Your leather jacket and motorcycle aren’t enough for you anymore. They fall woefully short of conveying just how much of a bad-ass you really are. This will not do; they must see you in all your glory, the world must know. With a spring in your step you walk into the best tattoo salon in town, pick out the dragon with a skull over explosions and roses and chain-swords and pOW! Why do tattoos hurt so much!?
Well, it’s all about getting that ink deep enough that it won’t get washed away but not too deep, so it remains visible — ideally, right next to your skin’s pain receptors. Given that most modern tattoo artists do this with mechanical tools which push a needle into the skin from 80 to 150 times a second, it’s easy to see why tattooing gets its reputation for pain. But even so, people have endured excruciating pain throughout history to adorn their bodies with ink. So why do we do it? How do we do it? And can we make it hurt less? The short answer to the last question is yes. Here’s the somewhat longer answer:
Not just ink
Tattooing is a controversial subject — some are all for it, others consider it an art form to be perfected, some think it’s repulsive. To each his own, but the fact remains that throughout history, tattoos have had (and in some cases still have) deep running cultural and social implications. People around the globe have long marked their bodies to express cultural identity and community status, as a way to connect to one’s ancestors or gods, to mark rites of passage or to “wear” a permanent amulet.
The term is believed to originate from the Polynesian “tatau”, meaning “to mark,” and Dictionary.com defines it as being “the act or practice of marking the skin with indelible patterns, pictures, legends, etc., by making punctures in it and inserting pigments.” A simple enough process, but the tattoo’s shapes, colors, and position on the body, while simple in themselves, have compounded to hold incredibly deep meaning throughout time:
In New Guinea, the swirly tattoos on a Tofi woman’s face detail her family lineage, while in Cambodia monks display religious beliefs etched in ink on their chests. The Japanese Yakuza’s spectacular patterns or the US gang member’s sprawling tattoos show affiliation, rank, or if the wearer has committed murder. The “Iceman” discovered in the Alps in 1991 is covered in tattoos, 85 percent of which line up with acupuncture points, says Dr. Lars Kurtak, world-renowned tattoo expert, and anthropologist with the Repatriation Office of the National Museum of Natural History.
“He appeared to have terrible arthritis. [The tattoos were] so dark, they seemed to be repeated applications and some of them he could not reach on his own,” he notes.
In some cultures, successfully enduring the excruciating pain and the blood loss of tattooing with primitive tools marks the transition from infancy to manhood and are considered deeply sacred rites, notes Joseph Campbell in his book Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God. So in the end, there are as many meanings to tattoos as there have been human cultures throughout history.
How are they made — and why do they hurt?
Early tattooing involved cutting the skin and rubbing ink in the wound, or using bone or wood needles to push ink into the tissue; Western civilization’s first recorded encounter with the Polynesian practice of tattowing dates from 1769, when naturalist Joseph Banks traveling the world aboard the British Endeavour witnessed the “extensive adorning” of a 12-year-old girl.
“It was done with a large instrument about 2 inches long containing about 30 teeth,” Banks wrote in his journal. “Every stroke […] drew blood.”
Banks also recounts how the girl wailed and writhed but two women held her down, occasionally beating her, for more than an hour until the tattoo was complete.
Thankfully, tattooing changed since then. Modern tattoo artists use clean, precise units to deposit dye by mechanically driving a needle or a bunch of needles soldered together in and out of the skin, usually from 80 to 150 times a second, like this:
With each prick of the needle, dye gets injected into the skin, and the body’s immune system responds by deploying white cells called macrophages to deal with the threat. Some of the ink gets lost this way, but most doesn’t — dead macrophages and the ink they didn’t consume becomes fixed in skin cells named fibroblasts and remains visible through the thin layers of tissue that cover them.
But we know we can get a scratch and not feel any pain, even cut our fingers on paper without so much as a blink. So why is tattooing so notoriously painful? Well, it’s all because of where the pigment needs to go to make a tattoo permanent. Let’s look at your skin’s structure to find out why.
Show me some skin!
The skin is the largest and one of the most complex organs in (on?) the body, serving as the soft outer layer of vertebrates, there to protect and delimitate the juicy, fragile “inside” of the organism from the harsh outside.
There are two distinct parts that make up mammalian skin; the epidermis (this is the outer layer of dead keratinocytes that “flakes” so it gets renewed pretty often) together with the more stable dermis (the layer under it that houses all kinds of glands, hair follicles, blood vessels, lymph vessels and sensory cells) forms the cutis. Directly under it lies the subcutis or subcutaneous tissue, where fatty cells are clumped together to protect you from the cold.
The layer where ink needs to be deposited, the dermis, unfortunately also contains receptor cells that send pain signals to the brain to let us know our body is being hurt; it’s not that bad when you prick your toe on a particularly sharp rock. But when your body is being hurt from 80 to 150 times a second, they send out a panicked flurry of signals to the brain, making the experience of getting a tattoo not that pleasant.
On the bright side, since the dermis doesn’t flake off to be renewed as the epidermis does so the dye remains embedded in your skin for life.
The inks or dyes themselves also evolved over time; as a rule of thumb, tattoo ink is made up of two parts: a pigment and a carrier. The pigment is the substance that gives the ink its color, while the carrier is a solvent that ensures the pigment is evenly mixed, protects against pathogens and aids application. Throughout time, water or alcohol have been the most widely used carriers, with glycerine and denatured alcohols also used in modern tattooing.
Pigments have been made from, well, mostly anything colorful; traditional colors were made with materials that range from simple dirt to pen ink (yay prisons), soot, even blood. Modern pigments are derived from heavy metals, metal oxides, liquid hydrocarbons, or carbon. But be warned, red dyes especially are known to cause allergies and swelling for a few months after getting a tattoo.
One of the most spectacular (to be read: ‘sinsane) pigment recipes I’ve come across hails from ancient Rome and calls for Egyptian pine bark, corroded bronze ground in vinegar, and iron sulfate to be mixed with insect eggs, then soaked in water and leek juice. The concoction would be rubbed energetically on fresh wounds made with needles or blades to create the tattoo. It really bugged me.
It really bugged me.
Some tattoos hurt and some tattoos really hurt. Here are some tips
Now, getting a tattoo is going to hurt, there’s no way around that. But there are some areas that are more sensitive to pain than others; as an empirical rule, if you’re extremely ticklish in an area, getting tattooed there is probably going to hurt pretty bad. While keeping in mind that everyone has a different threshold for pain, Tattoos-Hurt.com has put together a chart showing how sensitive different areas of the skin are to pain:
Secondly, a lot of people think that getting a tattoo while hammered or after taking painkillers will make it easier to handle the pain; don’t be one of those people. Alcohol is a blood thinner, meaning you will bleed more and the ink won’t take as easily. Along with your constant drunken movements, this will make the process take longer and the end result lack-luster. Also try to avoid Tylenol, Advil, coffee, and energy drinks before your tattoo session, as they have similar effects.
Drinking water is a good idea as well-hydrated skin accepts the ink more readily, so start drinking as much water as you need a day or two before. Taking breaks also helps, but try to take them sparingly, as the skin will begin to swell a lot more during your breaks and constant starting and stopping will interrupt a lot of the tattoo process and adrenaline build-up.
So if you’re looking to get a tattoo, either to celebrate your religion or show off your lineage, or maybe something simpler like just having a cool tattoo, now you know why it has to hurt, how you can make it hurt less, and you can pass the time being thankful you’re not getting crushed bug eggs rubbed into your wounds. Happy inking!
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