Tattoos hurt. But how much they hurt depends on tattoo placement, as well as the individual client and how they prepare for their appointment. 

As a tattoo artist, you can’t make the tattoo pain-free, but you can monitor your client’s pain and help them out. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to give your client a good estimate of what to expect during their session, and how to communicate with them about their pain. 

In this article, we’re breaking down:

  • The most (and least) painful spots to get tattooed
  • What “types” of tattoo pain clients experience
  • What factors go into how much pain a person feels while getting a tattoo
  • How to help clients before, during, and after their session to minimize pain

Tattoo Pain Scale: How Bad do Tattoos Hurt?

There’s no real “science-backed” data on where tattoos cause the most pain. But after tattooing clients for years - and getting tattoos ourselves - these charts are a pretty good estimate:

For the most part, body parts with less fat and muscle, lots of nerve endings, and thin skin near a bone are the most painful areas to get tattooed. 

Rating the Body Parts: From Most to Least Painful

If your client asks how bad a tattoo hurts and you haven’t been tattooed in that area, you can use this quick cheat sheet to let them know what they’re in for:

Most Painful

Places that are naturally protected by the body hurt the most to be tattooed. For example, your arms usually protect your ribs and armpits and the inner thighs are protected by the opposite legs.
palm, armpit, and rib cage tattoos

Palms and Soles

The palms of your hands and soles of your feet are covered in nerve endings, making them the most painful places to get tattooed. (They also don’t hold ink well, so the tattoo might not even stay despite the severe pain of getting it.)

Armpit

Armpit tattoos are extremely painful. Tattoo artists often advise clients against them because they hurt so bad.

Rib Cage

Tattooing areas where bones are more prominent is very painful, and the rib cage is a big surface area with a lot of bone. You’ll find that a lot of clients want their first tattoo on their rib cage. However, we recommend trying to get them to move the placement.

Elbow and Kneecap

These areas can cause severe pain - whether you’re tattooing right over the bone, or if you’re tattooing in the sensitive “ditch” of an elbow or knee.

Ankle and Shin

The ankle bone and shin bone are right under the skin, making them super painful areas for getting a tattoo.

Chest and Sternum

The sternum can be very painful, especially if the client has very prominent bones there. Additionally, tattoos on the breasts and nipples are known to be some of the most painful tattoo spots.

Groin, Inner Thigh, and Butt

Each of these areas has lots of nerve endings, so they will be pretty painful. The place where the thigh meets the butt is known to be extremely painful.

Medium Pain

These areas tend to be a bit more manageable, but they’re still very sensitive.
upper outer thigh, spine, and hand tattoosupper outer thigh, spine, and hand tattoos

Hips

Hip tattoos are right on the bone, which can cause severe pain, especially for clients without a lot of body fat to cushion the area.

Spine

Right on the spine is one of the most painful places to get a tattoo. Generally, the further you move away from the spine, the less pain the client will experience. 

Neck, Head, Face, Ears, and Lips

Basically, tattooing anything above the shoulders is going to be a painful experience. Lips in particular are known for swelling and bruising, and stretching the skin over the center of the neck can lead to added sensitivity.

Hands, Knuckles, Wrist, and Feet

Both of these areas hurt - no matter what part of them you tattoo. Fingers and toes are right over the bone, and the tops of the hands and feet have hardly any padding to cushion the hit of the tattoo needle. Getting tattooed on the fingers can also cause painful spasms the client can’t control.

Calves

Calves do have a lot of muscle, but they still tend to hurt a lot while getting tattooed.

Stomach

People will experience pain differently on the stomach depending on their body type. People with higher body weight tend to have looser skin in this area, which is more painful than people with very taut skin across their stomach.

Inner Bicep

The skin in this area tends to be looser, which makes it more painful.

Least Painful

Tattoo clients report the least amount of pain in these areas. (But here’s your reminder that there’s no such thing as a “painless” tattoo.)
areas of the body with low tattoo pain

Thigh

Thighs usually have plenty of fat and muscle padding, and fewer nerve endings than other areas, making it a less painful place to get a tattoo. 

Shoulder and Outer Bicep

These areas have few nerve endings, and clients usually need fewer breaks while getting a tattoo.

Forearm

Forearms have lots of muscle, which means more padding against the tattoo needle - and less pain.

Back

As long as you’re not directly on the spine, most clients do fine with both upper and lower back tattoos. 

Note:

You can use the “pinch test” to determine how much it’ll hurt to get a tattoo on a specific body part. For example, it hurts way more to pinch your inner bicep than to pinch your thigh. 

Types of Tattoo Pain

woman getting a tattoo on her neck

There aren’t any scientific “types” of tattoo pain, but most people who have been tattooed will describe the pain they feel as “burning,” “scratching,” or “stinging.” 

While every tattoo will hurt your client, listening to what type of pain they’re describing can help you get a better idea of where they’re at - and how you can help.

The Sunburn

A lot of people will say that getting a tattoo gives them a burning sensation. This is uncomfortable, but shouldn’t be unbearable.

What this means to you as a tattoo artist:

You’ve been in that area for a while. Usually, clients start to feel heat because their skin is raw and you’ve been tattooing in the same spot for a while. Your client might also feel that “burn” if you’re tattooing in areas that have more fat beneath the skin.

The Cat Scratch

This is the most common description of tattoo pain from clients. They’ll feel like a cat is scratching its claws across their skin.

What this means to you as a tattoo artist:

You might need to mentally prepare your client before shading. If your client is experiencing this type of pain, it will be worse when you use bigger needles (like mags).

The Bee Sting

The words “sharp” and “stinging” are often used to describe the most intense type of tattoo pain.

