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. 

Areas that Have the Most Nerve Endings

tattoo on thin skin of the hands
tattoo on thin skin of the knee

Nerve endings are what sense pain and pressure, and they send pain signals to the brain. The more nerve endings in a certain area, the more severe pain becomes. These areas include the groin, fingertips, the arch of the foot, shin, and the back of the knee. 

You’ll find that these areas rank in the red and orange zones in the most painful tattoo spots below.

Areas That Have Few Nerve Endings

Your upper back, outer shoulders, and thighs have the fewest nerve endings. They also have thicker skin, so it’s easier to sit through the sharp or stinging pain of a tattoo. 

You’ll find that these areas rank in the yellow and green sections on our tattoo pain chart.

How Past Experiences Affect Your Mental Pain Threshold

Knowing how much a tattoo hurt in them in the past can affect a person’s mentality when it comes to their pain tolerance. 

For example, if someone’s first tattoo is on their ribs where there is thinner skin, they might never want to sit for a tattoo session again. A client who gets tattooed where there’s few nerve endings and they only had to deal with a “burning pain” for an hour or so is more likely to get a tattoo again.

Rating the Body Parts From the Most to Least Painful Places

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 Tattoos

Areas that are naturally protected by the body are the most painful places 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 thin skin, making them super painful areas for getting a tattoo.

Chest and Sternum

Chest tattoo pain ranks pretty high for most people. 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 places to get tattooed.

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.

There are many nerve endings on the face, and it’s where we take in a lot of our sensory information, not only making it one of the most painful boy parts to get tattooed, but also one of the most uncomfortable to sit for.

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 hand and finger tattoos 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 stomach tattoo pain differently 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 inner bicep tattoo pain more intense than the outer bicep.

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, as well as thick skin 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 burning pain 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 a scratching pain, it will be worse when you use a bigger tattoo needle (like a mag).

The Bee Sting

The words “sharp” and “stinging pain” 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, especially if you’re working in the most painful tattoo spots. 

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. Thigh tattoo pain is often described as dull because of the thick skin.

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 tattoo 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 affect tattoo pain for your clients.

How to Minimize Tattoo Pain: Pre-Tattoo

Tattoos hurt, and there’s really not a way around that. But an experienced tattoo artist can help a client prepare the right way and give them a better chance of getting through their tattoo without tapping out. Here’s our best advice for clients about to get a tattoo:

  • 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. 

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Understanding how to handle a client’s pain threshold is an important step in your journey, but it can also be pretty eye-opening to how difficult tattooing can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist. 

However, finding the straight-forward information you need to progress is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources.

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into tattooing because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits. 

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need to build your skills and create incredible tattoos. 

With the Artist Accelerator, you can stop wasting time searching through incorrect information. 

You just get the clear, easy-to-understand lessons you need to start improving fast… along with support and personalized feedback from professional artists in our online Mastermind group.

Over 2500 students have already gone through the course, with many of them opening up their own studios. 

If you want to join them and learn the skills you need to start tattooing full time faster…

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

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

  • 500 video modules
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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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