Worth the Pain
July 14, 2009 4:15 PM   Subscribe

To what would you compare the pain of getting a tattoo?

I'm thinking of getting a tattoo between my shoulder blades. I have a regular to slightly wussy threshold of pain. How painful is it? Anything you could compare it to? Is that an ok spot because I know thin spots like hands and feet hurt more because you don't have much meat there. I would appreciate some wusses coming out of the woodwork and telling me I can do this. :) Thanks!

For what it's worth the tattoo will be a version of a cross with a banner around it. Not sure of size, I'm thinking maybe 3x3. So not a whole lot of filling in.
posted by CwgrlUp to Health & Fitness (52 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I only have one tattoo, about 3x2. The pain was surprising but certainly not agonizing. Like a bee sting except it didn't lose intensity until it was done (maybe half an hour?). If I recall correctly, it didn't hurt once they were done. It won't paralyze you like a kick in the testes, it won't make you cry like a broken heart or broken bone, it won't make you miserable like a migraine, it won't make you panic like a sudden bad burn; but it will definitely get your attention and probably inspire colorful speech and some "whewing." Take a friend and video it. :)
posted by rahnefan at 4:26 PM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

When you get them, I felt it as a burning sensation with some definite tweaks in there. Keep breathing and it will pass. When they heal, it's like healing skin scalded by a cup of very hot water. You can do it. Most everybody does nowadays.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 4:26 PM on July 14, 2009

Best answer: Take a toothpick, push it into your skin until it hurts, but not far enough to break skin. It hurts a little worse than that for the duration, sometimes a bit more sometimes a bit less.

Lining hurts more than shading IMO, and going over bone hurts a lot. I have a chest piece right over my sternum that was absolute brutality. Some of the flames on my calf reached up to the crelbow of my knee and doing those at the end of about a 4 hour session had me screaming into the table.

It's going to hurt. No worries, you can take the pain.
posted by knowles at 4:28 PM on July 14, 2009

Lining at first really sucks, then you start to get used to it and it just kinda sucks. If you're getting something that small you won't then cross back over into it really sucking a lot when you hit 3-5+ hours.

Don't ever let anyone tell you it doesn't hurt, cause it does. But you'll be fine.
posted by teishu at 4:32 PM on July 14, 2009

Best answer: I always thought that it felt a bit like when hot grease pops on you. The difference is that it doesn't startle you, so it doesn't hit the reflex that makes you jerk away. I have two tats- the second one took about 3 hours and is on my shoulder blade. I was sort of meditating while I was getting it and the time flew by. However, I should note that my pain tolerance is relatively high.
posted by kamikazegopher at 4:33 PM on July 14, 2009

Hearkening back to when I was a swimmer: ever wax hair off without trimming it properly? That's about what my first one felt like. The others weren't as bad.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 4:34 PM on July 14, 2009

Best answer: Actually getting felt like someone taking medium grit sandpaper to my skin (in the neighborhood of 220 grit I'd say). It was not unbearable by any stretch. For me, the issue was that I had a lot of outlining to do, then a lot of shading, then a lot of color. By the time I got to the end, it was like running sandpaper over an area that had already been hit with sandpaper twice, earlier that day (I was in the chair for 9 hours).

3x3 should be cake. Double cake if there is not a lot of shading or color. You'll be fine; concentrate intently on something else. The time will fly.

Afterwards, I would say that it is akin to a mild sunburn. You are up and around and fine, but you probably don't want anyone scratching at it or slapping it.
posted by milqman at 4:34 PM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's really not that bad and it's definitely easier the longer it goes on. Burn-y and uncomfortable, but it kinda numbs itself and you get used to it. Dig your nail into your arm as hard as you can without drawing blood and drag it - close to that.
posted by fire&wings at 4:35 PM on July 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

I have a wide, mostly solid piece on my upper arm and a thinner, solid piece over my other tricep. Neither hurt much - the first minute or so was like one long bee sting, after that the surrounding area was totally numb and it just felt like my arm was being vibrated.

I have a very high pain tolerance, if that matters.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 4:35 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Bee sting isn't what it feels like... those hurt more and there is usually a toxin and if you go to the right tattoo shop, won't be included.

It feels a whole lot like someone is poking you with an electric ink machine. Just go for it, it's really not worth psyching yourself out about.
posted by pwally at 4:36 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Unbend a paper clip. Take the end, push down medium hard and scrape it along your skin. To me that's what it feels like.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 4:39 PM on July 14, 2009

Like the continual snapping of a rubber band on the same place on your skin. You'll be just fine. :)
posted by _Mona_ at 4:42 PM on July 14, 2009

Response by poster: Awesome answers so far, thanks. I guess my prob is that I saw a girl getting one once and she kept flinching and the artist got pissed (for obv reasons) and yelled at her. I don't wanna be that chick.
posted by CwgrlUp at 4:46 PM on July 14, 2009

It's a good kind of hurt, that's what I'll say - and I agree with rahnefan for the description of during and milqman for after. It's the itchies at the healing stage that get me.

