Getting tattooed feels like being licked by tiny unicorns. Or at least that’s the sarcastic reply I received when I asked my tattooist what my first tattoo would feel like. As I booked my first appointment, all those years ago.
However in practice, tattooing feels nothing like being licked by anything except, maybe, a chainsaw. Or a red hot razor-blade.
Everyone will describe the sensation of tattooing in different terms. And this is due to different placements on different parts of the body, different tattooing techniques and differing sensitivities to pain creating differences of opinion. Yet all except the most masochistic of clients will tell you that getting a tattoo hurts.
To be tattooed involves having needles thrust through the outer layers of skin. The needles penetrate the epidermis down to the dermis, where the needles implant the ink. But tattoo needles don’t feel like medical needles. They don’t go in as far and they are much smaller.
So if thinking about the needles you get at the doctor or during a blood test freaks you out, have no fear. Getting tattooed isn’t like visiting the doctor.
Most tattoos aren’t that painful
For a client with an average sensitivity to pain, the process will hover somewhere between an uncomfortable scratching feeling through to a burning or cutting sensation in the more unpleasant spots.
For the more commonly tattooed areas like the outer upper arm, shoulder, forearm or back, the sensation will incline more towards an uncomfortable but bearable scratching feeling. And unless you’re planning on getting solid color or solid black on large portions of these placements, they’re quite bearable. Unpleasant, but bearable for the average person.
In the more unpleasant and vastly more painful spots like the armpit, elbow ditch, inner biceps, inner thighs and backs of the knees the skin is thinner and the nerves and blood vessels much closer to the surface. So you can expect the sensation to move more toward the hot razor-blade and cutting end of the tattoo pain spectrum.
In places with bone near to the surface such as the shin, front of the knee, collarbone or wrist, there will be an added vibrating sensation. As the vibrations from the tattoo gun run through to the bone. In the middle of the inner wrist you can expect your fingers to twitch and move involuntarily during the tattoo.
You shouldn’t worry about what a tattoo will feel like
This might sound like cliche advice from someone with a lot of tattoos, but you shouldn’t worry about the process and the potential for pain. And no, that’s also not the advice of a masochist telling you to embrace the pain.
For those with higher pain tolerances and without getting a particularly painful spot done, it’s quite possible to focus on other things and ignore the feeling of the tattoo gun for a number of hours before the pain becomes difficult to block out.
How long you can block out the feeling from the tattoo gun and the pain of the needles will depend a lot on how quickly you wear down when under stress. If you’re properly rested, hydrated and have had a hearty meal before your tattoo session, 3-4 hours is quite achievable for the average person.
Pushing through the 6 hour barrier is much harder. And the sensation will compound over the course of the session.
You will begin wearing down quicker and quicker with each pass of the tattooists gun as the session wears on. At the start of a tattoo session you won’t need many breaks. But as a tattoo session continues, you’ll find yourself wanting to take more and more breaks.
The level of pain you feel during your tattoo can be moderated
Your pain tolerance can be extended. And pain can be removed entirely from the equation. With the advent of modern tattoo numbing products the amount of pain you need to sit through to get the tattoo you want can be adjusted to your tolerance. We’ve reviewed tattoo numbing creams and you can find our reviews of the products we use on this website.
Numbing products will remove the sharp pain and the feeling of burning or cutting. You’ll still feel a light scratching and the pressure from the tattoo gun. But it’s more of a dull pressure. Like someone poking you with a finger as opposed to a bunch of vibrating needles.
I used a tattoo numbing cream when I got my black sleeve. I used the creams for those spots that I knew were horrible from experiencing them au naturel on my other arm. These days if I were going for any of the most painful spots I’d use a tattoo numbing cream. It’s not cheating.
While healing, tattoos feel like a bad sunburn
After the tattoo session and while a tattoo is healing, tattoos feel like bad sunburns. The initial healing stage for a tattoo takes 2-3 weeks. And it will feel like a bad sunburn and go through a similar process and stages to that of a bad sunburn.
For the first 2-3 weeks your tattoo will need to be kept clean and moist with proper aftercare. You’ll need to keep your tattoo away from hot water and sunlight. Just like a bad sunburn, if you expose it to sunlight or hot water you’ll feel it. It will hurt.
And while your tattoo is healing it may peel and get itchy. But just like a sunburn you won’t be able to scratch it. No matter how itchy it gets. Yet proper aftercare products will help alleviate some of the itchiness.
You won’t feel any sharp pain or burning sensations once the tattoo session is over. And if for some reason the tattoo pain persists, or your tattoo becomes inflamed or swollen, you should consult your doctor.
In the healing stages your new tattoo should feel like nothing more than a bad sunburn and be just as irritating as a sunburn. But it shouldn’t hurt. And continuing pain is often a sign of trouble. And if you experience continuing pain you should see your physician.
Vagabond takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.