That new tattoo, the one you've been saving up for, the one that's going to change your life - is going to be a pain. Literally. Getting a tattoo hurts. How much or how little depends on numerous factors. A surprising amount of what you feel, however, is up to you.
Anatomy of Pain
A tattoo involves placing ink under the outer layer of skin with a sharp needle or a tattoo gun with many needles. This will hurt, but how much depends on a number of factors. You can control the discomfort a lot or a little by thinking it through and preparing yourself for the best possible experience.
A major factor involved in the pain is placement. Choose a less painful area for your tat if you are really sensitive, or really worried. Areas with padding hurt least. Those would be muscles or fleshy places like your rear end, arms, shoulders, legs, and maybe your upper chest or back. The prime pain spots are closer to the bone or have a lot of nerve endings: underarms, groin area, ankles, hands, feet, ribs, head and face.
Prep for Low-Pain or No-Pain Ink
Simple steps like like wearing the right clothes and educating yourself about over-the-counter pain relief can help ensure everything goes smoothly the day of your scheduled tattoo.
- Bathe or shower for squeaky-clean skin.
- Start hydrating about two hours before your appointment - drink plenty of water. (Remember to use the restroom right before your tattoo session starts.)
- Eat a balanced meal that includes a good source of protein. You need an energy boost and the slow release of supportive nutrition.
- Wear loose, comfortable clothing that lets you sit or lie down without restriction (for hours, if you're getting an ambitious tat).
- Take Tylenol about one hour before - but only if you really think you'll need it. Don't take aspirin or ibuprofen because they are blood thinners. Since tattoos pierce the skin and you bleed, you don't want blood thinners to increase this.
- Arm yourself with a good book or your playlist, earbuds, and phone for a long session.
- Limit coffee to one cup, and limit stimulants in general. You want to be in the Zen zone for this adventure, not hopped-up, wired and weird.
- No alcohol or recreational drugs. Alcohol thins your blood and both mess with your head. Do your ink focused.
- Reschedule if you're sick.
One way to reduce pain is to rub in some numbing cream (such as Dr. Numb, available for about $35). Numbing cream it a topical anesthetic that affects nerve endings to desensitize the area to be tattooed. Use this as a last resort, however. Its effectiveness varies and your body will produce pain-blocking endorphins once the session starts, so the hassle may outweigh the benefit. Always check in advance with your tattoo artist about using a numbing agent. Some prefer not to work with them. Numbing cream comes in water-based cream and in gel or spray.
- Using protective gloves, apply the cream to the tat area - a nice thick layer over clean skin - about an hour (no more) before your session.
- Cover the cream with sterile cheesecloth or cling wrap; it oxidizes immediately and loses strength when exposed to the air.
- The tattoo artist will remove the cover and scrape off the cream. He or she should use gloves, as the cream numbs what it comes in contact with and your artist won't want numb hands.
The effect lasts from one to two hours. During a long session, if the numbness wears off, you can re-numb the area with the gel or spray version (such as Vasocaine Numbing Spray, just over $35). This goes right on the broken skin; it isn't slimy and slippery like the cream so it won't interfere with the artist's work.
Under the (Tattoo) Gun
You're not the passive spectator here. You participate in this ritual, so get it right and give yourself the best possible experience.
- Learn some simple yoga breathing for the tense moments and you'll unclench and feel it less. Long breath in, nice and slow, long breath out. Try it three times, focusing on the breath. Don't hyperventilate for your whole session. Save it for when the artist pauses to reload ink.
- Stick to a small tattoo at first, until you see how you do. Go for the full sleeve after you're a veteran with your pain management strategies worked out.
- If you happen to be squeamish about needles or blood, share this with your tat artist and arrange not to watch.
Take It Easy
Getting a tattoo is a mind game. Train your mind to win at the game.
Mindfulness is a technique of staying present in the moment, paying attention to now, not what just happened or what's next. Keep refocusing on the moment you are in - you'll find you can't. It's very tricky, because 'now' is over as soon as you notice it. If you're not reflecting on the pain that just happened, or stressing over the pain to come, you observe yourself feeling discomfort or not for a nanosecond, and then it's gone. You're not hanging onto your pain. You're continually letting it go.
Meditation is just an extended version of mindfulness. Pay attention to your breathing and try to empty your mind. The pain goes with the thoughts. You'd have to be a meditation master to feel nothing - but you diminish the pain's power by shifting your attention away from it.
Put yourself in a trance and chill in the tattoo chair. Give your artist a heads-up so she won't think you've checked out when you're deep into self-hypnosis. Then close your eyes and consciously relax every body part from your toes to the top of your head. Slip into a vivid daydream about the most peaceful place you can imagine. Work all five senses to experience this place, almost like being inside a movie. The downside is, you miss the tattooing experience. The upside is, you miss the tattooing experience. Your call.
You did it. You suffered, you survived and now your skin is sporting some new artwork that is awesome. Piece of cake. Okay, maybe it wasn't a piece of cake, but whose business is that? Thank that artist who got you through it. Congratulate yourself for managing the pain successfully. Follow your aftercare instructions to the letter to prevent an infection or complication that will be painful. Use your newfound wisdom to plan your next tat - the placement, the size, the complexity and depth of colors.Then share your stoic tips with anyone who asks you if it really hurts a lot to get a tattoo.