Tattoos hurt. What can you do to cope with that pain?
Regardless of your best buddy who has skin like granite, tattoo pain is real.
It’s something we have all come to expect when being stabbed with needles. Even if it is, pain shouldn’t be a determining factor when deciding to get a tattoo. Let’s look into some basic principles as to why tattoos hurt, how they are done and what you can do to manage the pain of tattoo, before, during and after the procedure.
So, Explain to me what’s going on!
i.e. the tattoo Process.
(PREFACE: Not to go in depth about the types of tattoo machines out there, as there is a plethora of opinions formulated by those far more educated in the workings of those machines, but in this article we will focus on using a coil machine. Stay tuned for a later article about different types of machines.)
Tattooing, Why hurt so much!?
So let’s start with the basics and break the whole thing down Barney style. Tattooing is the process of getting ink into the skin and getting it to stay, permanently. In the western world this is done using a tattoo machine (also known as – tattoo gun, tattoo device) where a grouping of needles is place inside a receiving tube and attached to a bar that is connected to said machine via a flat metal spring (in 1 or 2 pieces.). It moves up and down pushing the needle into the skin, creating a small opening wherein the needle is retracted and “pulls or pushes” the ink into the skin.
How the machines get ink in your skin
Some expansion to the steps above – The tattoo machine works in an simple harmonic motion, driving the needles attached to a bar up and down… quickly. The receiving tube has a reservoir that collects a suspension of pigment by dipping the needles and receiving tube into an ink cap which contains suspended pigment also known as ink. The ink that is collected is pushed into the skin and captured by immune cells and held in place. Phew! (This is seriously overly simplified, but, I will do a proper write up in the future)
Picture a vibrating loose meat sandwich shoving pickles and onions into … Something?
(this is an absolutely terrible analogy and I asked my wife for help figuring this one out. She literally looked at me with a questionable gaze, crinkled up her nose and asked to me to repeat it a second time. After hearing twice she advised me to move on from it and not do this again.)
Shit. I got a bit off topic. Back to the post.
SO… YA! Getting tattooed hurts. And yes, I know that pain is totally subjective. Your friend Becky had her ribs blasted for 12 hours straight and didn’t even blink an eye, while you, a discerning tattoo aficionado, sat for 2 lines on your wrist at a quarter inch long and screamed like a boiled rat.
Getting help with pain
What you don’t know is that Becky may have had a great artist sit her down and walk her through how to cope with the tattoo process and the inevitable pain. Now you, dear reader, can take with you a couple tips that should help you sit like a corpse through the short, or long, session you have coming up.
Fighting Tattoo Pain
Here is the ol’ blog list for ya’ll:
1. Come in with a good night’s rest.
Yup. This is a great way to help stave off any crazy pain sensations, and its one of the easiest and cheapest ways to help you sit through a tattoo. Studies show (not a full list but the abstract and footnotes have some great links to additional studies) that sleep and the interpretation of pain are inextricably linked.
What does that mean? If you stay up all night crushing Redbull’s and Mountain Dew Code Red while running dual instances of Fortnite, and hit the sack at 7 AM, you won’t sit well for your tattoo at noon. Your body needs rest. sorry insomniacs but not sorry narcoleptics. It gets rid of all those shitty hormones and chemicals that make you feel like crap. Your brain rests and it can deal with the bullshit of getting stabbed a million times. So, please, get some sleep. (8 hours or more is a good idea).
2. Have a good meal a few hours before coming in for a tattoo
Eating can take your pain away. I am serious. Look around you if you live in the USA. We are always hurting and gosh darn it we love to eat! Good thing is that having a delicious meal will help you with any pain associated during a tattoo. Your body responds to pain with inflammation, which is what happens when you get stabbed. You get stabbed, your body goes, “OH SHIT!” and releases an inflammatory response that gets healing started. If you are more sensitive to that response, your ability to deal with the pain is limited. This means you are going to be a in for a world of hurt.
So eat something that you enjoy before, during a break in tattooing and just after. Your brain will release the fancy things called endorphins which will help with the pain by making you feel happy.
