Help me survive a 6hr tattoo session
April 28, 2015 5:33 AM   Subscribe

After 6 months of research, consultations and sketching, I'm finally getting the bad tattoo on my right arm covered with a beautiful big one next week. The first session may last up to 6 hours. What can I do to endure the discomfort?

Data point: I am flying to Berlin (from Amsterdam, so it's not that crazy) on a Thursday, getting tattooed all day Friday, then heading back on a Saturday. A friend will check in with me throughout the day. I have booked a five star hotel to retreat to on both nights, because I am an adult and this is how I choose to treat myself.

This is not my first tattoo, but it *will* be my last, and largest. The tattoo in question will extend from a little below my armpit to my elbow, on the inside of my right arm. It'll have a ton of colour and shading. I'll be meeting with the artist for a follow up session in June, also. FWIW, planning for this tattoo has become a pleasant little hobby. I really want it, and have put a lot of time and effort into finding the right design and artist.

My pain threshold is... okay, depending on my mood, but I inadvertently scheduled the session at the worst point in my menstrual cycle. I've coped well with previous tattoos, but did feel a little shaky when I got a piece done on my ribs.

I plan on prioritizing sleep, good food and exercise in the week leading up to the tattoo. I'm also going to bring snacks, water, Gatorade and all the podcasts that exist.

My question is: what else can I do to prepare and endure this first super long session? If you've sat for a long tattoo session, where there any hints/tips/tricks that helped?
posted by nerdfish to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've never had a session that long, but whenever I get some ink work done, there seems to be some sort of disassociation that happens.
I'm watching it, but I'm not experiencing it.
It's weird.
I don't float out of my body or have some sort of mystical experience, but I really just look at it as if it's happening to someone else.
I find myself being more observant, more curious and more mindful as it happens.
It's almost meditative.

I wonder if you could occasionally, during the 6 hours, cultivate that type of awareness and if it might help the time pass by faster.

Oh, and pics or it didn't happen :)
Have a great time!
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 5:48 AM on April 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hydrate and take painkillers before and during your flight. Altitude does weird stuff to a recently inflamed area like that (I got a fairly large piece done before flying from Texas to Florida, and it was...unpleasant. The atmosphere in airplanes is super dry). As for the session itself, bring a squeezy ball or stress ball or toy of some sort. I find that having something to take my pain out on helps a lot. Take breaks when you need them. Breathe. It'll hurt, but only for a little while. Experience level: several 8+ hour sessions.
posted by picklesthezombie at 5:50 AM on April 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

This took about four hours, and the endorphins were present for most of it and it was .... I won't say "nice," exactly, but it was mostly just uncomfortable at its worst.

The best thing I did when I got home was to get a flexible cold pack out of the freezer and wrap it in a towel and put it on my arm. The swelling was impressive and achy, and the cold pack helped a ton.
posted by rtha at 5:53 AM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had a back piece done over 7 3-hour sessions so only half the time you'll sit for in any one go, but the best thing I found was having a really involving page-turning book ready for each session (on a Kindle to reduce how much I'd need to move). I got totally lost in the book and zoned out of the tattooing pain completely.

Doing meditative breathing through the worst bits helped - breathe in, count 1 on exhale, breathe in, count 2 on exhale all the way up to 10, but start again from 1 any time I got distracted from doing anything but just counting.

I purposely didn't ask for breaks because I knew starting again would be more brutal than powering through the painful bits, but you might want to consider if you want to ask for breaks because you'll be there for so much longer.

I think I might have left fingermarks in the arm of the chair when she was going over my spine, so definitely second bringing something to take the pain out on.

Painkillers for sure - I was really surprised what a difference it made going for sessions at different points in my menstrual cycle so it's good you're mentally prepared for that. Avoid booze at least the night before (elementary-level, I know, but I didn't always do it and I always regretted it).

