Does the outline of a tattoo hurt more?

Does the outline of a tattoo hurt more

Before you get a tattoo the pain is an unknown quantity. It can be nice to know what you will have to handle so you may wonder which part of the tattoo is more painful. Outline or shading?.

Does the outline of a tattoo hurt more? Many people find that the outline of a tattoo is the most painful part. It can be a sharp dragging sensation that can be hard to handle. Take comfort in knowing that once the outline is completed you will probably find that the shading is less painful.


There are lots of different elements which will determine which part of your tattoo is the most painful. I’ll run through these elements in this post so that you know what to expect. It may even help you to determine which type of tattoo style you go for if the pain is a big deciding factor for you.

Does the outline of a tattoo hurt more?

As a working tattooist, I tattoo a lot of people so I can see their reaction to the pain up close and personal. This gives me a good understanding of what parts of a tattoo people find the most painful.

I would estimate that roughly 85% of people find the outline of the tattoo the most painful part. Once they have got through the lining phase most people can relax a little and find the shading not as bad.

The factors that affect how painful you will find a tattoo outline are as follows

1 – The type of Tattoo you are getting.

Little alien dot work tattoo.

Little alien dot work tattoo. Soft gradients and lack of bold lines mean less pain

The style of the tattoo you receive affects how painful you will find it.

A traditional tattoo in the style of Sailor Jerry will have a heavy thick outline. This will need some power to get it into the skin and will be on the higher end of the pain spectrum.

A tattoo using the dot work style doesn’t rely so much on heavy outlines and will be at the lower end of the pain spectrum.

I wrote a post about dotwork tattoo pain which you can read below

2 – Your mental ability to handle pain.

Handling tattoo pain is a mental game. The worst thing you can do is to panic and tense up as your tattoo starts. Most tattoos start with the lining so if you are not handling the tattoo well at the beginning you are likely to find it painful.

You need to remember to breathe, relax your muscles and calm your mind. Your ability to do so will have a great impact on which part of the tattoo you find most painful.

I highly advise you to learn a few meditation techniques before you go for your tattoo. I promise it really helps.

Many people panic a little at the start of the tattoo but have relaxed into it a bit more by the time they come to shading so this may have a big impact on which part of the tattoo you find the most painful.

If you can relax into it for the first 5 or 10 minutes, your natural painkillers [called Endorphins] will kick in and you will start to find the whole process much easier.

3 – Your tattoo artist’s technique and style

Some tattooists tattoo more heavily than others. This is not a criticism. It’s down to individual style and technique. If your tattooist is all about creating bold solid powerlines and inky dark blacks then their technique is likely to hurt more.

But not everyone is the same when it comes to tattoo pain…

It’s important to note that while there are generalisations, everyone feels pain differently. Some people get tattooed in places generally accepted as painful [like the ribs] and don’t even notice it. Then some people find easy places excruciating.

It’s the same with lining versus shading. You may find that you experience the pain differently so please go to get tattooed with an open mind.

Why do tattoo outlines hurt more?

Tattoo outlines often hurt more because they are created using a tighter configuration of tattoo needles which form a fine point. The tattoo machine is also run at a faster speed for outlines. This combination of factors cuts through the skin more sharply and can therefore cause more pain.

If you are having a detailed tattoo with a lot of lining the tattooist will be working hard to get everything lined on before the stencil comes off.

That may mean that you need to be under the needle for a long session. It can be tricky to re stencil a tattoo. Once the tattooist has the lifework completed they may be able to complete the shading at a later time or in shorter sessions meaning less pain.

Needles make a difference

The needles used for shading and colouring are often a larger configuration needle such as a round shader or magnum.

Even though these needles are bigger they tend to be a little gentler on the skin than a liner as the force used to tattoo is more spread out.

Think of it this way. If someone stands on your foot in a stiletto heel who it will be much more painful than if they stand on your foot in a trainer. This is because the force in the stiletto is concentrated in one area. This is similar to the lining needle which has a more concentrated force.

When shading or colouring, the tattooist runs the machine at a much lower power. They will use a different, sweeping technique to place the pigment in the skin so the overall effect is less scratchy and intense.

However, there can be exceptions

Do color tattoos hurt more than black and grey

American Traditional Eagle Tattoo

Both the outline and the colour of this majestic American Eagle are gonna hurt!

Color tattoos may hurt more than black and grey. For the color to remain vibrant, the tattoo artist needs to make sure that the pigment is heavily saturated in the skin. This can mean they need to work more intensely in one area than if creating black and grey shading which can mean more pain. 

Again, the choice of tattoo style can have a big impact on the pain experienced. A tattoo that relies heavily on areas of flat bright colour, such as a traditional style tattoo, will need more work to ensure that the color is well saturated and may be more painful.

The shading of a soft black and grey tattoo is likely to hurt a lot less than a bold flat, heavy color packed tattoo.

Why does white ink hurt more than black?

A bit of a mystique has built up around white ink. That it is especially painful to get tattooed.

Why does white ink hurt more than black? White ink may hurt more for one reason. It’s always the last colour to be tattooed so your artist is going back to tattoo already raw and painful skin. It is also thick and takes a little more working into the skin which can result in white ink hurting more.

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Does the outline of a tattoo hurt more?

I hope this post has helped you to prepare for your tattoo and answered your questions about what hurts most, the lining or the shading.

Just remember to relax, take deep breaths and you will relax into your tattoo and enjoy the experience.

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