Reducing Tattoo Pain: Strategy and Triggers

Tattoos hurt. There’s no going around that fact. But, did you know that you play a crucial role in how much they hurt?

Tattoo artists are capable of reducing tattoo pain by using the least painful strategies while tattooing and identifying the various triggers of pain. This article will cover everything from the most and least painful places to get tattooed, along with your role in reducing tattoo pain.

Afterward, you’ll be able to make your clients feel as comfortable as possible in what is inevitably a painful process. Here’s what you need to know about reducing tattoo pain in a nutshell:

What causes pain during tattooing?

The most important part of reducing tattoo pain is understanding why it happens in the first place.

The term ‘tattoo ’ comes from the Polynesian word ‘tatau’, meaning ‘to stroke’ or ‘to mark’. In the earlier days, the skin was cut and the ink was rubbed into it using wooden or bone needles. Today, the process has improved significantly and includes the use of precision equipment to deliver the needle to the dermis. This is a layer of skin  that lies beneath the layer we can see and touch called the epidermis. 

The upper layer of the skin, the epidermis, goes through a relatively quick shedding cycle. Therefore, for tattoos to last, the ink will have to be placed deep enough where it won’t be subject to these conditions. Similarly, it must not be placed too deep, or else it will be carried away by the immune and circulatory systems. It can also cause something called tattoo blowout.

The dermis contains a large number of pain receptors. As the needle strikes this layer continuously, pain signals are sent to the brain causing the pain that clients feel. The level of pain will vary depending on the area being tattooed, as some contain less fat which leaves nerve endings especially vulnerable. 

This pain can be described as a scratching, burning, stinging, or vibrating sensation, though it has been described as a dull pain. This pain should not be too intense to the point that it becomes overwhelming. Clients tend to feel significant relief once tattooing has ceased in that area. 

The most and least painful areas to get tattooed

Placement is one of the major triggers for pain during tattooing. One way to go about reducing tattoo pain is to outline this for clients, especially those getting their first tattoo.

Many first-timers unfortunately do not research these things, and once advised, sometimes end up changing the placement of the tattoo.

Some of the most painful areas to get tattooed include:

  • Ribcage or chest area
  • Genitals
  • Shin
  • Armpits
  • Nipples and breast
  • Elbows
  • Kneecaps and behind the knees
  • Neck and spine
  • Hips
  • Fingers and toes
  • Feet
  • Lips

You’ll notice that all these areas are the boniest parts of the body. The only exception here is the lips. The lips contain a lot of nerve endings. 

The least painful areas of the body to get tattooed include:

  • Upper and lower back
  • Calves
  • Biceps
  • Forearm
  • Upper thigh

Notice that these are the meatiest parts of the body. The back also contains thick skin with few nerve endings. 

General factors that affect pain

All tattoos hurt. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or has that rare condition that doesn’t cause them to feel pain.

Another form of reducing tattoo pain is understanding how these factors come into play. These include:



Research has shown that women experience pain more intensely than men and are more tolerant of pain

Note that this research was not specific to getting tattoos, however, you can make your own deductions.

Age and weight

Older people tend to have more vulnerable and loose skin than younger persons and are generally not as tolerant to pain.

People with high body fat tend to fare better at getting tattoos since it acts as a cushion surrounding the nerves. Similarly, persons with low body fat tend to have a more painful experience than others.

Pain tolerance

Pain tolerance will vary from client to client. However, persons who have tattoos tend to fare better since they are familiar with the sensations of getting a tattoo. Clients with a low pain threshold tend to have a more painful experience than others. 

Your role in reducing tattoo pain

Besides the general factors affecting pain, the tattoo artist plays a key role in how painful a tattoo will be.

Your role in reducing tattoo pain includes advising clients on what they should do before getting a tattoo. It also includes specific strategies or techniques you can use for reducing tattoo pain. 

Here’s how you can fulfill your role in reducing tattooing pain:

Pre-session advice

Providing pre-session advice can be a great benefit to both you and your client. The more effort you put into reducing tattoo pain the easier your job will be. The less pain your client feels is the faster you can work without getting interrupted. The faster you can work on the tattoo the less pain the client will feel overall. Simple math!

