It's not the same for everyone
While spots like the ribs and the throat are generally very painful, in reality, every person you meet with ink will likely give you a different answer as to what hurts most. After all, pain level and pain tolerance are subjective, and what's killer for one person might be a blip on the radar for another. That said, there is some consensus about what areas hurt more than others.
Most Painful: Inner wrist
Sean Dowdell, who founded Club Tattoo alongside the late Linkin Park vocalist Chester Bennington, says the most painful body part he's ever had done was his wrist. "I'm fully sleeved," Dowdell says. "I have full back pieces…but for me it was the inside portion of my wrist, right where the flex point is." Since he has owned and operated Club Tattoo, from 1995 to the present, he says he has come across people who feel the same way.
Most painful: Stomach
As for some of the other most painful experiences he's witnessed, he says, "From seeing my other employees and tattoo artists and clients, I think the stomach is a very painful place to get tattooed. And the back of the knee, from what I understand; from what I've seen." The neck, the throat, and the ribs also top the list.
Know your tattoo artist
Another factor that most people don't consider is who their tattooer is. Some artists are more heavy-handed than others, making for a more painful experience. If you're sensitive to pain, ask the studio for a recommendation on a "gentle" tattoo artist.
Other factors that affect pain
Certain health issues may make you more sensitive to pain. "Some people have previous injuries and they have heightened sensitivity in certain parts of the body," Dowdell shares. At the same time, some tattoo collectors postulate that tattoos hurt more on the bone. Others think it's a matter of how thick or thin the patch of skin is. Really, it's none of the above. "It's definitely a nerve ending issue," Dowdell explains. "As far as [skin] thinness goes, you can get the top of your hand tattooed, and that's pretty thin, and that's not very painful. But if you get your finger tattooed, it's got a little bit more skin [and] a little bit more tissue, but that's a lot more painful."
Least painful: Shoulder
The least painful places to get a tattoo would be areas of your body with fewer nerve endings. Think outer shoulder, calf, buttocks, and outer arm.
Size versus location
While people generally focus on the location on the body, Stanley Kovak, MD, cosmetic physician, theorizes that pain is more about size. The more you work and the longer you work on the body, the more it hurts. When a tattoo is especially intricate, it also requires more shading, more colouring, and various types of needles—all of which increase tattoo pain.
Age also has a lot to do with the amount of pain experienced while getting tattooed, shares Dr. Kovak. Younger skin isn't as painful as older skin to tattoo because it's tighter and absorbs the ink better.
Most likely to get infected
Infections arise because of bad bacteria, so when thinking about which tattoos are most likely to get infected, think about which parts of your body have the most interaction with bacteria—often times, that's the feet. "A lot of people don't realize how exposed their feet are to bacteria," Dowdell says. (These are the most germ-infested things you touch every day.) One of the biggest risks for infection may be right in your own home. "People don't realize how quickly being exposed to pet dander on a fresh tattoo can really cause an infection that can lead to big problems." And simply walking down the street can be an issue, especially if you're wearing flip-flops or other open-toe shoes. So if you do get a foot piece, be sure to clean it well while it's healing. The same also goes for hands, since your hands and fingers come into contact with tons of bacteria every day. You could even get a skin infection from wearing sweating clothing for too long like this woman did.
What about… down there?
One would think that getting tattooed in the nether regions of the body would incur infection the most, but actually, both Dr. Kovak and Dowdell say otherwise. "Anytime you have mucosa (mucus membranes)—and this is going to be more on females than males—and you're breaking that tissue, you can expose it fairly quickly to bacterial infections," Dowdell shares. "But the good news is they're generally not exposed, so you're a little less prone to infections or problems because you keep it covered." Dr. Kovak agrees, adding, "Unless someone has a predisposition to have MRSA [or] is a diabetic, the risks are not any more than any other kind of skin infection to treat."
The most dangerous tattoo
Tattoos have become much more widely accepted in today's day and age, but there are still certain types that only the most daring go for. One of those spots, which is also the most dangerous a person can get, is the eyeball. For most people, getting their eyeballs tattooed wouldn't ever cross their minds. However, those who do decide to get inked there run a potentially huge risk. "With an eyeball tattoo, there's a higher risk of getting an infection. Plus, if you get an infection in the eye, it has serious potential problems including vision loss," Dr. Kovak says.
The aftercare directions you need to follow
Skin infections are always a possibility with tattoos, however, they are generally easily treated with antibiotics, says Dr. Kovak. Skin infections also are less likely to occur if you get tattooed at a clean and responsible shop that's licensed (licensing requirements vary depending on location)—and if you follow your aftercare instructions. "A lot of people don't follow the directions on not jumping into public pools, lakes, [and] rivers for at least two to three weeks after they get a tattoo," says Dowdell. The Club Tattoo owner also notes that people often have misconceptions about the extent of aftercare. "They think because [a tattoo] is small, it's going to be very easy to take care of, and that's not always the case." Tattooers also tend to advise against intense physical activity or going to the gym with fresh ink, as gyms can be breeding grounds for bacteria. "I don't tell people not to work out, I just tell them to keep it covered when they work out. I'm more concerned with other people's sweat than their own sweat. Really simple bacterial infections like MRSA can pop up in a gym very easily, just by someone not wiping down a machine. If you've got an exposed tattoo and you set it on the machine, you can contract a very serious bacterial infection really quick." Here's advice for how to properly care for a fresh tattoo.
Tattoos hurt to remove, too
As a professional who regularly performs laser tattoo removal, Dr. Kovak is able to observe the other end of tattoo pain. With removal, it's not so much about the location of the tattoo, but the size. If it's larger, he usually uses a topical anesthetic.