What It Really Feels Like To Get A Tattoo

by Jen Marie

Pain really sucks, but missing out on a life-changing experiences is nearly as bad. Like avoiding getting a tattoo just because you're afraid of what getting a tattoo feels like. These days, as tattoos seemingly grow more and more common and more accepted in the workplace, one of the few things holding many would-be-tattoo-bearers back is likely the perceived pain factor.

Luckily, the adrenaline rush involved in getting a tattoo has gotten plenty of people through the physical pain that comes from having their favorite tattoo artist set needle to skin, myself included. Tattoo enthusiasts and artists have braved their fear of needles, pain, and potential complication to bring to you stories of ink from the other side. And hopefully, with a little bit of shared candor, you might just find yourself convinced that the physical discomfort involved in getting a tattoo is overshadowed by the (usually) enriching experience of having one. Or, at the very least, perhaps you'll avoid waking up in cold sweats the night before getting your first tat, and be able to walk into your local tattoo parlor with your head held high and your palms dry.

After having gotten four semi-decently sized tattoos thus far in my life, I consider myself relatively versed in the sensations involved in getting inked. However, my limited experience is no match for that of other tattoo aficionados, so I decided to consult a professional on the subject in order to glean a greater understanding of what's common when it comes to tattoo pain.

According to Audrey Bauer, tattoo artist and piercing artist with Good Family Tattoo in Lake Villa, Illinois, everyone's pain threshold is pretty different. She tells me via email that she's seen clients who handle pain very well, and others who can't sit still, get light headed, or even pass out. And while her best advise is to "relax all of your muscles and breathe," she is jokingly wary of comparing the feeling of getting a tattoo to something else. In her words, "There's really nothing like it."

That being said, some of Bauer's clients have described getting a tattoo as feeling like stinging, burning, and scratching as the process is underway. Bauer shares that "there are spots where it only feels like pressure and spots that take your breathe away from how bad it hurts." And while some clients compare the pain to being scratched by their cat, others prefer the analogy of encountering a few bee stings. Afterwards, it's widely recognized that the area around the tattoo will be sensitive and sore, like a sunburn or a bruise.

Another helpful tidbit Bauer shared was a list of what are considered to be some of the most painful sites to have tattooed, which include the following (in no particular order):

  • Ribs
  • Feet
  • Armpit
  • Behind The Knee
  • Neck
  • Head
  • Hands

While not on Bauer's list, top-rated locations for pain I've heard mentioned over the years are also ankles, elbows, inner arms, or legs. Which, in the greater scope of things, covers quite a bit of the body. But is the pain so terrible that it's not worth facing? Countless tattoo enthusiasts, myself included, will answer this question with a resounding, "NO."

As for my personal experiences going under the needle, each one has been somewhat varied, both in terms of pain and outcome. My first tattoo was by far the most painful. And to this day, I'm not certain whether that's because it's located on my spine or if it's simply because it was my first, and my nerves got the better of me.

When I walked into the tattoo parlor that day, I was cool, calm, and collected. But by the time the outline of the heart design was complete, my body was quivering slightly, I was entirely flush, and the tattoo artist had to turn on a fan and blast it at my face for the remainder of the session.

Since then, I've gotten work done in less sensitive locations and have concluded that for me personally, the sensation of getting inked is akin to having 15 kittens scratching you repeatedly in one location for a few hours, or going to a dentist who rather obnoxiously scrapes the same tooth for far too long. It is not painful so much as unnerving, and decidedly a bit bothersome. However, if you're not bothered by the sight of some blood, watching may help pass the time, and keeping in mind the end goal is always helpful. All while relaxing your muscles and breathing, of course.

The truth is, getting a tattoo is a completely unique experience and one that you share explicitly with your tattoo artist. It is, like most art, a birthing of sort (not to sound too new age and flowery), and a process that results in something stunning and personal and begins from virtually nothing at all. A spark, an idea, a piqued interest, or even an abstract longing to express some part of one's life that can't quite be voiced otherwise, or carried along as a memento, linking the future and past. Or, in some cases, just a crazy detailed piece of artwork that doesn't particularly mean anything at all, but looks hella good. In my eyes, facing some temporary discomfort in order to add to the canvas of your life is a worthwhile trade off.

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Images: Annie Spratt/Unsplash; Jen Schildgen