Many people think a tattoo machine injects the ink, but really the needle is solid. Surrounding the needle is a tube which is dipped into an ink cup, much like a quill pen. When the motor pushes the needle into the skin, the ink naturally seeps into the tiny hole. This is done thousands of times per minute to create a solid line from thousands of dots.
Does jabbing a needle into your body, into one small area, thousands or millions of times, hurt? The short answer is yes, of course. The longer answer is made up of several parts. How intense a tattoo will feel is based on where on your body the design is being tattooed and how complex the design is, factored against your individual tolerance for pain.
Areas of the body that have greater concentrations of nerves and bone tend to be the most sensitive for tattooing. The popular ankle happens to be very painful due to the lack of fat and thick muscle tissue. Shoulders and upper arms are popular not only for the ease with which the art can be shown, but the muscle padding makes it a bit easier to get skin art there.
Tattooed consensus seems to be that outlining of tattoos is more painful than the shading part. Outlines are often done with a single needle which seems to feel “hotter” or “scratchier” whereas shading is done with groups of thinner needles. If your artist has what is known as a “heavy hand” they may not only grip your skin tightly while working but may dig the tool into the skin a bit. Beginning tattooists are universally slower and have less depth control than experienced artists. Think twice before letting a new tattooist etch their first tattoo on you even if you think they are a fantastic artist.
The single greatest factor that will determine what you think tattooing feels like is your own tolerance for pain. If you absolutely can not stand physical pain, don’t get a tattoo, get henna body painting instead. The sensation of tattooing is very mixed, as the needle moves across hundreds of nerve receptors on the skin surface. Some nerves handle temperature, some pressure, some pain. The feeling of being tattooed is a combination of all three blended together. Many people report an intense scratching feeling, or describe tattooing as a burning feeling. It is very localized experience and as soon as the tattooist stops actively working, the strong sensation subsides and the tattooed area often feels very much like it was sunburned.
There really isn’t any way to practice to see what a tattoo will feel like. It is as sharp as an injection, but much shallower. Pulling a hair from a sensitive body area has many similar qualities. It is not like getting a body piercing. In the end, everyone who has ever gotten a tattoo has finally decided they want the design more than they fear the feeling.