Trust your artist for the size, which should be proportionate for the area it's going in and the amount of detail and thickness of the lines; and don't be afraid if it sounds like it's going to be bigger than you're thinking now. If you're going to have words in the banner, it will age more gracefully that way. It's better to have a well-done larger tattoo than a cramped or crowded one for the sake of keeping it small, isn't it?
posted by peagood at 4:47 PM on July 14, 2009

Best answer: Like getting scratched by a kitten slowly and repeatedly in a concentrated area. When it heals it feels like a bad sunburn.
posted by matildaben at 4:48 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, exactly like a cat scratching you, over and over again.
posted by metastability at 4:56 PM on July 14, 2009

Best answer: Take a toothpick, push it into your skin until it hurts, but not far enough to break skin. It hurts a little worse than that for the duration, sometimes a bit more sometimes a bit less.

I think this is a good description. I was going to say that it was like someone drawing on me with a mechanical pencil. It's uncomfortable, but nowhere near unbearable. But as you can imagine, when they go over the same place over and over - it does hurt. I'm fairly wussy...and I would totally get another one.
posted by meerkatty at 5:06 PM on July 14, 2009

I was afraid I would flinch too, but when you're physically and mentally prepared for the pain, it's like everyone says - sucks at first, slightly easier later. It helps to have something to grip so you can do that instead of flinching.
posted by easy_being_green at 5:12 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I agree with both fire&wings and easy_being_green, especially as I just spent 15 minutes describing these sensations to people at work :P

I have two tattoos, one small line drawing on the back of each ankle. I think the key for me was knowing what was coming. So, yeah, it feels like dragging a toothpick or paperclip, but expecting that kind of constant pressure was actually kind of cool -- I'm not a cutter or into any sort of kinky mutilation, but the feeling of someone kind of cutting into me and making a specific design was actually kind of fun. It reminded me that I was creating two pieces of art on myself and it was happening with purpose, which was a neat feeling.
posted by Madamina at 5:19 PM on July 14, 2009

I've got both shoulders, the majority of my upper back (although not coloured, so not a full day's work or anything), and writing on the wrist.

I'd kind of liken it to a sunburn that's raw, being rubbed consistently by your clothing. It hurts, don't get me wrong, but the difference is that it's such a static pain, not changing much at all, that you start to ignore it, or at least acclimatize. Like when you get in a too-hot shower.

For the start: grit your teeth, curl your toes, clench your fists, and concentrate entirely on not flinching, not moving. After the first moment, you'll know what the pain is like, and can relax your body as you get comfortable. Don't fret too much.

Have fun!
posted by Lemurrhea at 5:25 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I concur with those who compare it to a sunburn, especially afterwards, as well as bee stings or sandpaper. Not unbearable by any means.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 5:32 PM on July 14, 2009

I don't have a tattoo - BUT, I have had allergy tests done on my back and an epidural. Both made me cry like a baby. It wasn't the pain - but it was the fact that I couldn't see and therefore couldn't prepare myself for the "procedures." Sure, the doctors told me that they were going to stick needles in my back, but the fact that I couldn't see what they were doing, made it pretty sucky. I flinched, I arched my back, I cried. Punch me in the face and I probably won't cry because I saw it coming . . . there was just something about not being completely prepared (i.e. being able to see what was going on) that made it bad for me.

I'd think thought that with getting a tattoo would be different after the initial start - because it would be constant thereafter. If you're worried about being the chick that flinches, make sure the tattoo-er tells you what they're doing as they're doing it so you know what to expect.
posted by Sassyfras at 5:33 PM on July 14, 2009

Response by poster: If you're worried about being the chick that flinches, make sure the tattoo-er tells you what they're doing as they're doing it so you know what to expect.

No, I meant a pain flinch, not a surprised one. The girl I was referring to was getting a tat on her pelvis and could easily see when he was starting. She just kept jerking away.
posted by CwgrlUp at 5:37 PM on July 14, 2009

It's not that bad, particularly on your back.
posted by Pecinpah at 5:47 PM on July 14, 2009

Best answer: The trick is to breathe, deep slow breaths, and after the initial flinch (and you will, you can't help it) you should be able to anticipate what's coming and not flinch. You'll quickly get a feel for the pause-buzz-pause, and you'll know that it's coming by the edge of their hand against your skin. After a few rounds, you'll understand that the sensation really doesn't change all that much and it's a reliable irritation. If you've had an injection in recent memory, a good doctor/nurse will briskly rub the injection site to dull the pain - the tattoo gun does that for you.

