Why Do Tattoos Hurt? Ouch Factors Explained

By | August 31, 2022

Most folks agree getting tattooed hurts, but factors like pain tolerance and the body part being tattooed can affect your experience.

Getting a tattoo involves piercing your skin repeatedly with a super sharp needle – so it makes sense that it tends to hurt. (But probs not as much as getting your ex’s name laser-removed.)

The most painful body parts to tattoo are typically the bony areas and those with the most nerve endings, thin skin, and little fat. That’s why tattoos on your upper and lower back might be a breeze, but your ribcage and armpit will make you scream 😱. 

But since everyone experiences pain differently, tattoo pain levels are tricky to measure. For that reason, there’s no straight-up scientific answer for how much tattoos hurt. So before you go under the tattoo gun, here’s what to know. 

female getting a tattoo on arm
Santi Nuñez/Stocksy United

What makes tattoos hurt?

Pain is subjective, and when it comes down to it, tattoo pain is a very personal experience. Factors that may influence how people experience tattoo pain include:

  • Biological sex. 2012 report on health record pain scores found, on average, biological females reported 20 percent higher pain scores than males with the same health conditions. However, a 2017 study also found that women tend to be more accepting of their pain. When it comes to tattoo pain, specifically, a 2020 study found no difference between self-reported pain intensity between males and females. Women did report slightly higher pain scores post-tattooing, though. 
  • Tattoo experience. According to a 2020 study, longer sessions, higher bleeding quantities, and higher stress levels increased pain during tattoo sessions. But, your tat pain tolerance may increase over time. Research from 2017 found that tattoo vets seem to have a higher pain threshold than newbies. 
  • Genetics. According to 2018 research, age, ethnicity, and other genetic and psychosocial factors play a role in how you experience pain.

The anatomy of certain body parts may also affect tattoo pain, including

  • Nerve endings. More nerve endings typically make tattooing the area more painful.
  • Skin thickness. Thicker skin tends to equal less tattoo pain.
  • Fat level. Fat can often cushion the pain and make things easier to bear.
  • Boniness. Needle + bone = a resounding ouch! 

Tattoo pain chart

tattoo pain chart for people who are biologically
Tattoo pain chart for people who are biologically female
Design by Diego Sabogal
tattoo pain chart for people who are biologically
Tattoo pain chart for people who are biologically male
Design by Diego Sabogal

We’ll be real, this is anecdotal rather than scientific. But there are enough people with body art to get a semi-consensus on the most painful tattoo points. Here’s the deal:

Most painful body parts to tattoo

With lots of nerves, minimal fat, thin skin, and bones – these are (more than) a few of the ouchiest tattoo zones:

  • Armpit. Rumor has it that getting your pits tatted is seriously the pits. In fact, getting this super sensitive area inked is thought to be so severe that most tattoo artists advise against it.
  • Ribcage. Thin skin + minimal fat + protruding bones make the ribcage the perf recipe for a tattoo that’ll make you wince (or cry). Since your ribcage moves as you breathe, this can also amplify the sensation of vibrating pain.  
  • Ankles and shins. These bony areas are prob on par with ribcage tats. Your ankles and shins are covered by a thin layer of skin, making these spots super vulnerable under the needle.
  • Groin. Delicate skin + lots of nerve endings = ow.
  • Nips and breasts. It’s no secret that your nips and chest/breasts are tender areas with many nerve endings. So yep, this ish hurts.
  • Elbows and kneecaps. You know when you accidentally knock your knee or bump your funny bone? Yeah. Now imagine a needle vibrating into these them. Def not funny.
  • Behind the knees. The loose, soft, stretchy skin behind your knees is full of nerve endings, making getting this part tattooed much less than a walk in the park (or tattoo parlor).
  • Hips. Shakira’s hips don’t lie, and we don’t either – getting your hips tattooed might make you wanna scream. This is especially true if you don’t have a lot of fat around your hip bones.
  • Neck and spine. Your neck and spine are bony, tender, and full of nerve endings…need we say more?
  • Head, face, and ears. Like your neck, there are many nerve endings and little fat on these body parts. 
  • Lips/inner lip. Inner-lip tats were a fleeting trend, but the experience might haunt you long after it fades. Your lips have tons of nerve endings, and the area tends to bleed, swell, or bruise.
  • Hands, fingers, feet, toes. The many nerve endings here can make these spots painful AF. In particular, the nerves in your hands and feet can sometimes spasm under the needle.
  • Stomach. Stomach tats can cause high to severe pain thanks to sensitive skin. But, supposedly, having tighter skin on your tum makes the process less painful.
  • Inner bicep. Bicep muscles may help cushion the pain. But, the skin on the inner biceps tends to be tender and loose, making tattooing pretty painful. The inner bicep area can also take longer to heal than other body parts.

