What Does Getting A Tattoo Feel Like? Everything You Need To Know Before Getting A Tattoo

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woman with a tattoo on her arm
Self

I got my first tattoo on the day I turned 18. I walked into a local tattoo shop with three friends and got a 6-inch sword inked in black and white on my back.

I don't mind pain — I put up with it, always have, and getting this body art was no different.

Do tattoos really hurt?

It can be tough to explain what a tattoo feels like as the sensation is a little different for everyone.

Some may describe getting a tattoo as a similar feeling to getting a shot.

The truth is, tattoos hurt more than shots because the pain is continuous whereas a shot is one single injection site.

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To me, getting a tattoo felt like getting a constant jolt of electricity shocking me in the back. When the machine would glance across my spine, my arms and legs would go loose and dangly like a puppet's.

Getting a tattoo was a bizarre experience more than it was a painful one. For me, the pain came afterward when I was healing. My tattoo felt hot on my back for a week, and so itchy that I thought I'd lose my mind. It healed, and I moved on to get 5 more tattoos (and counting).

Getting a tattoo hurts for the first time if you have a low pain threshold.

Getting a tattoo is a painful experience, but it's also a totally unique one because we all handle pain differently.

Where is the least painful place to get a tattoo?

Much as each tattoo represents a certain feeling, a certain time in my life, so do the memories of what getting those tattoos felt like.

The ones on the inside of my wrists were the most painful, whereas the one on my butt was so pain-free that I kept peeking behind myself during the inking to make sure it was actually happening.

A tattoo pain chart can give you a better idea of what to expect, whether it's your first tattoo or your hundredth.

According to the tattoo pain chart, the least painful places to get a tattoo are the outer arm, butt cheeks, and calf. 

Generally, fleshy and fattier parts of the body are less painful to get tattooed than areas of the body with thin skin where the needle is closer to the bone.

Of course, the pain is different for everyone, depending on the size, your skin tone, and your own pain threshold. So, I asked 15 tattooed people to tell me what they thought about the tattoo process, and I was surprised by just how different all of their answers were.

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What people with tattoos say getting a tattoo feels like:

1. It's like a rite of passage.

"Best description I've been able to come up with is this:

Linework: It's like getting the design carved into your skin with a razor.

Shading/color: Once the skin is broken, it's like rubbing on a bad sunburn.

Healing: It will feel like a bad sunburn healing. It stings at first, but it slowly fades and itches. Then, you never feel it again after a week or two. It sucks but that's the process."

2. Some styles are more painful.

"Linework is the most intense, but it also goes pretty fast if the lines are pretty thin. Honestly, I'd rather have the slight throbbing/soreness of the first few days instead of the itching later."

3. It's different for everyone.

"It's hard to tell someone what they'll experience when getting a tattoo. Everyone's pain threshold is different. I'm close to having a full sleeve on my left arm. Each one felt uniquely different to me.

Shoulder/upper arm was like an annoying cat scratch. The ditch (inner part of the knee or elbow) was probably the roughest spot along with the bone on the elbow. Wrist was nothing to me. The stomach area felt like I was getting stabbed in the belly button at times."

4. It's like a serious cat scratch.

"I tell people it just feels like a cat scratch... That lasts for an hour or two."

5. It's like a sewing needle.

"Personally, I describe the feeling as akin to have a sewing needle dragged across your skin with a decent amount of force and pressure. A deep cat scratch is more painful IMO."

6. It stings and burns.

"Lines kind of sting, and shading is kind of a burning feeling. The better your artist, the less it will hurt."

7. It hurts — but that's the point.

"You're getting a tattoo. It's going to hurt, but it's nothing you can't handle. There are people who want tattoos but are too scared of the pain. It's really silly to me. Obviously, getting a few needles in your skin deep enough for ink to stay will hurt. Anyone who says it doesn't hurt is lying."

8. It feels like getting pinched.

"I had a friend who described it as getting repeatedly pinched, which was more accurate than I'd expected for me. But the pain sensitivity definitely varied on location, even in the same tattoo. Bony areas hurt more. The inside of my forearm hurt more than the outside. And I could barely feel lines. But shading or trying to create full color hurt way more. Just so much retracing the same area."