Kitten scratch is my comparison - it burns, but at least you know what you're there for rather than being randomly attacked by a tiny little demon, so tattoos have that going over kittens.

You may want to bring one big cold bottle of water (or have a friend supply you with smaller very cold bottles), and one smaller lightly sugary drink. There's a big endorphin rush at the start, especially for your first time, and then it slips away and you can get a little light-headed. But the endorphins get you over the hump, and it's a quality high, so it's not exactly an experience to dread. My piercings have left a far more lasting memory of pain than the tattoos, because they hurt for weeks. Ink is nothing in comparison. I'm looking forward to my next one, whenever the perfect idea next strikes me. I don't know if anyone could pay me enough money to get, say, another ear cartilage piercing. I like sleep, and didn't get any for a month.

For me, the worst part is the next day, when you feel like you've been hit with a softball. Follow your aftercare instructions to the letter, and after the covering comes off be sure not to let it stick to your clothing/sheets. Waking up from that FANTASTIC post-first-tattoo nap was awesome, less so was when I mindlessly pulled my dried-plasma-and-goo-stuck clothing (back in the day, I was instructed to leave it uncovered) away from its adhesion point. My second one, I got the recommendation to cover it with a Neosporin-drenched paper towel; I used cheap paper towel and not enough Neosporin and it stuck and I spent an hour in the bath trying to soak it off and now I have a (granted, really cool but probably not healthy) raised scar around my outlining. If you are instructed to cover, use the really good no-stick gauze - a tattoo is no time to cheap out on supplies.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:51 PM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

I guess my prob is that I saw a girl getting one once and she kept flinching and the artist got pissed (for obv reasons) and yelled at her. I don't wanna be that chick.

Hey that was me! I put off getting my first tatoo [on my shoulder] because I am a pain wuss and was very surprised that it wasn't so bad [all black, some shading]. Like a lot of bug bites, the pain gets a little dull after a while and it was no big deal. Then I got my lower back tattoo which was over some serious nerve endings in my back and it was ... not exactly more painful but just like it pushed my twitch button over and over. My tattoo artist was very nice and very gentle [and had his hand sort of on my ass because of where the tattoo was] and he was like "you really need to stop moving" and I tried. It is helpful if you have something to lean on or to hold on to if you're worried about twitchiness, but the tattoo artists have , I am certain, seen it all before. Enjoy!
posted by jessamyn at 5:51 PM on July 14, 2009

My brother is a total bad-ass - pain is pretty much meaningless to him. So I was a little surprised when said getting his armband was like having somebody hold a lighter against his skin. I don't think his other tatts (chest, forearm) hurt as much.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:24 PM on July 14, 2009

The thing I always notice about the pain is that I expect the spot to go dull eventually. Sometimes it does, but it doesn't really ever dull enough to feel like a relief. It does feel like a bad scratch, but then it kind of feels like you're getting scratched again in the exact same place. When it really stings, I just breathe through it and it doesn't seem as bad. The adrenaline high you'll get feels really good, and you can focus on that aspect of it a little when you get near your threshold.

It's okay to ask the artist to stop if you need a break. You can discuss that with them beforehand, too. But I recommend sitting for it as long as you can. It just seems easier than stopping and starting again to me.

Healing tattoos feel like a bad sunburn to me - really bad the first day or two, then discomfort and itching for a while. The cleaning + lotion/ointment/whatever regimen was always a relief.
posted by juliplease at 6:27 PM on July 14, 2009

N'thing the "press hard with toothpick and drag it around" analogy. Also, the perception of pain decreases a little as you get used to it and it ends up being more of a sting than real pain (for me anyway - mine is all linework with no shading or fill, but designs requiring repeated assault on the same patch of skin might feel quite different). Your tattoo artist will probably start on a meaty area to let you get used to it, and save the bony areas for when you're sort of adjusted to the process.

(For me the worst part was listening to the needle guns at work on other clients before I started - it sounded scarier than dental drills, somehow, and made me expect something far worse than the reality. The first pass of the needle gun over my arm was so bearable, it was a huge relief!)
posted by Quietgal at 6:39 PM on July 14, 2009

Nthing "like an ongoing cat scratch". Between the shoulderblades wasn't too bad, IME. Keep breathing evenly and regularly and let your artist know if you need a break.

