Part of the experience of getting a tattoo is not knowing in advance how much it will hurt. For some it can be a terribly painful procedure. Others describe it as simply irritating, a "hot scratch" that is easily forgettable compared to the pleasure of wearing a work of art. If you want a tattoo but have a low threshold for pain, opt for fleshy spots like the thigh or bicep. The most painful places are generally the areas with a dense concentration of nerves or wherever the skin and bone are close together, without a layer of fat in between. Unless you go to a doctor for "permanent makeup" tattoos (like eyebrows) rather than a design, you won't get much help with the pain, says Charles Zwerling, a Goldsboro, N.C., eye doctor who specializes in permanent makeup (he uses local anesthesia). Only a doctor can give you a shot of painkiller, and tattoo artists often avoid numbing creams because they require 20 minutes or so to take effect and can prolong the procedure. Like the tattoo itself, pain is personal. What one person finds excruciating might be quite bearable to another. But since you may not know what your tolerance level is until you actually go under the needle, here's a short list of the most potentially painful places for body ink:
1. The eyeball. Believe it or not, some people do get permanent makeup inside the eye, says Zwerling About once a year, a patient asks him to put pigment into a disfiguring blind eye to make it look like a normal one. The many nerves going into the front of the eye would make this an excruciating procedure without anesthesia. (Two other popular spots for permanent makeup—the eye brows and lips—are also painful, the lips especially so because of the many nerve endings located there.)
2. The mons pubis. The pain of getting a tattoo down under runs a close second to the lips, says New York laser surgeon Bruce Katz, who specializes in removing tattoos. There are a lot of nerves, which provide pleasure (as opposed to pain) under different circumstances. If you try this in a tattoo parlor, ask for a cream, advises Katz.
3. The top of the foot or ankle. Lots of women opt for tattoos in this area so the eye-catching designs will be visible when they're barefoot or wearing sandals during the summer months. But it's also ouch-inducing because of the absence of fat.
4. Behind the ear. A tattoo here can be endearingly sexy. Just remember ladies, there's nothing in this spot but skin and bone—and nerves (though not as many as on your lip surface).
5. The chest (above your rib cage). If you're thin, this might be one time you'd be grateful for a layer of fat around your middle.The absence of padding makes this one of the most painful places for men to get a traditional tattoo.
Some other tips: Don't take aspirin before getting a tattoo, as it can increase bleeding (though other pain-killing pills can help). Schedule a time when you won't feel rushed, advises Karen Hudson, editor of "Chick Ink: 40 Stories of Tattoos—and the Women Who Wear Them." An average-size tattoo takes about two hours; ask the artist beforehand for an estimate of how long yours will take. If you're afraid of needles, consider a spot where you can't see the needle go in, or resolve not to look. Another option: a henna tattoo painted on the outer layer of the skin. There are no needles involved. As the skin exfoliates, this kind of tattoo slowly disappears. If you miss it, you can replace it with permanent body art. If not, you'll be relieved you only got a temporary tattoo. Removing an inked tattoo is painful, too.