7 Tips For First Time Tattooers & Needle Fearers

by Sebastian Zulch

There are a lot of reasons why you may be hesitant to get your first tattoo, and oftentimes first tattoo tips on the Internet leave something to be desired. Perhaps your fears stem from the cost involved, or maybe even the permanence of your ink decision. Even if you've set aside plenty of dough and are set on the design of your dreams, your fear of needles might be an obstacle between you and your new ink because (spoiler) getting a tattoo does involve a needle and, specifically, having that very needle poked into your skin repeatedly. However, as something of a tattoo veteran, I can assure you that it's nothing like a medical procedure, and can be quite a fun and exhilarating experience.

I've had my fair share of being poked and prodded throughout my sickly teenage life in the form of IV infusions, injections, and blood tests, all of which required needles. Obviously I dreaded those needles, which often caused bleeding and bruising as nurses struggled to find a workable vein. That being said, I can tell you that my medical experience with needles is nowhere near similar to my tattoo-related experiences with needles. Getting a tattoo involves a needle only penetrating the first layer of your skin, and there are less veins and blood to worry about. So that's something.

Still not convinced? Here are seven comforting observations and tips for your first tattoo if it's the needle you fear.

1. It Won't Look Medical

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People who are afraid of needles often have a visceral reaction to the way the needle looks while going in. The needle placed inside a tattoo gun, however, looks way more like an artistic tool than anything medical. Plus, it's not a scary thing to watch in the least.

Watching your artist work, you will realize that it doesn't look like the needle is going into the skin. It just looks like someone is drawing on your skin with a loud and buzzing pen. There are no veins being poked or blood involved when getting a tattoo (although sometimes your skin bleeds tiny little droplets during the process, which is normal and barely noticeable).

2. It's OK Not To Look

However, even after knowing all this, it can still be hard for some to watch the process. And that's OK! It's fine to simply not look at the area as your artist is working. No one expects you to watch.

3. The Pain Is Bearable

Never having had a tattoo needle on your skin, it's easy to let your imagination run wild about what it will feel like. Trust me, it is super manageable, so don't psych yourself out. When I was about to get my first tattoo, I was so afraid about how much it would hurt, believing every horror story about the pain and using my past experience with needles as a reference. In fact, as soon as the needle hit my skin for my first tattoo, I was actually a bit underwhelmed.

Don't get me wrong: The pain was there, but at nowhere near the level that I was anticipating. It's a steady and predictable pain that you can easily get through with some distraction. I've often heard the pain compared to a cat scratching a sunburn. If you ask me, it feels way more gentle and meticulous than a random act of aggression from a crazy feline, but it does compare to the cat analogy in that there are some stinging and burning sensations along the way.

4. Take Breaks

If the pain of the needle is what makes you nervous, there are a number of ways to manage it. One way is to take breaks every half hour (or however frequently you'd prefer). Take a drink of water, stretch out a bit, check your email — anything that will help you revitalize or calm yourself. Be sure to be breathing steadily and deeply throughout the tattoo to keep yourself relaxed as well. Holding your breath, although it sometimes feels natural to do so when experiencing pain, is not helpful.

When I'm getting a tattoo, I do very controlled and meditative breathing exercises. Counting to 10 as you breathe in and counting to 10 as you breathe out will not only keep your body calm, but it will distract your mind from the discomfort on your skin.

5. Distractions Are Your Friends

There are many ways to distract from the pain of the tattoo needle. Artists expect this, and are understanding of the fact that you are in pain as they place their art on your body. Listening to music can be super helpful in blocking out the sound of the needle's buzzing, if the dentist drill-sounding equipment is getting to you.

There is almost always music playing in tattoo parlors. It may not be loud enough to drown out the needle's sound, but tapping along to the tunes can be helpful nonetheless. When I'm getting inked, I'm always keeping one part of my body moving in a rhythmic way (a part that doesn't get in the way of my artist's work, of course), which serves as a great distraction for me.

Talking to your artist is probably the easiest (and politest) form of distraction, though. I usually chat with my artist through the entirety of our session. Focusing on keeping up my end of the conversation really helps the pain feel miles away. Plus, you end up learning a lot about your artist (and yay for new friends!).

6. So Is Your Artist

Tell your artist about your concerns. Let them know this is your first time and that you're terrified of needles. Not only will this break the ice with your artist right off the bat, but they will also be able to say things to truly put your mind at ease since they understand their craft more than you do. Not to mention that talking about what you're feeling can be cathartic anyway.

Having an artist that pays attention to your body response and constantly checks in is ideal, of course. If this is not the case right away, however, don't be afraid to keep communication open throughout the process regardless. They understand what you're going through and will do whatever they can to make the process more comfortable and less daunting for you.

7. Ask For Numbing Cream

Why not take care of pain aspect altogether? Many shops do not make you aware of the option to numb the area before tattooing, but this is in fact an option available at most parlors. If the pain of the tattoo needle is really getting to you, don't be afraid to request some good ol' numbing cream beforehand. You'll still be able to feel something, but there will be way less stinging and discomfort overall (which definitely makes the extra hour it takes to set in worth it).

Chances are that no matter what, doing something new and weird and potentially painful is going to induce a little bit of anxiety. Rest assured, though, that when that ink is on your bod and part of your soul, it'll all be worth it.

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