FWIW, for a lot of inked folks I know (including me), the only regret about the first one is "I wish I'd gotten it bigger."
posted by Lexica at 7:06 PM on July 14, 2009

I have a tattoo between my shoulder blades. It wasn't very painful, except one spot. The top of your spine, at the base of the neck, on that bone (I'm not sure what it's called) really hurt, but it wasn't so bad I couldn't take it. I suggest listening to music, whatever helps you get in the zone.
posted by sporaticgenius at 7:18 PM on July 14, 2009

I have two tattoos. Both are on my upper arms. However, I noticed a serious difference in pain between the two tattoos, and I don't think it was just because I was more accustomed to what to expect the second time around. The second tattoo is much larger and more detailed but was significantly less painful. I attribute this to having researched tattoo artists and chosen a woman who's very experienced. She used different kinds of needles throughout, even when doing the same color. So I definitely think it's worth your while to pick a reputable artist/shop even if it costs more. It would never have occurred to me that a similar tattoo in a similar place would have a different level of pain based on the artist applying it.
posted by groovinkim at 7:37 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

My first one didn't hurt. Really. It was annoying, like someone was dragging a toothpick along my skin, but it didn't hurt. My second one, done by the same woman and on the other arm and shoulder, hurt like a cat scratch. All I needed to get by was a trashy page-turner and a bottle of juice, and I was fine. I'm a jumpy person and I didn't flinch at all.

The first one itched like crazy for over a week while the second one didn't itch at all.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:45 PM on July 14, 2009

Sassyfras: "I don't have a tattoo - BUT, I have had allergy tests done on my back and an epidural. Both made me cry like a baby."

I've had epidurals, allergy tests, and tattoos (not all at the same time). They were all different sensations. Knowing that you're getting a beyootiful tattoo helps, too -- it's exciting, not boring like sitting in the allergist's office.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:51 PM on July 14, 2009

I took and Advil beforehand. My tattoo felt like someone taking an x-acto knife and carefully slicing at my skin.

Not exactly fun, but if you keep your mind off of things with good conversation, it'll be over before you know it. Unless you go back for a sleeve or something.
posted by pea_shoot at 7:58 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

and = an
posted by pea_shoot at 7:59 PM on July 14, 2009

Let me just say that I am not a pain = pleasure-type usually, but I LOVE getting tattoos. I think it feels amazing almost the entire time. The descriptions are the same, but there's something about it...maybe the human aspect? I don't know.

(I have only two, fwiw.)
posted by nosila at 8:15 PM on July 14, 2009

"The descriptions are the same" should say "the descriptions above are apt."
posted by nosila at 8:15 PM on July 14, 2009

I have one on my upper arm. Got it about 10 years ago. I'd say it felt like multiple mosquito bites ... but my guy was very, very gentle and concerned for my comfort level.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 9:28 PM on July 14, 2009

I have one on my hip. Covers a few square inches.

On certain spots, it hurt nearly enough for me to beg for her to stop for a moment; let me catch my breath.

On other spots, it wasn't as annoying as a fly walking on my skin.

Most spots were relatively in-the-middle: slightly painful, but definitely bearable.

So, it VERY MUCH depends where the tat is.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:11 PM on July 14, 2009

Best answer: It was closely akin to plucking out hairs from a very sensitive area over and over again rapidly. I got numb really, really fast. (However, having used an epilady in the '80s back when they were the rage, it hurts a whole lot less than that in actuality.)

It hurts like a tiny, sharp needle barely going into your skin over and over again whilst getting a tiny shock ('cause that's kinda what it is). On fatty areas, you're fine. On muscular areas, it's a bit more sensitive. On bone, it fuckin' hurts - bite something to get through it.

Hanging out at my dad's tattoo shop, some people are fine with it, seem to almost enjoy it. Some people never take to it. The more someone's done it, the better they seem. Me, someone who's a wuss with pain, the first time it hurt due to anticipation more than anything else. The second and third time (for color fill in), it didn't even register except when we were right over my hip bone.

But having gone through surgery, a root canal, waxing, piercings, child birth and a few other things, it's the most overrated of the "major" pains, imho.
posted by Gucky at 10:50 PM on July 14, 2009

FWIW it is supposed to hurt
posted by mhjb at 11:35 PM on July 14, 2009

There's also the matter of how long the tattoo takes. Mine took four hours. First couple of hours were just uncomfortable, but getting into hour three and four - the pain was unbearable. Like a dull circular saw applied to my back. Taking breaks only made things worse.
posted by ye#ara at 12:27 AM on July 15, 2009

Maybe I'm a weirdo, but I've found that for my back, I find the areas closer to bone/spine to be significantly less painful; so much so that its actually a reprieve, like a hard massage. I also prefer line work over shading.