What this means to you as a tattoo artist:

The needle might be going in too deep. It’s normal for clients to feel a sharp pain when you’re doing fine details. However, if a client says that it feels like they’re getting stung over and over again, check your needle depth, because that’s the most common phrasing people will use if you’re causing a blowout.

Background Pain

This type of “dull” pain is the best thing your client can feel while getting tattooed. 

What this means to you as a tattoo artist: 

Keep talking. A lot of the time, clients feel less pain when they’re distracted. If you’ve struck up a great conversation, keep talking! Or, you can put a movie on in the studio. Either one will help keep their mind off the pain. 

Vibrating Pain

Sometimes, the nerves can pick up the vibration of the machine, which can be painful. This is especially common if you’re tattooing around the wrist, elbows, ribs, and ankles.

What this means to you as a tattoo artist:

You’re tattooing near a bone. There’s not much you can really change to help this type of pain, but letting the client know why they’re feeling that type of pain can help put them at ease.

Types of People and Tattoo Pain

Pain is subjective, and no two clients will feel the exact same pain levels. While some of it just comes down to pain tolerance, there are a few factors that determine whether one customer will feel more or less pain than another. 

Age

The skin of older adults tends to be more sensitive when tattooed.

Sex

While research has not been done specifically for tattoo pain, people who are biologically female tend to experience pain more acutely than people who are biologically male.

Fear

People who are scared of getting tattooed will tend to experience more pain. Essentially, they “psych themselves out.” You’ll see this the most in customers getting their first tattoo.

On the other hand, people who have already gotten tattooed report less pain, and it’s probably because they’re more mentally prepared for it.

Body Type

People will experience pain in different places depending on their body type. Clients with higher body weight will usually have looser skin, which can be painful to get tattooed. This makes areas like the stomach more painful.

Clients with a lower body weight won’t have as much fat near their bones, which will make tattoos on their ribs, hip bones, etc. more painful.

Skin Condition

getting a tattoo over scars

Tattooing over damaged skin will give your client more pain. For example, even if you’re tattooing over stretch marks that have been healed for years, the damage done to the skin will make it more sensitive. Additionally, damage to the skin caused by psoriasis and eczema will make tattoos more painful for clients.

How to Minimize Tattoo Pain: Pre-Tattoo

Tattoos hurt, and there’s really not a way around that. But telling your client how to prepare the right way will give them a better chance of getting through their tattoo without tapping out:

  • Get a good night's sleep the night before. It’s easier to manage pain if you’re well rested.
  • Drink plenty of water. Tattoos hurt worse when you’re dehydrated.
  • Eat a big meal before the appointment. Keeping your blood sugar high will help you manage the pain (and keep you from passing out)
  • Moisturize the area for a week leading up to the tattoo. Well-moisturized skin is less painful when tattooed and will hold the ink better.

A lot of clients will think that alcohol or taking painkillers will help them through the tattoo. However, alcohol will make them dehydrated and most painkillers will thin the blood and make them bleed more. (Some clients might even take too many painkillers, which can make them more likely to throw up during their appointment.)

Note:

If your client is afraid of the pain or they know they have a low pain tolerance, you can have them use tattoo numbing cream.

Tattoo Pain Relief: Mid-tattoo

If a client is struggling to sit through their tattoo session, here’s a few things you can do to help:

  • Take a few breaks. Giving your client a “breather” can help them out. But you want to keep them short - and not too often. Otherwise, their skin can get sore and cold, which will make the tattoo more painful.
  • Talk to the client. If your client is focused on the pain of the tattoo, they’ll feel it more. Talking will get them distracted away from the pain.
  • Offer a snack. Keeping the client’s blood sugar up will help them get through the tattoo more easily. (This is especially important if they’re starting to look pale.)
  • Use numbing spray. The numbing effect won’t take away the pain, but it’ll dull the sensation a bit. And sometimes, your client will just need to think they’re numb for it to help them.

Note:

Whether you let a client have a friend for support is up to you. Some customers might “play up” their pain if there’s other people around while others will try to act tougher.

Aftercare: Post-Tattoo

wrapping a new tattoo in a tattoo parlor

Tattoos can be sore or itchy, but the more acute pain should stop as soon as the tattoo is over. As a tattoo artist, make sure to emphasize to your client that following your aftercare instructions exactly will majorly minimize the pain of the healing process and make sure they don't have to get tattooed again for a touchup. 

Jump Start Your Tattooing Career

tattooing process
You can make your tattoos hurt less for your clients by practicing and becoming more confident while tattooing. This will help you take lines in one pass and shade more smoothly, leading to less trauma on the skin. 
However, good practice requires using the correct techniques. But finding out how to tattoo online can be hard. Most information on Google or YouTube is outdated or incorrect, which keeps new artists from ever improving their skills and reaching their potential. 
Not only does this limit the designs they can pull off, it also means fewer job opportunities because shop owners will be looking for solid, clean fundamentals from their artists.
Luckily, you can find all the information you need to learn to tattoo in one online course with the Artist Accelerator Program.With our proven and easy-to-follow 9-step system, you’ll learn the correct techniques and get personalized feedback from professional tattoo artists in our online Mastermind community.
Over 2500 students have used the program to break into the tattooing industry all over the world, with many of them leaving jobs they felt trapped in to open up their own shops. 
If you want to see the framework they used to learn from home while building a rewarding, creative career... 

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

Tattooing 101's Artist Accelerator 90 day program is the closest thing to a real apprenticeship

  • 500 video modules
  • Professional tattoo artist coaches
  • Private mastermind community
AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain. When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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