This is the first question in this FAQ because it’s usually the first question that people ask. The answer is yes. Having needles pierce your skin does hurt. But what you really want to know is, “How MUCH does it hurt, and can I handle it?”
It’s not nearly as bad as what you might imagine. The pain comes from the cluster of needles on the tattooing machine piercing your skin very rapidly. This sensation, however, doesn’t feel like the poking pain of an injection–it’s more of a constant vibration. You will be amazed at how quickly your body releases endorphins, (pain killers), which dulls the pain significantly.
The pain will also vary according to where on your body you get worked on. Skin right above bones (collarbone, anklebone, etc.) tends to be more painful than other areas. In addition, certain types of needles seem to hurt more than others. I personally think the needles used for outlining produce a sharper, more noticeable pain, while the needles used for shading seem to be much more like an electrical buzz (nearly painless). Remember, you are volunteering for the experience. The amount of pain will depend on your psychological attitude.
NOTE: Do not drink alcohol or take illegal drugs for pain relief purposes prior to your tattoo sessions. Both aspirin and alcohol thin your blood and promote excessive bleeding. Aspirin also decreases the clotting of blood, which will slow down your healing as well. In addition, artists do not appreciate dealing with drunks and is illegal in many states.
What about Anesthetics?
Some people say that taking a couple of over-the-counter analgesics before tattooing can take the edge off the pain. Acetaminophen, commonly sold under the brand name ‘Tylenol’ is generally recommended, but not aspirin, ibuprofen, or other NSAIDs, as they tend to inhibit clotting. In short, you may find yourself bleeding like the proverbial stuck pig.
There are actually topical anaesthetics available, even in the stick-up-its-butt U.S. For instance, Bactine contains some lidocaine, and it is possible to buy benzocaine preparations over the counter. The drawback of these is that they do not work on unbroken skin, but if they are applied after the first pass with the needle, they can make a tremendous difference. EMLA is reputed to be much better, and will work on unbroken skin, but it is not generally available in the U.S.