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Does coloring a tattoo hurt more than the outline?

Getting a tattoo can be an exciting yet nerve-wracking experience, especially if it’s your first tattoo. While the outline defines the overall design of the tattoo, the coloring brings it to life with vibrant details. But does getting the coloring done actually hurt more than the outline? There are a few factors to consider.

The outline stage

The outline of a tattoo is done using a tattoo machine that repeatedly punctures the skin with needles coated in ink. The needles enter the dermis, the second layer of skin below the epidermis, depositing ink into the skin. This layer of skin contains far fewer nerve endings than the outer layer, so there is some pain but not as much as you might expect.

However, certain parts of the body are more sensitive than others and will likely feel more pain and discomfort during the outline. Areas like the hands, feet, ribs, and inner arm are notorious for being extra sensitive spots. Other factors like your personal pain tolerance and the thickness of the outline will also impact your experience.

On a pain scale of 1 to 10, most people report the outline falling between a 3 and 6. The outline is often described as feeling like a cat scratching or ant bites. It usually starts out feeling like a tingle, then becomes sharper and more irritating over time as the skin gets aggravated. Your body will also release endorphins, which can actually give you a rush and make the pain more bearable.

The coloring stage

After the outline is complete and your skin has had a few weeks to heal, it’s time for the coloring. This stage can take multiple sessions to fill in large or complex designs. The artist uses the same tattoo machine but switches to needles better suited for working with the thicker consistency of color inks.

The coloring needles penetrate even deeper past the outline into the mid-dermis where those sensitive pain nerve endings are abundant. This is what causes the coloring to be frequently reported as more painful than the outline. The coloring needles also deposit larger ink droplets and move over the skin more slowly to fill in the design.

This slower, deeper penetration amplifies the pain you feel. And because the skin was already irritated during the outline, the additional irritation of coloring makes it feel even worse. The pain often starts out manageable but intensifies over the hours it takes to do a full coloring.

On the pain scale, coloring is often described as between a 5 and 8. It usually feels sharper and more raw than the outline. Some say it feels like being scratched by a cat with hot needles or a thousand tiny cuts over and over. The endorphin rush can help, but the accumulated pain gets more difficult to ignore as the coloring session wears on.

Factors that influence pain levels

While coloring does hurt more on average, everyone has a different pain tolerance and threshold. The level of pain you feel will depend on the following factors:

  • Your individual pain tolerance
  • Placement of the tattoo on the body
  • Size, complexity, and density of the design
  • Skill level of the artist
  • Types of needles and equipment used
  • How deeply the needles penetrate the skin
  • How well you care for the tattoo afterwards

For example, a small, light watercolor tattoo on the upper arm is likely to hurt much less during coloring than a full sleeve with dense, dark shading on the ribs. The pain levels also tend to increase the longer your session runs as the skin becomes more irritated.

Pain management techniques

There are some things you can do to help manage the pain during a coloring session:

  • Numbing spray/cream – Apply a topical anesthetic to numb the skin.
  • Prescription numbing – Ask your doctor about lidocaine injections to numb the area.
  • Pain relievers – Take over-the-counter meds before your appointment.
  • Eat before – Don’t get a tattoo on an empty stomach.
  • Comfortable clothes – Wear loose, soft clothing.
  • Distraction – Listen to music, watch TV, talk to the artist.
  • Breathe – Use deep breathing techniques to release endorphins.
  • Breaks – Take short breaks to stretch and recharge.
  • Hydration – Drink plenty of water before and during.
  • Aftercare – Keep the tattoo clean and moisturized while healing.

Properly preparing for your coloring session and using pain management tricks can significantly improve the experience. Always communicate with your artist so they can adjust as needed.

Which hurts more: outline or coloring?

In general, the consensus is that coloring a tattoo usually hurts more than getting the outline done. The coloring needles penetrate deeper into the dermis where nerve endings are concentrated. The increased stimulation of these nerves makes the coloring feel sharper and more painful. However, everyone has a different pain tolerance and threshold.

Here is a comparison of the typical pain levels:

Tattoo Stage Pain Level (1-10) Pain Description
Outline 3-6 Cat scratching or ant bites
Coloring 5-8 Sharper, more raw pain

While the coloring causes more pain on average, factors like placement and your pain tolerance can influence the discomfort you experience. With proper preparation and pain management, you can get through both stages smoothly. The beauty of your finished, vibrant tattoo will be worth it!


The general consensus is that getting the coloring done on a tattoo is more painful than getting the outline. This is primarily due to the coloring needles penetrating deeper into the dermis where more sensitive nerve endings are located. The coloring stage also deposits larger ink droplets and requires moving over the skin slowly to fill in the design, which amplifies the pain sensations.

However, many factors can affect someone’s individual pain experience when getting a tattoo colored versus outlined. Placement on the body, size and complexity of the design, skill of the artist, types of needles used, personal pain tolerance and thresholds all play a role. While the coloring may objectively cause more pain, proper preparation and management techniques can help make the experience smooth and tolerable.