I hurt everyone the same. I’ve heard I have a heavy hand, a light hand, I’ve had people fall asleep, giggle, cry, complain, pass out, sit still and do nothing…all shades of response. But my machines are set one way and my hand is set one way and that doesn’t change unless you have leathery elbows and knuckles you want worked on and I have to pry the cells apart to get the ink in there at all…hurting people more takes more work than not hurting them. Think about it.
The reason I’ve heard all these things, when I’m doing the same thing every time?
- The human body has different amounts of nerve endings in different places. For example, your upper arm, your calf- these areas aren’t vitally important to staying alive. So there are less nerves there, in general, than say in your sternum. I mean, your heart is right under that thin piece of bone, so of course your body is very nervy there. It wants you to wake the fuck up, get scared, and run away when something comes at your heart! And so there’s a definite difference between getting your arm or leg tattooed and getting your torso done. All those important organs need protecting! Your scalp, not so much, though. Even though your brain is right there, your skull can take a beating. There are thick muscles on your scalp, and while there’s more blood in the area (lots of capillaries) there’s not as much nerve.
- Everyone has a different standard of comparison. If you have broken twelve bones, had road rash on half your body, and been in a dozen serious bar fights…well, “the worst pain ever” is going to be much worse than someone who has broken a nail and stubbed a toe. We rate our pain only compared to other pain we have felt and remember, so if you have never been in serious pain, you’re going to rate anything higher. My standard of comparison for tattooing is a bad cat scratch, a bee sting, a sunburn that’s focused in one spot. I’ve seen people fall asleep getting tattooed, and I’ve seen people scream as if I was killing them. One of those people had never even been stung by a bee, and the other had had a couple serious injuries. It’s all relative to what your body has been through before.
- Pain is in your mind. It’s the way your brain reacts to warnings from your skin that something bad might be happening. Tiny needles grazing the surface of your skin could be a bad thing about to happen; your body doesn’t know, so it warns you that some cells are being poked at. How your brain interprets this warning makes all the difference. If you can put your mind over matter, the pain resolves into an annoyance instead of something awful. Breathing calmly and easily is something you can do voluntarily and on purpose, to convince your brain that nothing awful is going on. Keeping your muscles relaxed is another way to shut down the brain’s over-reaction. Both of these things also coincidentally make you easier to tattoo. You have to remember that you volunteered for the tattoo; you’re even paying for it. Allowing your skin to take over your brain isn’t the best way to get through a tattoo session.
- Some people want sympathy, or need attention. This is kind of rare in the chair, but once in a while someone will absolutely seem to enjoy crying and moaning and acting as if they’re having an arm sawn off. Usually these people behave better when their friends/partner leave the room- which is usually the first thing I insist on. Without an audience, the person can then focus on their mind-over-matter work instead of interacting with dramatics. I also think some folks do this not for the drama, but just because they’re very vocal people- they express any sensation or emotion verbally somehow, and will do the same when getting tattooed. I’ve had a few people like this that were calmed a great deal by humming, or making a low tone in their throat, rather than screaming or squealing. Low-pitched sounds seem to help disperse pain better than high-pitched ones (and are much easier to deal with from my end- a scream or squeal will get my adrenaline going too, and I’m trying to make good art on you, not feel keyed up like it’s a fistfight!)
- Last but not least, there’s a trade-off to be made between time taken and pain level. A tattoo that takes less time is probably going to hurt more- if you are working within a budget and want it done in less time, well, I’m not going to be gently wiping you tenderly in between each stroke of the needle- I’m going to be continuing on, laying in the ink, and keep going. This is the kind of trade-off that is really up to you. If you’re so concerned with pain levels, you may end up paying more because of breaks you need “to take a breather” or because I’ll be proceeding slowly and gently. On the other hand, if you just want the shit over with (like how I feel when I get tattooed) then it may hurt more- but not for quite as long. Breaking bigger tattoos up into sessions can also help, if you’re working on something gigantic. Some people will sit all at once in one marathon session just to have that finished tattoo right away, while others will break it up into chunks instead because they simply don’t want to go through it all in one day. There’s nothing wrong with either approach.
Set and setting matter- just like taking an acid trip, you have to be in a good frame of mind to get an “easy” tattoo. See, we’d love it if everyone sat still and pain thresholds were easy to predict. But not everyone does, and you cant predict how someone will react. So do your best, and communicate (with your words!) with your artist, and we will do our best to help you get through it- even if you’re scared or nervous. We are used to that!
(originally posted as a squib on 12 December, 2006. Expanded and published today.)