Reader Question: Tattoo Sensations

So I’ve got a tattoo-related reader question to answer. It’s been awhile but I finally got another one.

Q: Can you describe what it feels like to get a tattoo?

A: This is actually kind of difficult because it feels different to everybody. It has to do with where on your body you get a tattoo, your pain tolerance, the complexity of the piece, your artist  among many other factors. I’ll do my best with my experiences.

First off, make no bones about it: tattoos hurt. That’s just reality. They fucking hurt. If you’re expecting a painless tattoo experience, I hate to burst your bubble but there’s no such thing. Now, in many cases I will say the pain is probably less than what most people who’ve never had a tattoo think it probably is.

I’ve only been tattooed on in three locations (shoulder/upper arm, wrists and calves) so my experience is thus far limited to those areas, but for the more muscular areas the closest thing I can describe the sensation to is a cat scratch. Now, this obviously varies in intensity depending on how deep the cat scratch is. Think of it this way: for simple tattoos or shorter sessions it’s a pretty superficial cat scratch, but the longer the session goes on or the more passes over an area, the deeper the feeling. My last tattoo on the calf (a pretty “tame” spot on the tattoo pain chart) I required a shot of Vasocaine toward the end to get me through it because it had already been tattooed over quite a bit and was getting raw and sore.

Wrists and thin-skinned areas are a whole different ballgame. I found the wrists considerably more painful than the shoulders and calves (and they’re smaller tattoos, go figure). The sensation was more of a burning sensation. Think more like putting rubbing alcohol over a fresh wound, except that burn doesn’t go away quickly. Actually when I had my puzzle piece done when the artist tattooed over the tendon-y part it felt like hitting one’s “funny bone” – I could feel the tingling sensation down into my wrist. Yeah, that sucked pretty fucking bad.

That said, those are some pretty broad strokes. Some other variables here include the machines/needles used (rotary vs. coil machines, strength of hit, number of needle points, frequency/velocity of the machine) and your artist (some artists have a heavier touch than others).

Whatever the case, it’s hard to describe in detail because it feels different to every person, but I will say this: if I can handle it, chances are you can too. I have a very, very low pain tolerance (I think it’s an autism thing – hypersensitivity to stimuli) and can go 4-5 hours in a not-so-sensitive spot and be fine. If you have an “average” pain tolerance and start in a less painful area (see my “Getting Your First Tattoo” page for suggestions) I imagine the pain will be little more than an annoyance. It’ll be enough to get your attention but not so much that you’ll be crying uncle.

Anyway, great question. Good luck on your first tattoo!

Do you have a tattoo-related question? Comment or send me a private message/email. 

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