The simplest bit of advice you can give your client on reducing tattoo pain is to take care of themselves. When a client is feeling good overall, and their body is functioning optimally, the tattooing experience tends to be better. Taking care of themselves includes having a restful night’s sleep before and staying hydrated. Before coming in, the client should, of course, bathe or shower, and have a proper meal. This eliminates the risk of fainting from pain and boosts stamina to withstand a tattooing session. Hydrated skin is also easier to work on, which makes the session go by faster.

Advise your client against drinking alcohol, caffeine, or taking any form of drugs that causes anxiety or thins the blood. This will cause the skin to bleed excessively and will make your client nervous. A nervous client is a fidgety client. Fidgeting can cause errors in tattooing, some of which are painful, especially if you have to go back and correct the mistake. Fidgeting also causes interruptions which cause the session to go longer than it needs to.

Another bit of advice that helps the client help him/herself in reducing tattoo pain is opting to take a non-aspirin pain killer before the session. 

The more advice you can provide is the more reputable you will seem to new customers. Clients who trust their tattoo artist are generally more comfortable. 

Provide a comfortable space

An uncomfortable tattoo studio makes things worse for everybody. Start with your tattooing chair. Make sure the client’s chair is comfortable enough to sit in for hours. Your studio should also be sterile, clean, and free of unpleasant odors.

A mistake some artists make is giving their studio that hospital look. Don’t be scared to amp up your décor. Clients tend to feel more comfortable in a space that doesn’t feel like they’re on an operating table. Remember, a comfortable client is more tolerant of pain. 

Move around 

Another method of reducing tattoo pain is moving around when working on large tattoos. Staying in one area too long intensifies and focuses pain on that area. When you move around, you allow your client to feel a sense of relief.

You should also consider taking a little five-minute break every half hour to give your client a chance to breathe, and recover. 

Use light hands

These days, tattoo needles are built in a way that prevents you from pushing them catastrophically deep into the skin. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t press too hard and push too much ink into the skin.

If you press too hard into the skin, the ink will spread along fat layers and the tattoo will look blurry. This is called tattoo blowout. It can also happen if you insert the needle at the wrong angle. This increases the pain factor for your client, and the result is a bad tattoo.

If you think you aren’t pressing too hard, but the skin seems to be getting really beat up, check your machine. Perhaps it is going too fast. This can cause the client’s skin unnecessary trauma. 

Work in sessions

It might be tempting to try to finish a large tattoo in one go, but that simply isn’t feasible. If you even have the stamina to go that long, remember that this is a living canvas, meaning it feels pain. Plus, every good tattoo artist knows that splitting the work into sessions means the skin will heal faster, so you can correct flaws and fine-tune filling and detailing.

Use numbing cream

Some tattoo artists are against using numbing cream while working, but it’s a great method of reducing tattoo pain for sensitive clients. 

You’re better off applying your own numbing cream to clients, so make sure to advertise this option. Oftentimes, clients use numbing creams that are too oily or heavy which only gets in the way. Some numbing creams can also affect the way the tattoo heals. 

Clients sometimes have unrealistic expectations surrounding numbing cream. It won’t take the pain away completely and may wear off mid-session. It’s important to drive these points home before you begin. 


Distracting clients is a popular way of reducing tattoo pain. Distraction can take the form of engaging in conversation to take your client’s mind off what you’re doing. If this is a new client, you can get to know your client during the session. Note that some clients prefer silence, so if you get the hint that your client isn’t up for chatting, quit.

Another distraction you can use for reducing tattoo pain is putting a TV in your studio. You can allow your client to choose what he/she wants to watch beforehand. Just don’t get distracted by your distraction. 

Facing the reality of reducing tattoo pain

As much as we as tattoo artists wish we could sometimes take the pain away from clients, the reality is, tattoos hurt. Your client should not have any unreasonable expectations beforehand, and it’s your job to clarify these facts.

Of course, you play a part in reducing tattoo pain, and you can use strategies such as offering pre-session advice, providing a comfortable space, and moving around while doing the tattoo. You should also work in sessions for large tattoos, use distractions where possible, and consider using numbing cream for your sensitive clients. 

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