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Pain is a Relative Thing

Pain is most definitely a relevant commodity. What hurts one person, is nothing more than an annoyance to another. When it comes to my body, I still don’t know for sure what will or will not hurt, and I quit counting my tattoos years ago, somewhere around number 30.

Let me give you a brief rundown of my tattooed skin…

Both wrists/arms/elbows fully sleeved,

shoulders – front and back,

full chest – pecs and sternum,

both collar bones,


top of the stomach,

full back – from neck to just below the waist,

both ribs,

the tops of both feet,

back of the knee,

both thighs,

both knees,

both calves and

both ankles.

Even now, as I’m trying to list them, I have trouble keeping track of what is where. I have no clue how many I actually have now, but that’s half the fun of it…remembering each when I see it. Once my new ink began to merge with what was already in my skin, things got hazy – it’s damn near impossible to separate them all! They’ve become one, giant work of art.

A lot of them hurt when the needle was in the skin, but now, there’s no pain.

It became a relative thing compared to what I wanted out of it.

When people see my ink, one of the first questions is always, “Wow! Didn’t that hurt?”

All I can say is, “It depends…which one?”

Some were uncomfortable and some were downright agonizing. I used to joke with one of my favorite artists, Josh, that most of his tattoos were “a half bottle of whisky on the Makowski Pain Scale.

On one tattoo, I actually even began to doze off, but I’ll tell you about that one a little later on.

But that’s all my body. I can’t speak to anyone else’s pain threshold and what may or may not hurt them. That’s a big part of getting tattooed…you never know exactly what to expect. The only constant is that, one way or another, you WILL earn each and every tattoo that goes into your skin.

I’ve seen big, burly “he-man” types tear up and scream over a simple arm tattoo. I’ve also seen young 20-something women talking and texting so much while getting the top of the feet tattooed that the artist had to actually interrupt them to say it was done! I’ll never forget that. That girl, felt no pain whatsoever. That’s a good thing for the “tough guys” to keep in mind when they get tattooed…a lot of the women can take the pain better than a lot of the guys can…so don’t be cocky. Rule of thumb seems to be, the more you shoot your mouth off about how much you “enjoy the pain”, the more it is going to hurt. Me? I just keep my mouth shut. Maybe a joke or two with the artist; maybe reassuring words to someone in the next station that’s scared or hurting, but never anything overbearing.

Based on my experience, there are only three bits of advice I would ever offer to someone that’s thinking about tattoos but is held back by fear of the pain, and they apply equally to virgin skins as well as billboards like me.


It won’t make it any easier, but worse, your blood will be thinner and you’ll bleed more. That can lead to blurred and blown out lines. These days, most artists will refuse to tattoo a drunk person. It’s just reckless, dangerous and can leave shitty tattoos. Forget about the stereotype of getting a ridiculous tattoo when you’re drunk. That’s the least of the worry.

For all of your pain and money, you could end up with a botched tattoo and a permanent, ugly blob of ink in your skin instead of your badge of honor. Just don’t do it.

I always set out a bottle of whisky on my kitchen counter so that when it’s done, I can celebrate it after, but not before. That’s how I do it, anyway.

Second, about a half hour before you start, eat something with sugar. I prefer a king-sized chocolate bar, myself. The extra sugar in your blood seems to help make any pain more bearable, doesn’t prevent the pain mind you, just makes it more bearable. After about an hour and a half in, and as the sugar is dissipating in your system, you’ll actually start to notice the pain more than when you started. The initial adrenaline surge is also beginning to wain at that point, so any extra boost can help. Take a small pack of Oreos or something like that to munch down during a break. It can help. It’s always helped me.

Third, rarely does any one line ever last for more than eight (8) seconds. I formed this opinion during some of my most agonizing sessions. When I have to go into my own mind to withstand pain, I come up with little tricks to make it easier. For me, it’s the “8-second rule”. When every other attempt at ignoring and withstanding pain has been spent, I count, “One-one thousand, two-one thousand”, etc, all the way up to eight-one thousand. What I found is that rarely, if ever, does a line keep the needle in your skin for longer than eight seconds. It only hurts while the needle is penetrating your skin, so it’s an instant relief when the needle comes out.

