As far as tattoo placements go, foot tattoos have both a painful needling and finicky aftercare reputation, as well as a potentially short-lived appearance — but despite it all, they’ve maintained their popularity. TikTok, Instagram, and Pinterest are flooded with inspirational images of delicately and intricately inked feet. Designs range from mandala-esque drawings and floral patterns to lettering and edgy scorpion imagery. And celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Madison Beer are some of the names seen flaunting the style in recent years.
Thinking about getting some new ink on your feet? It’s helpful to know what you’re getting into before you book your appointment. No tattoo is for the faint of heart, and you can expect any placement to hurt at least a little. "In order for tattoos to be permanent, the pigment has to be placed deep in the dermis," Dr. Aimee Paik, medical director of online dermatological service Apostrophe, tells Bustle. "Needles are used to drive the pigment below the skin's surface, which hurts!"
Still, foot tattoos are especially worth knowing all the full details in advance. If you are thinking about taking the plunge, here's what to expect as far as pain, longevity, and aftercare.
How Painful Is A Foot Tattoo?
Feet are known to be particularly sensitive. Paik explains that some places on your body have many more nerve endings than others, which explains why foot tattoo pain may be worse than, say, pain from getting a tattoo on your arm or back. "The procedure itself may be more painful because the foot is more highly innervated, and it may be a little bit more tender during the recovery process," she says.
Tattoos have two elements: line work and shading. The line work on a foot tattoo, where the artist is laying out the lines of the design, often feels like a needle scratching your skin. But the bit that might make you bite back swear words is the shading, or more specifically the part where already-shaded skin is gone over again to darken the color.
This is because there is no flesh or muscle padding in your foot to dull the pain in this area. “There are so many nerves concentrated in that area, making it more susceptible to pain,” Los Angeles-based tattoo artist Mystic Woodburn tells Bustle. “I find most of my clients have an easier time when we are working on the tops of the feet, and a little more sensitive when we move to the sides.”
That being said, there are plenty of videos on TikTok and Instagram that show the variety of reactions to foot tattoos. Some people scream into pillows while others coolly breathe through it. In the end, everyone’s pain tolerance is different.
Can You Wear Shoes After A Foot Tattoo?
The answer is no, and then later, yes. “Thong style flip flops are best while your feet are healing,” says Woodburn. But once your tattoo is fully healed (more on that below), you can definitely wear shoes, though it may cause some fading over time.
Figuring out foot tattoo placement is a very important part of the process. If your foot tattoo is on the very side of your feet, where your shoe rubs, it's going to rub off a bit with wear. If it's on the very top of your foot, it’s less likely to rub off as easily, but it will hurt more, as your skin is very thin there. And if you get it done on your ankle, it will be affected by some fading from the sun.
Do Foot Tattoos Fade Quickly?
As far as tattoo locations go, the feet are known to fade more quickly than other placements. “The reason foot tattoos fade more quickly is because they come in contact with your shoes,” Woodburn says. “If you’re worried about fading, I would choose a bolder design to ensure it lasts the rest of time.”
What she means is that those delicate fine line tattoos might not be the best choice for a foot tattoo placement, as the thin lined design will fade as opposed to something bolder. However, you truly can get whatever you type of tattoo you want, as it’s just a blank canvas. “Foot tattoos can be any size, but because my style of tattooing is focused on creating designs that fit the body, they tend to be on the larger size,” Woodburn says. Foot tattoos can bleed ink over time, as the foot is used so regularly, and small tattoos can become tiny smudgy masses if they're placed on parts of the foot you use. Behind the ankle, you're safe, but anywhere else, you’ll have to scale the image up.
Some tattoo artists choose not to do foot tattoos at all, on the grounds that they can be easily infected if not taken care of and fade very fast. Make sure to do your research and discuss your tattoo idea with an artist or two first, so you don’t bombard an artist who isn’t willing to do one or who doesn’t work in an artistic style that lends well to foot tattoos — i.e. fine line and color tattoos that will rub off and fade over time.
Do Tattoos On Feet Wear Off?
Truth be told, that glorious fresh look just after the bruising and redness has faded won’t last forever. That’s somewhat the case with every tattoo, but it is especially true of foot tattoos. Some of the ink from an initial application will gradually wash off, wear off, or rub off from daily use of your feet.
Depending on the style of your tattoo, you may need to go back into the studio for a touch-up. However, it really is dependent on the style of tattoo you get done, as Woodburn explains, as not all foot tattoos will need a retouch. “Because I work with black exclusively, I don’t often have people asking for touch-ups — so far never on the feet,” she says.
How Do You Take Care Of A Foot Tattoo?
Foot tattoos come with a notoriously tedious healing process. Protecting your tattoo during the healing period is like being in a committed relationship — you have to be diligent and caring about it. Washing your hands often and using small amounts of lotion will become a ritual for you while your tattoo heals.
“I like to put Saniderm [aftercare bandages] on my clients that receive foot tattoos,” Woodburn says. “I suggest that you leave the Saniderm on for five days, then after the five days are over, wash twice daily and moisturize whenever the skin feels dry.” To prevent it from fading, you’ll also want to slather it with sunscreen.
It’s also smart to think about the time of year you’re getting your foot tattoo done. “It’s important to wear shoes that don’t rub against your tattoo during the healing stage (around two weeks),” says Woodburn. Flip-flops and ballet flats (for top of foot tattoos) are generally your only options for letting it heal safely in the open, so it’s best to be in a lifestyle environment where that is OK.
Not to mention, foot tattoos are more prone to infection than others because they're low to the ground, near dirt and germs, and you move them around quite a lot. Avoid submerging it in water or exposing it to sun for at least those two weeks, so if you get it inked in the summer, just know that you’ll be spending a lot of time indoors.
Foot tattoos come with a lot of maintenance and deserve some forethought and careful consideration before you jump right in and get one. That being said, they are also super cool and trendy. If you think a foot tattoo would look great as body art on you, and you’re up to the task of letting it heal properly, go for it. You may just like it so much that you end up going back for more.
Mystic Woodburn, Los Angeles-based tattoo artist
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