Good luck! Enjoy it! I'm as proud of my back piece as some people are of their children.
posted by theseldomseenkid at 5:55 AM on April 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've had both my legs done, from below the knee down to my ankles. They're both done in tribal shapes and lots of fill, all black. Right leg was a single 8 hour session the left leg was a single 9 hour session, I did them back-to-back weeks and after the 2nd session, got on a plane over to Iraq a day later.

How did I get through the pain? Loud music and comic books. I had my iPod and noise cancelling ear buds and cranked music and the artist had The Preacher graphic novels. We took breaks every couple of hours, but for the most part, that's how I got through it.
posted by ZureaL at 6:02 AM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've had (and accompanied friends DURING) comparably long sessions. Some tips:

- Bring a friend if you can; they can talk and joke and distract you, and the artist will sometimes want to focus rather than chatting. If that's not possible, maybe have a friend "present" on the phone, or via chat?
- Take semi-regular breaks, both for the artist's sake AND yours.
- Put on a Pandora station you enjoy, or a movie (bring a tablet/laptop if need be).
- Having a drink with a loooong bendy straw is AWESOME!
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:11 AM on April 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Eat beforehand. No alcohol (increases bleeding). If you take painkillers, use acetominaphin (tylenol). I'm of the camp that doesn't believe in distractions but rather focusing on the actual sensations felt, which change moment to moment. Each moment is fine in itself and the closer you look, the less the overall experience will overwhelm. Each to their own, however. Just no aspirin, ibuprofen, or alcohol.
posted by janey47 at 6:36 AM on April 28, 2015

Eat beforehand and bring snacks. I usually try to eat something small every couple of hours during a session, usually just a handful of nuts or something like that. Drink plenty of water, take breaks when you need them, and breathe. I find that even during the most painful parts of a tattoo session, if I focus on breathing and relaxing my muscles, it really helps.
posted by bedhead at 7:09 AM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Breathe breathe breathe! Four hours is about my max, but I've done longer before and pretty much the only thing that gets me through it is breathing and trying to relax my body. If you don't meditate, I'd recommend getting a hold of some guided meditation or breathwork podcasts so you can practice beforehand and have some techniques at your disposal. Having had experience in yoga breathwork helped me out immensely with something to distract myself when I wasn't in a physical position where I could use my phone, knitting, etc.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 8:02 AM on April 28, 2015

Download all the mobile phone games and bring an extra battery charge. I was totally unable to read and spent half the time trying to connect to WiFi to download Candy Crush so I could have something mindless to do with my hands in order to distract myself.
posted by theraflu at 8:41 AM on April 28, 2015

My most detailed piece took seven hours, and I have sort of a rhythm for these things. Phase I, chat with artists; phase II, water break and now we put music on while still chatting; phase III, ok I'm in a near silent discomfort meditation state and the artist knows and so we're going to sit in relative silence while the music's playing.

I don't know if snacks and podcasts are the best idea for a long pain session, but I understand that everyone has different needs. My favorite advice from an artist about this sort of thing is: don't leave your artist bored and alone. You need to be communicative with one another pretty much the entire time, so even when you're zoning out you both need to be able to respond to questions. Headphones isolate you and make your artist have to stop to get your attention (and fwiw the shop where I've had most of my work done asks you not to use them--bring your music and put it on the boombox). Gatorade or soda or what have you'd a good idea, but I'm never comfortable eating before a lot of needling.

I suppose my only advice is to be in the moment; don't distract yourself from the work, be aware of it and talk about the process and what you're experiencing with the person doing the work. You two have a very intimate moment coming up, you know? Low-grade pain for hours will almost definitely put you in a state of some sort--many people end up kinda zen and dissociated after a few hours, and that's not a bad thing.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:53 AM on April 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

My back piece was a full year of appointments ranging from 2-6 hours every 6 weeks or so, and since I was scheduling based on healing and artist availability, I had a few sessions during the more tender parts of my cycle. YMMV, of course, but for me I found that it wasn't so much that the pain was worse, but that I felt much more emotional/vulnerable. If that's something that seems likely for you, be prepared for that--both mentally ("I might cry and that's OK") and practically (bring tissues and keep them at hand, maybe bring something warm and comforting to wear if that helps).

