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If You Can't Take the Pain, Should You Get Out of the Tattoo Shop?

Remember when the only folks who had tattoos were burly bikers and salty sailors (plus the occasional floozy)? Of course you don't, because those are horrible stereotypes that have been roundly disproven. Shame on you! But at the very least, you might remember when tattoos conferred a certain bad-assery to the wearer. Having a tattoo meant you had endured pain - real pain - and lived to tell about it. Of course not everyone can handle that distinctive buzzy-bee sensation.

Eastern Promises, Viggo Mortensen tattooedI'm aging myself here, but if you remember Happy Days (whaaaah?? say the 20-somethings), you might remember the episode where Richie (a very young Ron Howard) attempted to get a tattoo to impress a girl (which always works by the way). He endured one single dot before he bailed. The message? Richie just wasn't man enough to handle the pain. More modern entertainment shows us what getting tattooed "like a man" looks like and two notable examples come to mind. One is Henry Rollins as a skinhead a-hole on Sons of Anarchy, getting tattooed across the chest without batting an eye. He also managed to get stabbed to death minutes later in the bathroom... also without batting an eye. It's Henry Rollins - what do you expect? Second, Lord Aragorn AKA Vigo Mortensen getting his Russian on and getting inked in Eastern Promises with a blasé expression on his face that says, "You stab me with needles is no problem. I do this all day and then kill five to six of you no problem." Kind of makes you miss the sweeter, simpler Happy Days.

The question remains - does getting tattooed make you tough? Ummm, no. The pain caused by tattooing is manageable, albeit very uncomfortable and occasionally very painful. Does it hurt as much as breaking a bone? No. How about getting shot? Probably not (no personal experience there). Wasp sting? In the ball park. Natural childbirth? I would rather have my knee ditch tattooed and re-tattooed for 19 hours than go through giving birth (pain meds free) to my daughter again. Natural childbirth wins in the more painful department hands down - sorry gangsters. If you take something to alleviate the pain of being tattooed does that make you less "cool"? Well, does getting some pain relief for giving birth make you less of a mom? Hell no. 

Getting tattooed hurts and everyone handles the pain differently. Also some parts of your body hurt WAY worse than other parts when it comes to going under the needle. Some of the worst bits? Hands, feet, knee ditch (tender squishy patch behind the knee-cap), ribs, armpits, elbow, neck - the list goes on. The most painful tattoo pic I have ever seen was posted by the amazing Kelly Doty. Some poor soul had her tattoo under his nail bed. Yes... under. His hand was tattooed and then his fingernails were removed to have the nail beds tattooed (insert silent screaming here). Ow f--king ow ow OWWWWW!!! That dude wins the pain threshold game. Good luck torturing him for critical info - he ain't going to break. I personally got all squinchy-faced and sweaty getting my armpits and ribs tattooed, and I also felt a bit nauseous while having my elbows tattooed, but I don't think it's the same.

bactine spray

What if you want to get a tattoo, but have a really low pain threshold? Fret not! There are many products on the market (many of which you can buy right here on Painful Pleasures) that dull the pain to varying degrees. I have used bacitracin spray, lidocaine ointment, and valium. Valium doesn't really take the pain away, it just makes you care less. More of an "ohh welll" than an "ow shit!" The lidocaine worked the best, out of all of those, but you need a prescription for that. Funny side story - I had a nurse who was doing some medical tattooing on me (long story - go to to read about it under "Blood Ink and Tears") and she was telling me how she went to get her belly peirced AND get a tattoo with her daughter. Before she headed in to her session, she simply shot herself up with lidocaine at the site and she didn't feel a thing. Of course she was a licensed nurse and knew how to get the dosage right, but it was kind of funny. Don't do that by the way. Naughty naughty.

If you decide to use some pain relief, talk to your artist first. Some products can make your skin slippery or greasy and your artist probably has a preference. Be wary of products that promise a "pain-free" experience, because that is not realistic. And funny nurse story aside, DON'T misuse prescription drugs in an effort to block the pain during a session. Many drugs have side effects, like blood thinning, that can make your session a disaster. You also need to be somewhat conscious during your session so you can sit properly and take direction from your hardworking artist. This is also one of the reasons why getting drunk to dull the pain is a truly awful idea. Drunk people are sweaty and slippery, can't sit straight or still, and bleed too much. Have a drink after, NOT before!

I have heard rumors and stories of people who slept through getting tattooed. If you are one of those people, then good on ya. And don't go to parties filled with tattoo artists and then fall asleep. Just saying. Ok last funny story - this one I saw on TV. The reality show Bad Ink features truly horrendous tattoos and their inevitable cover up. There is a trainwreck aspect to the show that is unavoidable, but hey - that's reality TV for you. I caught an episode while I was a guest at The Legoland Hotel (another uniquely painful experience) and it was pretty epic. Some poor guy had the great misfortune to be friends with rugby players and get drunk in their presence. Blackout drunk. Luckily one of the partygoers was a budding tattooer and had his machine with him. Our dumb guy agreed to a tattoo of "anything you want". On his ass. And then promptly passed out. Let that sink in for a bit. When he woke the next morning, no one could keep a straight face around him due to the 2" block letters on each butt cheek spelling out "WELCOME ABOARD". The letters were pretty nicely done, actually, but still. The guys in Vegas fixed him up as best they good (after they almost hyperventilated with laughter) with a giant screaming eagle across his backside.  I wonder what the ladies think when they get a gander at that?

What is the moral of this blog post? Pain is part of the tattoo process, but it doesn't have to be a horror show. Talk to your artist prior to your appointment and come prepared for a little relief if you need it. Also remember being well fed, well rested, and well hydrated goes a long, long way to help with the pain. You don't have to be a Russian gangster who doesn't flich and you definitely don't want to be that guy slumped over the kitchen table passed out cold, while his buddies tattoo the funniest thing ever on his ass. Find the middle ground.