If anyone's ever told you that tattoos don't hurt, they're a dirty little liar. No matter where you get tattooed on your body, it's going to be uncomfortable, at least initially. What people say about going numb after awhile is true for most people, but it depends on your individual pain threshold and where on your body you're getting tattooed. Whether that numbing effect comes from the constant hammering of tattoo needles, the pain sensors in your brain overloading and short-circuiting, or a combination of the two is hard to say. Either way, your perception of pain should diminish as you're being tattooed.
If you're hypersensitive to pain, there are two things you need to do when getting tattooed: (1) Invest in a topical anesthetic like Dr. Numb or Derma Numb, which you should apply 30-45 minutes before getting tattooed so it will have reached its full efficacy by the time your artist gets started, and (2) avoid the most painful places to get a tattoo.
Before we discuss which parts of the body make the "Most Painful" short list, let's talk about what makes certain parts of the body the least painful places to get a tattoo.
Least Painful Places to Get a Tattoo
When it comes to minimizing the pain of getting a tattoo, your first priority should be to focus on the plumpest parts of your body where you think the tattoo you want might look good. Fat is the best defense against the pain of getting tattooed, with a few exceptions like underarm flab and meaty inner thighs. Places like the outer-top of your thighs, the meat of your calves, your outer arms (biceps and forearms), your rear end, and your breasts (at least for women) all have more cushion to absorb the impact of tattoo needles, which will make getting a tattoo in one of these areas less painful than it would be to get one elsewhere.
The second tier of least painful places to get tattooed includes the shoulder (preferably away from your shoulder blade), the upper shoulder/lower back of the neck (away from your spine), the lower back, and the stomach. That's not to say that it won't hurt to get a tattoo in one of these areas, just that it would likely hurt more to get a tattoo somewhere else on your body.
Top Most Painful Places to Get Tattooed
If the fattiest parts of your body are the least painful places to get tattooed, logically the boniest parts of your body will be some of the most painful places to get a tattoo. Areas where a tattoo needle is sure to hit bone aren't the only sensitive spots for getting a tattoo, though. For instance, the armpit and back of the knees aren't exactly bony, yet they top the charts when it comes to most painful places to get a tattoo.
The list below includes all of the most painful parts of the body to have tattooed, ordered loosely from most to least painful for the average person. Keep in mind that everyone's different; some people have more meat on some of these body parts than others do, and some just aren't as sensitive in these most-sensitive areas. This list should just be used as a guideline, not as the definitive word on the most painful places to get a tattoo. The information below each body part listed will also help you understand why it's so painful to have these body parts tattooed.
Nearly every tattoo enthusiast who has tattoos in multiple sensitive places will tell you that the ribcage is one of the absolute most painful places to get a tattoo. There are a couple reasons for that. First, there's very little skin, muscle and fat in this area to provide padding against fast-moving tattoo needles. Second, every single time you breathe, your ribcage expands and contracts. The combination of movement and minimal cushion are a recipe for pain when it comes to getting your ribcage tattooed. The other downside of this area is that it's almost always covered by clothing, which can keep your tattooed skin irritated with constant friction during the healing process.
The skin of the armpits is incredibly sensitive, quite possibly because of all the glands in this area as well as because of the presence of the axillary nerve, which picks up and transmits sensory information between the cervical (upper) spine, the armpits, the deltoids (shoulder muscles), and the triceps (upper arm muscles). It's a major nerve, so it's no wonder it triggers your body to register immense pain when the area around it is tattooed.
The ulnar nerve and the median nerve are two of the three main nerves in your arm, and they both run directly over the inner elbow. Plus, the inner elbow provides the least amount of padding between these two major nerves and the surface of your skin. When either nerve is pinched (particularly the ulnar nerve), it can cause numbness or pain in your elbow, hand, wrists, or fingers. That means that every time the inner elbow is hit with tattoo needles, pain signals will radiate through your arm and to your brain, causing you to experience pain not just in the immediate area, but quite possibly throughout your entire arm and hand as well. The presence of the ulnar nerve and the median nerve is what makes the inner elbow one of the most painful places to get a tattoo.
Behind the Knees
The sciatic nerve is one of the longest, biggest single nerves in the body, and it runs straight down the back of your leg from your lumbar (lower) spine. The distance between the surface of your skin and the sciatic nerve is smallest behind the knees, which is likely what makes this one of the more painful places to get a tattoo.
Groin & Genitals
As we all know, our genitals are some of the most electrifyingly-sensitive parts of our bodies. There are bundles of nerves in the clitoris and penis that are intended to deliver blood flow, register stimulation, and aid in the procreation process. Even though it might seem like the groin area above our nether regions is a somewhat meatier part of the body relative to other areas, it's no less painful to have tattooed than your actual genitals would be because the bundled nerves of the genitals run up through the entire groin area.
No matter how chubby your cheeks are, the fact of the matter is that there's little fat on most of the head and face. When you have this part of your body tattooed, the tattoo needles will inevitably hit bone at some point. Worse yet, the head is nerve central--home to 12 pairs of cranial nerves that connect the brain with the head, neck and trunk. Your eyes, ears, nose, and taste buds all rely on this collection of nerves to transmit sensory details about what you're smelling, tasting, hearing, and seeing. When you get your head or face tattooed, any number of these 12 major nerves may be triggered to send pain signals to your brain. Face it, your head and face may just be too sensitive for tattoos! That may be for the best, though, since head and face tattoos are still some of the least socially-acceptable tattoos to have, particularly in professional environments.
