Old school tattoo artists are of the mind, that you must earn your tattoo with the pain you go through to get the tattoo. This is a pretty outdated way of thinking.
Many factors play into how much a tattoo will hurt. One important factor is where the tattoo will be located on your body. Areas such as the outer arms, outer legs, upper back and upper chest are not very painful for tattooing. Other areas such as the lower back, inside the arms, or legs, near elbows and knees, along the spine, along the ribs, the lower front torso are all considered to be more painful areas. The feet and ankles are definitely more painful than other areas. This applies also to inside the wrist and hands.
Another factor is how well you tolerate pain. Women are built to take pain better than men, because women are designed to give birth. This makes a normal woman's pain tolerance usually higher than a man's. Women who have given birth usually tolerate pain better than women who have not been through childbirth.
Additionally, if you already have several tattoos, you know what to expect and have become more immune to the feeling of getting a tattoo because you have had the opportunity to feel what it feels like to get a tattoo and now you can convince your body that the pain is not that bad, because you've survived it before. Those getting their first or second tattoo would be wise to pick smaller designs and put them in less painful areas until they become used to the feeling of having a tattoo needle pierce their skin 3,000 times a minute. But, be careful where those small tattoos go. In the tattoo business, outer arms and upper backs, as well as calves of the legs are considered 'prime real estate' and to plant a tiny tattoo in an area that leaves a lot of untouched skin around it tends to make that small tattoo look even smaller. And, if sometime in the future you decide to get a partial or full sleeve or leg piece, you've just make it more difficult to design around that tiny tattoo smack dab in the middle of your planned large piece.
On the market today there are several types of deadening agents available. Pre-deadeners usually have Lidocaine, Benzocaine and/or Tetracaine in them. Pre-deadeners should be applied to cleaned, shaved skin in a thin coat, then seal the area with clear cellophane and taped airtight. The artist applying this pre-deadener is strongly advised to test a small area first to make sure the person receiving the pre-deadener is not going to have a bad reaction to the cream or ointment. Most pre-deadeners take 45 minutes to one hour to become effective and usually last 1 to 2 hours. Most times you can tell it is taking effect when you see a whitish coloring to the treated area making the surrounding areas appear pinker than normal. On darker skin this is harder to observe. If there is any doubt about whether the person will have a reaction to this procedure, make sure to have them discuss it with their doctor before using the product, several cases of reactions have been reported by those who did not follow these guidelines.
These pre-deadeners are available to professional tattoo artists through their tattoo supplier and are not generally available to the public. These pre-deadeners are designed to be used on un-broken skin, meaning before the tattooing process is started.
Once the tattoo has been started, usually after all the outlining is done, another type of deadener is available. It too can contain Lidocaine (5% concentration is the legal limit unless you have a medical license), Benzocaine and/or Tetracaine. Usually this 'during-the-procedure' treatment is in liquid, spray form or gel. It can be sprayed on or applied to the skin once the skin is 'broken' by the tattoo needle and should also be tested on a small area beforehand to make sure the client will have no adverse reaction. Again, this product is not generally available to the public but can be purchased by a professional tattoo artist working in a licensed studio. This product usually lasts 45 minutes to one hour per application and it is advised not to use the product more than 4 times in one sitting with a client to avoid heart palpitations, and other unpleasant side effects.
Some artists refuse to offer these deadeners saying it will cause the tattoo to heal poorly. Others refuse to offer them because of the cost involved in obtaining them. Most of these deadening products are very expensive for small amounts and because they are sometimes in alcohol or witch hazel bases, they tend to evaporate quickly and don't have a long shelf life. Clients usually don't realize that their tattoo artists will talk about the tattoo experience once the client is gone. Tattoo artists have been overheard commenting about what a wimp a client is because they moaned, groaned, complained incessantly, constantly wiggled throughout the whole tattoo. Some artists will charge more for the next tattoo if the client comes back to the same artist for further work, because the artist knows it will be a difficult tattoo to do well due to the constant pain vocalizations of the client, and trying to get a complaining client to sit still. Sitting still is the number one reason some tattoos do not come out well. Talking on the cell phone, bringing children into the studio and paying more attention to them than the tattoo procedure, and poor aftercare are other reasons why a tattoo might not turn out well. But, using deadeners usually doesn't have any effect on the quality of the tattoo or the healing process afterward.
Some studios will charge up to $100 per application of these deadeners, sort of as a lesson to the client. If you can't take the heat, then you'll pay for the privilege. Some clients report that even after several applications, they still get no relief from the deadeners. Sometimes clients mistake the pressure of getting the tattoo with pain and if the client has never had a tattoo without deadeners, then, of course, they have nothing to compare the sensation to. If a studio does offer deadeners, follow the artist's advice to the letter. If they ask you to pay additionally for the deadeners, don't quibble; pay what is asked, even if it doesn't seem reasonable. There are many shops that simply don't offer any relief, and clients are always free to go to whichever shop they wish. If you do find a shop that offers deadeners, and you feel you really need it, then pay what is asked, and consider tipping the artist more than if no deadeners were used. It takes a lot of extra time for the artist to apply the deadeners properly and extends the total time he/she spends with the client. This means the artist usually has to reschedule other clients or misses out on income from other clients because of the extra time needed to deal with the client wanting deadeners.
If you have any health issues or are taking one or more medications on a regular basis, be sure to check with your doctor before allowing deadeners to be used on you. Be sure to test the deadeners on a small area to check for reaction, this applies to everyone, regardless of their health or medicines taken. Don't blame the artist if you get no or little relief from the deadeners, it is not the fault of the artist. If you don't think you can take the pain of getting a tattoo without deadeners, don't get the tattoo, period. Be prepared for the fact that not all deadeners are alike and not all work the same way on every person. Every person's perception of pain is different. Some are naturally more pain tolerant. Some have a very low pain threshold.
Yes and no. Now that you have the facts, you get to make up your own mind. If you feel you need it, and are willing to pay extra, call several studios and inquire if it is offered at that studio. If you are already loyal to one artist and would like to try deadeners, ask your artist if they would be willing to use deadeners, then offer to pay for the product in advance and pay for the extra time it takes the artist to correctly apply the deadeners. Most professional tattoo artists make between $100 and $300 per hour, and if they eat up an hour using deadeners on you, don't cheat your artist out of their expected income. Remember, they CAN make a tattoo hurt more than it needs to!