I fixate on that and count down to it. It helps me, anyway.

I’ve mentioned the idea to a few artists as they worked on me – and after a little while each has said, “You know, you’re right. They’re almost all eight seconds.”

It might have to do with the amount of ink available at any one time or it might be due to the depth and thickness of the line – don’t know. Either way, counting down is a good way to distract yourself and you’ll know almost exactly when the pain will stop.

It’s something you can look forward to.

If you never got a tattoo, don’t think there is ANY way to avoid pain in the process. Pain is part of the process and the ceremony. It is necessary and it is important that it be felt.

Tattoo pain has been an integral element since ancient times when a tattoo in a certain place was a badge of honor, courage and status simply because of the pain involved. Jack Rudy said it best when he said, “It’s a good thing tattoos hurt, otherwise every pussy in the world would have one.”

Once you have ink, you are definitely a different person that you were before.

If you want it, you have to take the pain. It’s the price you pay for the art in your skin. It’s more than just art in your skin, though. It can be a spiritual – and for some people a religious – experience and right of passage as well. No matter which way you cut it, you have to earn it to get it. Maybe I’m just too much old-school, but I have little respect for people that want to numb the skin so it doesn’t hurt. To me, that’s like adding “Phd” to your name because you drive by a school. Those folks don’t really want to earn it, they just want to say they have it.

Anyway, there are a couple sessions that stand out for me.

First was my rib cage. One side hurt so bad, that I had headaches for over a week, and I couldn’t even drive past the tattoo parlor. During that one, I couldn’t even make a sound and people began to watch. One woman said, “Breathe! You’re not moving!” Another guy – big, burly and heavily tattooed – cringed and said, “Ouchy, Dude! How can you do that?” It hurt SO bad.

Once it healed, however, I said, “Screw it!” I went back to the same artist and got the other side tattooed with a heavier design, and you know what? THAT side didn’t hurt any worse than a simple bicep tattoo. Pain is truly relative, and it is unpredictable. You can’t ever assume that because you think it will hurt, that it will.

Along those lines, I decided to get the back of my knee – deep in the pit – tattooed just like Maori headhunters did. They would tattoo in – with tapping, not electric needles – an all-seeing eye on the back of the knee, but only on warriors. It signified two things. First, the eye meant they could see all around them, and second, they put it there because it was such a painful spot that demanded respect. That appealed to me so I did it. It was done by electric machine, and I gave the artist free reign to draw a modernistic “eye”.

I remember a couple artists and other folks actually came to the studio that day to see the ‘nutcase’ that wanted it done. No one could believe that I wanted it – it was going to hurt so bad. I just thought to myself, “Just take it.” As the artist worked on it, I kept waiting for the searing pain to begin, but it never did. It actually had a calming effect, and it was no worse than any other spot. Goes to show you never can tell. If you want a tattoo, you just have to go for it.

One of the most memorable tattoo experiences was my first tebori tattoo. It was a string of spearheads put into my shin. Maybe it was because of the angle the needle, but it slipped into my skin so effortlessly. Don’t know. I could hear the needle pop in and out of my skin, but I felt nothing. After a few minutes, it became such a soothing and relaxing rhythm, that yes, I did begin to doze off. I didn’t sleep, but I became so relaxed that I could’ve done exactly that.

A lot of people claim to sleep during tattooing because they “love the pain”, but I have to call bullshit on that. It might look like they’re sleeping, but more often than not, they’re concentrating so hard on blocking the pain that it just looks like sleep.

Depending on location, circumstance and artist, tebori can be rather painful, but in this case, it was not. Doesn’t matter. I took it and I earned it.

So, pain is relative. You won’t ever be able to know for sure what spot will hurt worse than any other. If you love tattoos, it won’t matter.

Most people won’t get tattooed out of fear of the unknown pain, and there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s a normal and healthy bodily defense mechanism.

But if you want one, and you’re laboring over your first tattoo, don’t worry so much on it. If you want it, just do it. Try out my couple tricks, take the pain and earn your tattoo.

And don’t forget to leave a bottle of something on the counter for when it’s done.

One thing I can promise you is that you won’t be the same person by the end of that day.

Remember…it’s all relative.


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