Deb Yarian On the Pain of a Tattoo

By Deb Yarian

I’ve heard it over and over again from my customers – The more they get tattooed, the more it hurts, and I’ve thought about it and experienced it myself. I don’t think it’s my imagination. Each time I get tattooed it does seem to hurt way more than the time before!

Tattoo artist Deb Yarian
I have my own (not scientifically proven) theory about this… Simply put, if you were to be poked with a sharp object you would feel pain, your brain would say “hey there’s a pain, move away from the source of the pain.” The next time that you were poked with that sharp object, your brain again would direct you to move away from the source of the pain. Okay, so what happens if you don’t move away…? Your brain probably says, “hey, I recognize that pain, and I’ve directed you to move away from that pain source AND YOU’RE NOT!!!!” So what happens the next time you feel that pain and you don’t move away- again ignoring the primitive instinct to move one’s self out of harm’s way? Well this time your brain calculates that you’ve been stuck with this sharp object before and you still refuse to move away from the pain source- so your brain instinctively, as a survival mechanism, must some how convey to your uncooperative body the importance of moving away from the pain. So what does it do? It makes it hurt worse.

Just because you’ve decided to subject yourself to something painful (pain = danger) doesn’t mean your brain will say, “Oh, okay this pain is cool- let’s turn it off.”) Don’t I wish, and haven’t I tried… But it just keeps getting worse.

Tattoo by Deb Yarian

I’ve given birth to six children and even though my body produces hormones and chemicals to help me survive and forget such terrible pain, let me tell you that 5 minutes into my 6th time laboring, I was ready to give up and go home. Whereas during the birth of my first baby I was a warrior- ready to get through anything, without any medication and without the fear and trepidation that came with my subsequent birth experiences.

So, it’s my belief that our bodies have a pain memory and since we are voluntarily allowing that pain – which is getting increasingly worse- then we have to come up with some coping mechanisms and skills to get us through physically uncomfortable tattoo sessions.

Let me back up a little bit…

As a tattooer I’ve observed, after tattooing thousands of people, that each person experiences the sensation of tattooing differently – from mildly uncomfortable to intense physical pain. Each person is starting at a different place. While I do believe that some people’s ability to endure pain is greater than others, I believe that everybody is different and tattooing is unique in that the sensation experienced will change with tattoo placement/area of the body, state of mind, time of month and even the tattooer’s skill level.

Tattoo by Deb Yarian

So what to do? Years ago when tattooing was not as socially acceptable, many people started out getting single session small tattoos, then working up to larger scale designs. They experienced the pain and discomfort at first in smaller doses and came up with coping skills to get through longer sessions. People had methods – medicinal pain relief, meditation, breathing techniques, eating right, getting drunk, sleeping well, not sleeping well. You name it!

Now though, very often people’s first tattoos are on a much larger scale. Their whole backs, a full sleeve, an entire leg. So it’s in these instances where people have yet to experience many short tattoo sessions and what I call the “increasing pain phenomena” that they can labor through their first tattoos like warriors. Like when I was having my FIRST baby.

Increasingly customers, even first timers, are resorting to the use of topical numbing creams and sprays prior to and during their tattoo procedure and – a lot of tattooers and collectors have pretty strong opinions regarding this, some saying if a person can’t endure the pain then they don’t deserve the tattoo.

Deb Yarian tattoo artist

In this instance, I’ll use my delivery metaphor…

As I said earlier I’ve given birth to six children. During three deliveries I had an epidural to block the pain and the other three I delivered naturally, enduring hours of intense physical pain. And you know what? I love all my children- not only the ones whose births I suffered through.

I do think though that someone new to tattoos should exercise some caution when using topical anesthetics and getting large scale tattoos. And not because I don’t think they will have earned them if it doesn’t hurt getting them. But because I think that without some pain or discomfort that the decision to change from being an untattooed person to a heavily tattooed person could be made with less regard to the permanence of the decision and lead to later regret.

Just my opinion and ideas…

Thanks for reading.

Did you know that Deb Yarian was featured on TAM issue 33?

Get TAM #33 print, here – or digital, here.

Great women of tattooing

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