the outlining of the tattoo. If you've already made it through your line work, pat yourself on the back. You've conquered the most painful part already. You can do this!

That said, you should understand what is happening during the shading process. It's not the simple, single pass of an outline. Rather, your artist will be packing ink into your skin repeatedly, often for hours at a time, over the same area—which is why some people mistakenly expect it to be more uncomfortable than outlining. But remember: Outlining is very detailed, and your tattoo artist uses needles of a different size for the process. The level of pain you experience is a function of more than just repetition.

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Anticipating and Managing Pain

tattooed back
James D. Morgan / Getty Images

Regardless, both parts of the tattoo process have their own positives and negatives. If you're getting your first tattoo, maybe stick to a manageable, medium-sized design. The pain isn't permanent, but the design is.

It's also a good idea to avoid the more painful tattoo locations, like the ribs, hands, feet, and knees—any location where the skin is thin, and bones are close to the surface.

Once you have your first tattoo, you'll have a real understanding of how your body reacts to the process. Don't be surprised if you immediately get excited about adding more body art; It's actually pretty common. Likewise, you might stop there if you've decided tattoos (and the pain involved) just aren't for you.

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