The ulnar nerve and the median nerve described under "Inner Elbow" above run down the entire underside of your arm, making this whole area incredibly sensitive to have tattooed. These two nerves run straight through the meaty inner part of your upper arm, making this area the second most painful part of the arm to have tattooed after the inner elbow. Some people just can't tolerate the discomfort of having this area tattooed, which is one reason why you see so many 3/4-round upper arm tattoos. (Another reason is that this area is more at risk for fading because of constant friction between the arm and trunk, plus it's less visible.) As for the lower part of your arm, you're better off having the outside of your forearm tattooed than the inside. The radial nerve is the only one of the three nerves in your arm that runs over that area, which contributes to making the outer forearm less painful to have tattooed than any part of the inner arm.
Throat/Neck & Clavicle
Eight spinal nerves branch off from the cervical (upper) spinal cord and form a network of nerves called the cervical plexus in the upper spine. Together with the 12 cranial nerves described under "Head/Face" above, these nerves make a multitude of connections between the brain and the skin and muscles of the head and neck. With a total of 20 major nerves at play in the throat, neck and clavicle region, it's no wonder that this area is incredibly sensitive to have tattooed.
The back of the neck off to the sides of the spine is the one of the least painful areas of the body to have tattooed, but the front of the neck is another story altogether. The front of the neck has much less muscle mass than the back does, little fat, and lots of nerve endings, making this one of the more sensitive areas of the body to have tattooed. The clavicle is also particularly sensitive because the bones are close to the surface of the skin, in addition to the presence of so many nerves.
The hands and feet are some of the worst spots to have tattooed in terms of pain and wear and tear on tattoos. Every major nerve in the body comes to an end in our extremities, plus these are super-bony areas, which is why the hands and feet are some of the most painful places to get a tattoo. We also use our hands and feet to do everything from eating to moving us from point A to point B and beyond. All that activity makes it so that tattoos placed on the hands and feet often take multiple sessions of tattooing and touch-ups to get just right, particularly for tattoos that wrap around the fingers and toes. There's just so much friction between our digits and so little depth available to ink tattoos deeply on any part of the hands and feet that tattoos in these areas tend to wear and fade rapidly.
On top of the many major nerves that pass through this area of the body, our shoulder blades are usually pretty bony. A tattoo placed around a shoulder blade may not be terribly uncomfortable relative to other areas, but your pain level is likely to skyrocket if tattoo needles hit the blade itself at any point.
Our spines are almost exclusively comprised of bones and nerves, and with the spinal cord so close to the skin, it's an incredibly painful area to have tattooed. Placing tattoo designs off to either side of the spine will make getting tattooed on your back a much more comfortable process compared to having your spine itself tattooed.
The cartilage surfaces in our knee caps actually don't have any nerve endings in them, but all the tissues and bones surrounding knee cap cartilage do and they're perfectly capable of sending pain signals to the brain. When you have your knee caps and the surrounding areas tattooed, you'll have to deal with both the discomfort of needles hitting bone and needles "tickling" all of the surrounding nerve endings in a most-unpleasant way.
Nerves in this part of the body play a very different role than nerves in the upper body. These nerves are primarily focused on motion and balance, but nerves are nerves, which means they can also transmit pain signals. Additionally, there's absolutely no fatty padding on most people's ankles, and tattoo needles on bone never feel good. If your ankle tattoo extends around back over your Achilles tendon or down towards the arch of your foot, even more nerve endings come into play, making the ankles a very uncomfortable part of the body to have tattooed.
The major nerves that run from the lumbar plexus (bundle of nerves in the lower spine) down to the feet are the femoral, obturator, saphenous, and lateral femoral cutaneous nerves. These major nerves branch out into bunches of smaller nerves to stimulate particular muscles and sense things like pain. The saphenous nerve is the one that comes into play most in the shins, which are also typically bony compared to the meaty back of the calf. The combination of so many nerve endings and bone close to the surface of the skin make the shins one of the most painful places to get a tattoo.
For women with voluptuous breasts, the chest isn't usually a terribly painful place to have tattooed relative to other parts of the body. It's much worse for men, though, who generally don't have the same amount of padding in this area. Even for women, there are spots on the chest that can be incredibly painful to have tattooed due to the many nerve endings found there and the boniness of the areas above and below the breasts. The chest may be one of the least painful of the most painful places to get a tattoo, but it's still a tougher area to have tattooed than the calves, lower back, buttocks, and outer arms.
As explained under "Shins" above, there are four major nerves that run through the legs. Branches of the femoral nerve and the femoral cutaneous nerve are found throughout the thigh and make it an uncomfortable place to have tattooed overall, with the inner thigh being the most sensitive. It may seem counter-intuitive, since our thighs are fairly meaty compared to other areas of the body, but there are few "safe" spots to have tattooed in this region. The top of the thigh, over the quadriceps, is probably the least painful area to have tattooed compared to the inner thigh or the back of the thigh, where the sciatic nerve also comes into play.
Axillary Nerve Wikipedia Article
Ulnar Nerve Entrapment at the Elbow (Cubital Tunnel Syndrome) Article on OrthoInfo.aaos.org
Sciatic Nerve Anatomy Article on SpineHealth.com
Nerves of the Head and Neck Article on InnerBody.com
Nerves of the Leg and Foot Article on InnerBody.com
Brain & Nervous System Health Center Article on WebMD.com
Chondromalacia Patella: Pain in the Front Part of the Knee Article on Pamf.org