3. Keep caffeine to a minimum.
Oh my goodness, you can’t make it out of bed without a double pot of french roast. That may spell trouble for your tattoo session. Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor which means it can increase blood pressure and close up them veins in your body. Caffeine does not thin your blood. The “thinning” of your blood that is noticeable after ingesting caffeine is due to decreased efficacy of your platelets. Platelets are the things that form scabs and stop bleeding when you get injured.
While the exact mechanism isn’t fully understood (at the time this article is written) you can wager a bet that the decrease in platelet function will increase your body’s propensity to bleed during a tattoo.
( As an aside, the additives in energy drinks exacerbate this effect, making them a double whammy)
What is a good idea, if you are addicted to caffeine like I, is keep your intake low. 1-2 cups 4-6 hours before you tattoo. also, drink water.
4. Drink water
You have had this shoveled into your brain since childhood (and i say that because no, little person aged 10 years, you’re double digits but you are not getting tattooed). Being hydrated is a good thing. Remember above where I had mentioned something about inflammation? That process is part of what influences your pain tolerance when getting tattooed. Here is an article that is grossly overqualified for how I type but goes into great detail about how and why being hydrated is good for pain management.
5. Learn to meditate
If you’re from a place that looks towards left leaning cultures as a place where hypocrisy reigns supreme and all folks are coo-coo, you may have cringed or become uncomfortable at the above mentioned idea. “What chu talkin’ ’bout bhoy. I ain’t gone waste my time doing no medititates! I can handle the pain like a real man-uh.” Sadly, you would be wrong there my friend. Meditating doesn’t mean you have to take up a vegan lifestyle and join a naked hot yoga class,. What it means is that you should be focusing your attention to something other than whatever the fuck it is you are thinking about currently.
This may spell disaster to anyone with ADD or ADHD but it is a great trick to spin through time and keep the interpreted pain at bay while getting a tattoo.
I have had the luck of meeting many people who were open to the idea of focused pain management over the years I have worked tattooing. I tell them to bring something to the appointment that helps them “veg out”. This is key though, it has to be focused to the individual.
The Audiophile Tattoo Client
- If someone is always listening to music as a way to separate from their surroundings, they are triggered through audio stimulation (their ears). Having a horror movie on with tense music and screaming will ensure a short sit so keep things calm. Put on some Enya.
The Cinephile Tattoo Client
- For people who lose themselves in the splendor of some visual stimulus, I tell them to bring in whatever they feel comfortable watching. It can be a movie or a TV series, but something that they can strap some headphones on and watch.
The Haphephile Tattoo Client
- For those unlucky enough to be stimulated by touch more than anything, (think you get lost with massages) they are a hit or miss client. I have had some people who were good holding someone else’s hand to sit for an eternity, others are good with covering their faces with a soft or silky blanket/garment/towel. Sadly, some of those people just fucking laser focus in on the pain and sit like absolute crap. There is little to do to get them through the tattoo process other than lying to them about time and the length of the procedure so far.
6. Take some Tylenol or Advil.
While the majority of tattooers out there are undecided on the effects of NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) on a tattoo, I have used them sparingly for years as a way to fight inflammation and pain during a procedure. **Note – Make sure an adequate medical history is conducted and permission from a medical professional has been given before utilizing any NSAIDs during or after a procedure** I won’t go into the pharmacokinetics but this shit works but you know that they do work due to their success globally. This tip also does not suggest to pound back 12 advil with a Redbull during your sick tat session. Please, be responsible.
Taking an NSAID after the tattoo procedure is completed also can help with pain or inflammation. Especially with those marathon sessions. Go talk to your PCP and get some feedback about how and why these may be a good tool in your tattoo artist / client arsenal.
7. Take one long break and a couple short breaks during the tattoo procedure.
Every hour take a 5 minute break to rest and adjust your eyes and allow the client to move about. At 3.5 hours, let them get a good meal and hydrate. This simple process will help in people sitting 9+ hours consistently.
This process isn’t to be broken up for phone calls, text messages, social media, cigarettes or consultations. Set up long appointments with the full intention of that tattoo being done your only goal for the day. Do not get interrupted and don’t get sidetracked. Focus on your client and what they are going through to complete a marathon session or that short 2 line session that gives you so much grief.
So that’s it for this article. Give me feedback or comments below and share the fuck outta this page so we can get the industry aligned with a SOP.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.
The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.
These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.