Reducing Tattoo Pain: Strategy and Triggers

Tattoos hurt, there’s no denying that. But did you know that you as a tattoo artist play a crucial role in how much they hurt?

Tattoo artists are capable of reducing tattoo pain by using different techniques and 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 and will examine what your role in reducing tattoo pain is.

You’ll be better equipped to make your clients feel as comfortable as possible in what is undoubtedly 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 tattoos hurt in the first place.

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

The epidermis goes through a relatively quick shedding cycle, which means that in order for tattoos to last, the ink will have to be placed deep enough that it won’t be subject to this quick shedding cycle. Additionally, the ink should not be placed too deep in the skin, or else it will be carried away by the immune and circulatory systems. It can also cause something called a tattoo blowout, which is when the ink moves beyond the lines of the tattoo.

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 areas contain less fat and this leaves nerve endings especially vulnerable. You can get more information on the fundamentals of tattooing from this incredible Black and Grey Realism Course by Hugo Feist.

This pain that is felt is often described as a scratching, burning, stinging, or vibrating sensation, though it does tend to be quite a dull pain. This pain should not be too intense to the point that it becomes overwhelming. Clients tend to feel significant relief when their artist moves to another area of the tattoo, or when they take a break.


The most and least painful areas to get tattooed

Placement is one of the major deciding factors of how much pain will be felt during tattooing. One way to go about reducing tattoo pain is to communicate this to clients, especially those getting their first tattoo.

Many first-timers unfortunately do not research these things, but once advised they will often end up changing the placement of the tattoo to avoid pain.

Some of the most painful areas to get tattooed include:

  • Ribcage or chest area
  • Genitals
  • Shin
  • Armpits
  • Nipples and breast
  • Elbows and elbow ditch
  • 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 to that is the lips, and this is because our 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

You will notice that these are typically the meatiest parts of the body. The back also has thicker skin with fewer nerve endings than other parts of the body. 

General factors that affect pain

There are a variety of factors that can affect how someone experiences pain. Here are a few examples of those.

Sex or Gender

Research has shown that women are more tolerant of pain than men. Although this research wasn’t specific to the pain of tattoos, the results of the study can be applied here. Anecdotally, tattoo artists often comment that their toughest clients tend to be women rather than men. 

Age and weight

The way our skin ages has an impact on how much it hurts to get tattooed. As we age our skin becomes thinner and loses elasticity, which makes it more sensitive to pain. 

Another way our skin can vary is due to our body weight. People with higher body fat tend to fare better than slimmer people, as body fat can act as a cushioning for the nerves.

Pain tolerance

Pain tolerance will vary from client to client. However, clients who already have tattoos tend to handle the pain better because 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, as well as using specific strategies or techniques to reduce tattoo pain. Reducing tattoo pain doesn’t just benefit your client, it also benefits you as an artist, as it’s much easier to tattoo someone who is comfortable.

Here are a few ways you can reduce the pain that your client will feel:

Pre-session advice

Providing pre-session advice can be a great benefit to both you and your client. The simplest bit of advice you can give your clients on reducing tattoo pain is to take care of themselves. When a client is feeling good overall, and their body is healthy and well-rested, the tattooing experience tends to be less painful. So it is good to tell your client to take care of themselves before their tattoo, and they can do this by having a restful night’s sleep before, making sure they are hydrated, and having a hearty meal. The physical trauma of getting tattooed can be exhausting, so making sure that they arrive feeling their best boosts their stamina to withstand a tattooing session and eliminates the risk of fainting from the pain. Hydrated skin is also easier to work on, which makes the session go by faster, which also reduces your client’s pain.

Advise your client against drinking alcohol before their tattoo, and from taking painkillers which thin the blood. This will lead to excessive bleeding during their tattoo, which makes it harder for the ink to stay in the skin, which can lead to unnecessary and painful overworking of the skin.

Tired or hungover clients also tend to be quite fidgety, and this can be problematic for several reasons. Fidgeting can cause interruptions which extend the length of the session, and the longer the tattoo takes the more it hurts. This is because when we get tattooed our body releases endorphins (a stress-fighting hormone) as a way to combat the pain, but after a while, they start to wear off. Fidgeting can also cause an artist to make mistakes, some of which are painful.

The more advice you can provide, 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 for uncomfortable clients. Although your space needs to be clean like a hospital, it doesn’t need to look like one. Environments that look overly sterile tend to stress people out - no one likes going to the doctor - so don’t be scared to amp up your decor and give your space some personality. This will make your clients feel more at home and less on edge, and this will make them more tolerant of the pain they’re about to endure.

Make sure that your furniture is comfortable, especially for clients who are sitting for longer sessions. Clients who have physical discomfort are more likely to fidget or require more breaks.

Move around 

Another method of reducing tattoo pain is to move around when working on large tattoos, and not work on the same area for too long. Working on one area for 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 brief break every half hour to give your client a chance to breathe, stretch their legs, and have a small snack. This will re-energize them.

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 that it’s impossible for you to 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 will result in a bad tattoo.

If you think you aren’t pressing too hard, but the skin seems to be getting beat up, check your machine. Perhaps it is going too fast, which 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 isn’t always feasible. Even if you have the stamina to go that long, you need to remember that you aren’t working on a canvas, but on a living breathing person who 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 can be a great method of reducing tattoo pain for sensitive clients. 

You’re better off applying numbing cream to your clients rather than them applying it themselves, so make sure to advertise this option. Oftentimes, clients use numbing creams that are too oily or heavy which only gets in the way, or they don’t follow the instructions. 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, so it’s important to drive these points home before you begin. 


Distracting clients is a great way to reduce 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, and if it’s someone you’ve tattooed before it’s a great way to catch up. Some clients prefer silence, so just make sure to keep an eye out for social cues.

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. Alternatively, you can let clients know ahead of time that they are welcome to bring a tablet or laptop with headphones so they can watch their favorite streaming service.

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, that tattoos hurt. Your client should not have unreasonable expectations beforehand, and it’s your job to clarify these facts and make sure that they are informed. We hope that this article has helped you understand what you can and should do to ensure that your client’s pain can be reduced as much as possible.


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