Least painful body parts to tattoo

Ample fat padding, tighter skin, fewer nerve endings, and no bony surfaces – these factors tend to make for a less painful experience. More bearable spots to adorn in tattoos include: 

  • Upper outer thigh. Here’s one more reason you should def be celebrating your thighs. This part of the bod is graced with fat padding and fewer nerve endings. So, it’s one of the least painful places to get tatted up.
  • Forearm. Forearms tend to have plenty of muscle and thicker skin combined with fewer nerve endings, making for a less prickly experience.
  • Outer shoulders. Here’s another spot that’s typically not as bad to tat up, thanks to the thick skin and fewer nerve endings.
  • Outer bicep. With lots of muscle and not a lot of nerves, the outer biceps are typically less painful to tattoo.
  • Calves. The calves have plenty of fat and muscle, plus few nerve endings. You’ll prob manage with low to moderate pain if your tat artist does a whole mural here.
  • Upper and lower back. As long as you steer clear of the bony areas of your spine, hips, or ribs, your upper and lower back are typically not too much trouble to tat.

How bad does a tattoo hurt?

Again, pain is personal, so no one can tell you how bad it’ll hurt *you*. But within the tattoo community, there’s def some consensus on the types of pain you might experience.

  • Burning pain. After an artist works on the same area of your body for a while, your skin might feel raw and inflamed, leading to a burning sensation. This feeling is also common in areas with more fat. Though not the most intense pain, you can def feel the burn🔥! 
  • Dull or “background” pain. When the needle buzzes, revs, and pricks your skin, your body produces stress hormones like adrenaline to counter the pain. According to researchers, this can dull the sensation for the first couple of hours. Chatting with your artist, watching TV, or distracting your mind (even with virtual reality, like in this 2021 study) may cause the pain to fade into the background.
  • Scratching pain. Getting a tattoo is often compared to a cat repeatedly scratching you. Though it’s not the most intense pain ever, it might make you wanna hiss – especially if your artist uses multiple needles, like when shading. This also tends to happen away from bony or ultra-sensitive areas.
  • Sharp or stinging pain. On the more sensitive parts of your body with more nerve endings and thinner skin (like the inside of your wrist), what once felt like cat scratches might feel like a bunch of bee stings. This can be intense and may feel like the needle’s digging deep. This also tends to happen when the artist etches fine details. However, too much stinging can indicate that an inexperienced artist is pushing the needle too deeply into your skin. This can lead to a problem called tattoo blowout.
  • Vibrating pain. Nothing like a needle vibrating against your bones and reverberating through your whole body, amirite? You might feel this vibration on your outer wrist, elbows, ribs, and ankles – especially when the needle’s moving fast. If you have less fat over your bones, you’re more likely to experience this. 

How to reduce tattoo pain

If you ask us, taking steps to minimize pain doesn’t make you weak – it makes you smart! Here’s how to help relieve tattoo pain: 

  • Pick a quality pro. Check their past work, reviews from previous customers, and certifications beforehand. Going to an experienced pro minimizes the risk of undue pain or complications like infections and a raised, inflamed tat.
  • Take breaks. Ask your artist if it’s okay to take a break when you’re struggling. A compassionate artist will understand. Larger tattoos are often broken up into several sessions, but you can also request to get your tattoo done in more sessions if you need a break
  • Stay sober. Drunkenly getting matching tats with a stranger from the bar is not the best idea – and that’s not just because of the next-day regret. Alcohol thins your blood and can cause bleeding, bruising, and excess pain during the experience. It can also make the outcome a little messy. For that reason, quality tat shops won’t take boozed-up customers.
  • Get sleep and minimize stress. Resting up and minimizing stress before getting tattooed might help ease pain on the big day. Breathe in, breathe out!
  • Consider a numbing product. Numbing creams or sprays can take the edge off, especially in sensitive spots. Just talk to your artist about it beforehand. (Some tattoo artists actually offer these products, while others have a personal preference of not tattooing people who use them.)

tl;dr:

We’re not gonna lie – getting a tattoo hurts! But how much tattoo pain affects you is pretty personal. Factors like where you get the tattoo, biological sex, pain tolerance, and whether you’ve had one before might play a role in how it goes down.

To avoid undue pain and complications, pick a skilled, experienced artist with the certifications and portfolio to prove it. Prioritizing aftercare can also help ensure that your new body art heals up beautifully and painlessly. 

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