It’s not the same for everyone
While it’s agreed that spots like the ribs and throat are generally very painful, every person who is inked will give you a different answer when you ask what tattoo hurts most. Pain level and pain tolerance are very individual, and what’s intense for one person might be just a blip on the radar for another. That said, there is consensus that some areas hurt worse than others.
The inner wrist hurts
Sean Dowdell, cofounder (with the late Linkin Park vocalist Chester Bennington) of Club Tattoo, says the most painful body part he’s ever had done was his wrist. “I’m fully sleeved,” Dowdell says. “I have full back pieces… but for me it was the inside portion of my wrist, right where the flex point is.” He has owned and operated Club Tattoo since 1995 and says he’s met people who feel the same. Here are the questions you should ask before getting a tattoo.
Other most painful parts
As for some of the other most painful parts, he says: “From my employees, tattoo artists, and clients, I think the stomach is a very painful place to get tattooed. And the back of the knee, from what I understand.” The neck, throat, and ribs also top the list.
Your tattoo artist plays a role
Another factor that can influence how much pain you feel is who your tattooer is. Some artists are more heavy-handed than others, making for a more painful experience. If you’re sensitive to pain, ask the studio for a recommendation on a “gentle” tattoo artist.
Other factors affect pain
Certain health issues may make you more sensitive to pain. “Some people have previous injuries, so they have heightened sensitivity in certain parts of the body,” Dowdell shares. And some tattoo collectors postulate that tattoos hurt more on the bone. Others say it’s a matter of how thick or thin the patch of skin is. Dowdell thinks it’s none of the above. “It’s a nerve ending issue,” he explains. “As far as [skin] thinness goes, you can get the top of your hand tattooed, and that’s pretty thin, but not very painful. But if you get a finger tattooed, it’s got a bit more skin [and] a bit more tissue, but it’s a lot more painful.”
Consider your shoulder
The least painful places to get a tattoo are areas of your body that have the fewer nerve endings. Think: outer shoulder, calf, buttocks, and outer arm.
Remember that size matters
While people generally fixate on the location on the body, Stanley Kovak, MD, cosmetic physician in Rockford, IL, theorizes that perceived pain is more about the size of the tattoo. The more you work, and the longer you work on the body, the more it hurts. When a tattoo is especially intricate, it requires more shading, more coloring, and a constant switching among various types of needles—all of this increases tattoo pain.
Age also plays a role
Age has a lot to do with the amount of pain experienced when getting tattooed, says Dr. Kovak. Younger skin isn’t as painful as older skin to tattoo, because it’s tighter and absorbs the ink better. Find out the best ages to peak at everything in life.
Infections arise due to bacterial infection, so when imagining all the possible painful outcomes, think about which parts of your body are most vulnerable to infection. Your mouth and genitals contain bacteria, which may put you at risk. It may also be your feet. “A lot of people don’t realize how exposed their feet are to bacteria,” Dowdell says. And the likeliest place of infection may be your very own home, especially if you have pets. “People don’t realize how easily a fresh tattoo exposed to pet dander can lead to an infection.” Simply walking down the street could even be a risk, if you’re wearing flip-flops or other open-toe shoes. If you do get a foot piece, Dowdell says, be sure to clean it well while it’s healing. The same goes for hands, as your hands and fingers come into direct contact with bacteria every single day.
What about… down there?
One would think that getting tattooed in the nether regions of the body would be the biggest infection risk, but actually both Dr. Kovak and Dowdell say otherwise. “Anytime you have mucosa (mucus membranes)—and this is going to be more on females than males—and you’re breaking that tissue, you can expose it fairly quickly to bacterial infections,” Dowdell shares. “But the good news is they’re generally not exposed, so you’re a little less prone to infections or problems because you keep it covered.” Dr. Kovak agrees, adding, “Unless someone has a predisposition to MRSA or is a diabetic [with poor healing], the risks are not any more than any other kind of skin infection to treat.”
Where’s the most dangerous place to tattoo?
Tattoos have become much more widely accepted in the past few decades, but there are still daring parts. One of those spots, which is also the most dangerous area a person get a tat, is the eyeball. (Yes, you can do that!) Those who get inked there run an enormous risk. “With an eyeball tattoo, there’s a higher risk of getting an infection. Plus, if you get an infection in the eye, it has serious potential problems, including vision loss,” Dr. Kovak says.
You need to follow aftercare directions
Skin infections are always a possibility with tattoos, however, they are generally easily treated with antibiotics, says Dr. Kovak. Skin infections also are less likely to occur if you get tattooed at a clean and responsible shop that’s licensed (licensing requirements vary by state)—and if you follow your aftercare instructions. “A lot of people don’t follow the directions about avoiding public pools, lakes, [and] rivers for at least two to three weeks after they get a tattoo,” says Dowdell.
The Club Tattoo owner also notes that people often have misconceptions about the extent of aftercare. “They think because [a tattoo] is small, it’s going to be very easy to take care of, and that’s not always the case.” Tattooers advise against intense physical activity or gym visits when you have fresh ink, as gyms can be breeding grounds for bacteria. “I don’t tell people not to work out, I just tell them to keep it covered when they work out. I’m more concerned with other people’s sweat than their own sweat. Really simple bacterial infections like MRSA can pop up in a gym very easily, just by someone not wiping down a machine. If you’ve got an exposed tattoo and you set it on the machine, you could contract a very serious bacterial infection really quick.”
Tattoos hurt to remove, too
As a professional who regularly performs laser tattoo removal, Dr. Kovak is able to observe the other end of the tattoo spectrum: the pain of removal. With removal it’s not so much about the location of the tattoo as it is the size. For larger tattoos, he usually uses a topical anesthetic. So carefully consider that tattoo; it can be painful, expensive, and time-consuming to remove it.
Making the tattoo industry safer
Some states require tattoo shops to be licensed, while others do not. Dowdell has been pushing tattoo legislation in Nevada and Arizona. “People are looking for places that are completely comfortable and clean,” he says. “No longer are there old street shops [and] the biker hangouts where people feel comfortable. Things have changed; the needle has moved. The industry has really taken ownership of making sure that we hold ourselves accountable and that we hold ourselves to certain standards.” The Food & Drug Administration doesn’t regulate tattoo ink, leaving the responsibility in the hands of the consumer to choose a reputable shop. Be sure to do your research.