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Does it hurt?

January 7, 2010

If you have a tattoo, you’ve probably been asked this question.  Although I never show it, almost invariably, my gut reaction is one of incredulity.  Frankly, in the past, I was not even sure how to answer that question as the obviousness of the answer led me to believe that there was some underlying implication lurking beneath the surface of a question that could otherwise only be answered with a resounding “DUH!”  In spite of myself, I strive to be open minded, and I like to think of myself as a nice guy. For that reason I always give an honest and emphatic yes, which I typically follow up with some sort of detailed explanation that attempts to analogize what the sensation of being tattooed feels like.  The first few times I was asked the question I was still basking in the afterglow of tattoo devirginization, so I was eager to talk about it anyway.  After that the question started to inspire a visceral swelling of condescending and irritation, originating somewhere in my lower intestines.  That being said, to my credit, I can’t recall a time that I rewarded anyone’s innocent curiosity with an outward display of disdain.

Interestingly and ironically enough, the number of times I have been asked if it hurts has brought me full circle.  By that I mean that because I strive to avoid giving curt and condescending answers to what really amounts to friendly small talk, I have been forced to explain my experience of being tattooed so many times, that it has required me to explore the possible underlying intentions of question itself in order to come up with interesting and satisfying answers.  Because of that, the topic is no longer a source of irritation for me.  Instead, I have come to enjoy the intellectual exercise of exploring the meaning of pain as part of the tattoo process, explaining the qualitative sensations of the experience, as well as the underlying motivations behind the question itself.  I think I have come up with some interesting answers on all three counts.

Ok, so first of all, yes it hurts…a lot.  The simple answer is that sensation varies greatly, both in terms of character and intensity. I think what most surprised me is that it doesn’t feel like being poked repeatedly.  The needle oscillates far too quickly to discern each prick as an individual event.  In effect, the basic or most common sensation I experience is something similar to a sharp piece of metal scratching the surface of the skin.  It’s not a cutting sensation though, as with a knife, but more irritating, like a thorn.

Then there is a whole universe of other sensations that really depend on the location where one is being tattooed.  For example, on my shoulder and the outside of my bicep, the pain was extremely low grade and at times barely even bothersome.  Switch over to the inside of my arm near the armpit and the sensation changes completely.  Intensity increases by a full order of magnitude and is accompanied by several complementary sensations.  It becomes hotter and sharper and there are hot shooting pains originating in the nerve endings that radiate out from the needle point.  Sometimes I even feel what I would describe as sympathetic sharp pricks elsewhere on my body, like my cheek or inner thigh, for example.

As awful as this may sound to some or many, there is also a whole range of pleasurable sensations that I would best describe as warm and somewhat glowy, which pulsate in and around the tattoo site.  I may be completely off base in this guess, but I have always assumed that it was the result of the body’s release of endorphins to combat what it clearly perceives as an injury.  I generally attribute the sensation to the endorphins’ ability to mitigate but not completely mask the pain of the tattoo, which creates a sort of synthesis of pain and euphoria.  Either way, the “tattoo high” is definitely one of the more pleasurable and interesting aspects of getting a tattoo.

More to come on this topic in my next post…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2010 5:37 pm

    I get this question a lot, as does mostly everyone with tattoo’s I’m sure. I like the way you describe the sensation of the pain along with it’s positive aspects. There is something completely exhilarating about getting a tattoo. Along with the pain comes an immense amount of pleasure. I enjoy your blog. Thanks.

  2. January 8, 2010 1:05 pm

    I loved your blog on the pain of a tatoo. I thought it was thoughtful, informative,and interesting.I look forward to reading more from you about tatoos and why it has become such a genre with your generation.

  3. January 12, 2010 9:46 pm

    Of all my tatts, only 2 were done by the same artist. Everyone seems to have a different touch. I had one done on my left calf, and it was trivial. On my right calf, the guy admitted to having heavy hand and he was in a pissy mood. That one hurt like hell.

    The one I got today was on the inside of my wrist. I thought it would hurt a lot more.

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