9. It feels like an Epilady.

"Have you ever used an Epilady — one of those little handheld machines that pulls all the hairs out of your legs? For me, it felt exactly like that. Sunburn is a good description, too. For me, it was far less painful than I thought it was going to be."

10. Pain varies by body part.

"It depends where on your body it's happening because some areas feel more intense, and if it's line work or shading/coloring. For me, the linework was the worst part. I could have the shading and coloring all day long without a care."

11. It's akin to scratching a sunburn.

"For the most part, it just feels like scratching a sunburn. The ones I have behind my ears and on the back of my neck, I didn't feel any pain at all, they just felt warm. I have a large forearm piece and towards the end there was some pain down by my wrist and up near my elbow, but I think that was due to being tattooed for so many hours straight."

12. It's like your first time.

"The tattooist told my ex that it's like losing your virginity: at first it's uncomfortable and you will bleed, but soon you will start to love it."

13. It like an insect bite.

"Feels like a constant bee-sting."

14. It's like pulling off a band-aid.

"To me, it feels like I'm slowly peeling off a band-aid from a hairy spot, but all of the pain is focused in one tiny place that moves around. Shading I usually barely feel."

15. Well, it's all just pressure.

"A hot bee-sting at its worst. Pressure at its best."

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The Best Advice for Getting a Tattoo for the First Time

1. Do your research.

All tattoo shops and artists operate differently. If you have a certain style of tattoo in mind, it's important to find an artist who specializes in that style so you get the best outcome possible.

Follow artists on Instagram, research tattoo shops in your area, and read lots of reviews and testimonials before committing to lifelong body art.

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2. Prepare physically and mentally.

It's important to know what you're getting into ahead of time — you've already started mentally preparing by reading this piece! 

Make sure to drink lots of water and have a healthy meal before your tattoo session. Let your artist know if you tend to feel faint around needles.

It's also important that your skin is in the best condition prior to getting a tattoo. Keep the area moisturized during the days leading up to your session and avoid getting sunburnt.

3. Avoid consuming blood thinners.

Yes, your tattoo will be painful. Unfortunately, you should steer clear of Aspirin and Ibuprofen beforehand because both thin your blood, which will cause more bleeding during the tattoo. 

This also means no drinking alcohol before your session!

4. Don't forget to tip your tattoo artist.

Just as you would tip a hairdresser or makeup artist, it's standard to tip your tattoo artist at least 20% of the total tattoo cost. 

For the best results, it's important to follow your artist's immediate tattoo aftercare and long-term care tips.

Before leaving the shop, your artist will provide you with specific tattoo aftercare instructions. But here are the basics: 

1. Wash the tattoo with antibacterial soap.

A fresh tattoo is akin to an open wound, so you want to make sure to touch it only with clean hands and wash it with unscented antibacterial soap to prevent infection.

2. Keep the area moist.

For the first few days of the healing process, you'll want to keep the area moist with a thin layer of ointment such as Aquaphor. 

3. Don't scratch the tattoo. 

As your skin starts peeling and healing, it's going to be itchy — but don't scratch it! Keep moisturizing the tattoo and if it's unbearably itchy, it's better to pat the skin rather than scratch it.

4. Keep the tattoo out of the sun and water. 

Sorry, beach bums, but it's best to avoid water (ocean, lakes, pools, hot tubs, etc.) and sun exposure for at least a couple of weeks post-tattoo. This will keep you safe from infection and premature fading.

If the worst-case scenario happens and you don't like your tattoo, there are options for tattoo removal.

1. Cover it up.

Some tattoo removal procedures can actually be more painful than getting the actual tattoo. If your specific tattoo allows, instead of having it removed, you can try covering it up. 

2. Laser removal.

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, laser treatments "are the most common method of tattoo removal." The lasers work by breaking up the ink in your skin so that your immune system can quickly remove them from your system. Basically, it speeds up the same process that makes your tattoo fade over time.

3. Dermabrasion.

Dermabrasion is one of the more painful ways to get a tattoo removed. The process works by removing the outer layer of your skin that contains the tattoo.

4. Chemical peels.

Getting a chemical peel involves having acid applied to the outer layer of your skin to remove the tattoo.

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Rebecca Jane Stokes is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York with her cat, Batman. Her work focuses on relationships, pop culture and news.