If I were you, I'd just go into this whole thing with curiosity rather than fear about how you'll react. Maybe even make a couple bets with yourself about your preferences, ie. flesh vs. bone, line vs. shading, beginning of session vs. end, etc. Treat yourself accordingly.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:34 AM on July 15, 2009

For me, it was like being scratched at repeatedly with a nail or toothpick - not too bad, sometimes irritating, sorer when it's covering the same area again. My apprehension (and fear of going into shock) was significantly more problematic, and on the smaller of my tattoos, I was really disappointed that it took so little time that I didn't get the endorphin high while still in the chair.

The one bit that did definitely hurt was outlining perpendicular to the bones on the inside of my wrist, dragging across them and back again. That was luckily pretty brief.
posted by carbide at 1:23 AM on July 15, 2009

One thing I don't think I've seen anyone mention yet--large blocks of black fill will hurt more than color fill or outlining. I have a medium-ish tattoo on my upper back between my shoulder blades (10" x 6", maybe?). All that vine work and the red leaves--irritating but tolerable. That Celtic Tree of Life? OW.
posted by elfgirl at 1:52 AM on July 15, 2009

The girl I was referring to was getting a tat on her pelvis and could easily see when he was starting. She just kept jerking away.

I have a large tattoo that extends from just under my ribs to about halfway to one knee, and the spots closest to my groin and ribs hurt a lot. I mean, a lot a lot. I mean, there's a reason it's not colored in.

I also have a huge chestpiece and a small tattoo on my shoulder, and those weren't bad at all--like having someone peel off sunburn.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:47 AM on July 15, 2009

For me, it felt like getting a mosquito bite and not being able to slap the mosquito. It is all black with some negative space. However, I got my tattoo on the shoulder blade, which is relatively fleshy.
posted by Kurichina at 7:39 AM on July 15, 2009

From Gucky above: Me, someone who's a wuss with pain, the first time it hurt due to anticipation more than anything else.

This is what I was trying to get at when I mentioned my allergy tests and epidural (both on my back). Be prepared for the anticipation that might up the discomfort level. I don't have a tattoo so I don't know what it feels like, but I have had needles in my back and I just remember the anticipation of it all sucking.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:35 AM on July 15, 2009

Nthing cat scratch.
posted by ishotjr at 9:03 AM on July 15, 2009

The needle used for colouring/shading is a bit wider and stings more and unfortunately it's done after the faster and less painful linework is done. My chest is about 7 hours of accumulated work. The line work was sharp pain but manageable but I can't really compare it to anything else, it's a very distinct experience (for me plucking hair out might be closest). The colouring was a 3 hour session. The first 2 go by ok, the last was really, really painful. Same goes for a friend of mine who got a big tattoo on her lower back. Initially it was fine, but once the endorphins wear off it becomes an unpleasant experience. 3x3 shouldn't take too long though.

She also said that anything over the spine was the worst, so keep that in mind. Anything over bone is going to sting.

I also have some writing on my forearm and it genuinely did not hurt.

It's totally worth it. My friend who get the tattoo on her back was wincing through the whole thing and was getting close to calling it quits around 2 hours in. With some encouragement (and cold water + chocolate bar) she got through the last hour. On the way out she swore she was never getting another tattoo. The day after she was planning her next one.

Good luck! Let us know how it goes as well.
posted by slimepuppy at 10:36 AM on July 15, 2009

I have four: one on my ankle, one on each outer thigh, and one on my lower back. You've gotten a lot of good advice above. Basically, the nicer it feels to be stroked somewhere, the more it hurts to be tattooed there, with the added factor that you will hurt more over bony areas and less over fatty ones (often on a single tat.) The more a single area has been worked on, the more that area will hurt - my latest one, I was in the chair 5 hours and had to take a break (I'm going to get the rest of the color done in a second session.)

It hurts but I don't find it unbearable, and I tend towards the wussy side. There's a definite endorphin factor, though if you have a long session you can definitely be lightheaded when you get up. Healing, it feels like a skinned knee.

Bottom line - find a really top-quality artist. A more experienced artist's tattoos will age better and hurt less. Do NOT bargain-shop this. And then follow the care instructions religiously. Also, be prepared to take advice from your artist regarding placement, size, colors, etc. The artist will be able to tell you things like "if I do the design you want in that size, in three years it will look like a blob."

Another point to consider: your back is the best place for big tattoos. If you think there is a possibility you might really love tattoos and want more, you might think about whether you should "save" that space for a bigger piece.
posted by oblique red at 3:09 PM on July 15, 2009

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