Beyond that, I handled the longer sessions by making sure I was well-rested and well-fed beforehand (I paid a lot less attention to this during the shorter sessions, but quickly learned it was necessary for the longer ones), and chatting with the artist. I was fortunate that she and I got along well and had a lot of interesting things to talk about. When either or both of us didn't feel like chatting, I focused on the music, worked on my mindful breathing, and focused on the signficant meaning both the tattoo design and experience held for me. There were still rough moments, but I always knew I could survive them, which helped me survive them.

Also, I have a tiny bladder and my artist was caring for an old arm injury, so we took a lot of breaks, which I think also helped a lot.
posted by rhiannonstone at 10:52 AM on April 28, 2015

I have never had a tattoo, but I have done lots of withdrawal from prescription medication and I have lived with chronic pain etc.

I will recommend you take some sugar cookies or candy with you. Sugar doesn't have the same impact as a pain killer. But it can help take the edge off how utterly miserable you are.

You might consider taking licorice with you as well -- the real stuff that says "licorice extract" on the label (at least in the U.S., some things called licorice are just sugary snacks with no actual licorice). Licorice provides a small amount of adrenal support and can help take the edge off when you are under severe stress.
posted by Michele in California at 11:16 AM on April 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

I sat for four four-hour sessions for a large piece covering my thigh and what really helped was short breaks to hydrate and eat some sugary snacks and distracting myself by reading. Coconut water really helped but I imagine that juice or Gatorade would serve well. If you can get Apple sauce or fruit puree in those squeeze tubes that they make for kids, those are great. So is hard candy or something chewy that spaces the sugar hit out. Also recommend mindful breathing exercises. I read an Ebook on my phone and would take breaks to focus on my breath during painful stretches.
So basically: sugar, hydration and distraction
posted by siouxsiesmith at 12:24 PM on April 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

+ for coconut water. It will probably keep you better hydrated than juice or Gatorade.

Be forewarned: It can promote the need to hit the bathroom suddenly.

If you expect to sweat because of pain, you might take orange juice or a banana and/or salty snack to replenish your electrolytes. That can help buffer your stamina.
posted by Michele in California at 1:04 PM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Having a sugary snack to eat really helped me when I started getting woozy, but after that five-hour session with the bag of Riesen, I never want to eat one again, so... YMMV. When you say you scheduled the session for the "worst" part of your menstrual cycle, do you mean the part with the heaviest bleeding? If so, ask your artist if he or she thinks you might benefit from an iron supplement in the lead-up to your session.
posted by juniperesque at 2:09 PM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

In addition to all the good suggestions above, consider how being almost totally immobile for six hours will make you feel. You might want to take periodic brief breaks to do some isometric muscle contractions and some in-place stretching.
posted by Lexica at 6:31 PM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I sat for six hours once. I think the tips are well covered above. In my experience, the adrenaline and endorphins were long gone by the time it was over and I could either sleep or drop dead and it didn't much matter to me which one it was. Taxi it straight back to the hotel and order room service.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 6:42 PM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the excellent responses! I will definitely be downloading a few guided meditation podcasts this weekend to practice my breathing, and I will stock up on the best candy Berlin has to offer. I'll also be sure to post pics once it's done! Thanks again!
posted by nerdfish at 1:14 AM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some artists use a topical numbing cream which has been a lifesaver for me on a few occasions where there were multiple layers of shading - you might want to ask for this if things get hairy. I'm around 50% covered, and after all my sessions I would rush home and take a nice hot bath. It worked magic for me!
posted by LongDrive at 1:18 AM on April 29, 2015

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