for tattooed people, and those who want to be

Your first tattoo: Yes, it hurts.


According to news reports, a young woman in Belgium is claiming she fell asleep while her face was being tattooed and woke up with a lot more than she bargained for.

Here is a link to the story on the BBC web site. You may not be able to see the video if you’re outside the UK.

You know what?   Her story is impossible.     Let’s talk about what goes on while you’re getting a tattoo, and you’ll see why.

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First of all, your artist will wash the area where the tattoo is to be applied and will shave it if necessary.   Your chosen design will be applied either with a stencil or drawn freehand by the artist.   You’ll be asked to look at the design and approve of the way it looks.   If there are changes to be made, the artist will either make a new stencil, or, more likely, redraw the design freehand to meet your specifications.   You get to look at the changes and approve.

Once that’s done and you’re sure that what is on your skin temporarily is what you want to make permanent, the process of applying the tattoo begins.   You will sit or lie down in such a way that you and the artist are both comfortable.   Your chosen colors will be dispensed from large bottles into small disposable cups.   The artist will apply a bit of petroleum jelly to your skin, stretch the skin tight between his or her fingers, and start using the tattoo machine, which makes a buzzing noise while it’s in operation.   The ink is applied a little at a time, and the artist will wipe away ink residue as the design progresses and re-dip the needles into the color repeatedly.

This process hurts.   There is no getting around it.   Many people’s endorphins kick in after a little while and the pain becomes more bearable, but it does not stop hurting till the design is finished.   If the artist is working on an area that is already sensitive (like your face) or on an area close to the bone (ankle) it’s going to hurt more.   Having had stars tattooed over my collarbone and having had to sit still while my ankle was being tattooed twice, I simply can’t believe that anyone could possibly fall asleep while having anything tattooed on their face.   Vibration and pain are not conducive to sleep. (Nor, for that matter, is a reputable artist going to apply anything that wasn’t approved in advance.)

First, the artist will outline your design, following the lines of the stencil or the freehand drawing.   Usually the outline is done in black ink with fine needles.   This is most people’s introduction to the tattooing process and it might give a false impression of how painful the rest of it is going to be.     Many people (including me) say that the outline of a tattoo is the most painful part.   The artist is putting a lot of ink into a very small area and wants to keep going so that the outline is not too irregular.   It is OK if you need to ask to take a break while this is going on.   The tattoo looks pretty messy while the work is progressing because the artist will keep wiping residue off the work area and onto the surrounding skin.   Don’t worry about it, that will all get cleaned up.

After the outline is done, the artist will fill in the colors (if you have a colored design) or continue with the black ink.   Usually, larger needle clusters are used for this, and surprisingly, with more needles it hurts less.   Larger areas are filled in more quickly.   He or she will keep wiping away the excess and re-dipping the needles into the color until the design is finished.

Once it’s done, the artist will clean your skin once again to remove all residues, and to let you see your finished design.   The skin around your tattoo will be bright red.   This is normal.   Your tattoo might be oozing or bleeding just a little bit.   This is also normal.   You have just had your epidermis wounded and your body isn’t happy about it.   If there are any adjustments you want the artist to make, you’ll sit or lie back down and have that done.   Once you’re happy with what you’ve gotten, the artist will probably apply some kind of protective ointment and then put a bandage over the tattoo.   Some artists still use plastic wrap as a covering–please, don’t agree to this. Here is a previous post talking about bandages and plastic wrap and linking to a good article about why plastic is a very bad idea.

And that’s it, your first tattoo.   Not something you would or could sleep through, believe me.   🙂   In the next post I will take up the issue of aftercare.

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Author: infmom

I got my first tattoo when I was 46. I hope the people who read this blog don't have to wait that long. I love talking about body art.


  1. Some of my family members have tattoos, but i think it looks good on other people.

  2. When i got my first tatoo. I smiled all the way through it!!

  3. your first tattoo really doesnt hurt unless your getting something huge

  4. I guess everyone’s tolerance for pain is different. No way could I have fallen asleep during any of my tattoos. 🙂

  5. I had a scar covered up on my collarbone yesturday and I dozed off while the tattooist was doing the work. I simply beg to differ on your opinion.

  6. I think i’ve seen this somewhere before…but it’s not bad at all

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