How Long Does a Tattoo Take? Size Guide

How Long Does a Tattoo Take? Size Guide

Nov 14, 2023 | Bridget Reed

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Numbing Cream
Numbing Cream


Before you book your tattoo appointment, you’re probably asking yourself a very important question: how long does a tattoo take? If you’re going to get jabbed, you want to know how long you expect to be in your artist’s chair for two reasons. 

The first reason is to help you prepare because tattoos can be a little uncomfortable. The second reason is to help you budget because many artists charge by the hour. 

Here’s what you need to know before you go. 

Active Tattoo Time vs. Prep Time

Don't freak out if your artist asks you to come in at 1 p.m. and estimates you’ll be done by 6 p.m. You’re not going to spend all that time under the needle. There’s no need to worry about whether or not you’ll survive your first tattoo experience — most of that extra time is for necessary prep work.

Your appointment with your artist will be substantially longer than the actual “tattoo time.” Your artist needs to create a stencil, prep the area, transfer the stencil, set up their supplies, and maybe even custom-mix a few shades of ink. Tattoo shops have very high sanitation standards, and it might take your artist a while to ensure everything is perfectly compliant.

They’ll also need to stop periodically to wipe you down and clean you up. At the end, they’ll need to sanitize the area before they bandage you up.

This doesn’t include any bathroom breaks, breaks to stretch, or snack breaks you might need for a larger tattoo. It’s best to assume that getting a medium or large tattoo will kind of be an “all-day” thing and plan accordingly. You’re probably not going to be on time for dinner plans afterward.

Consider the Size of Your Tattoo

There’s no real way to calculate exactly how long a tattoo will take, but the size of your tattoo is a great place to start. Obviously, a tattoo the size of a quarter will take a lot less time than a tattoo the size of a dollar bill. 

When considering the size of your tattoo, you should also consider the density of your tattoo. If your tattoo has a lot of open, empty spaces between the design elements, it won’t take long. A tattoo that occupies the exact same area of a dollar bill with design elements isn’t going to take as long as a tattoo of a single stemmed linework flower that occupies a similar footprint. 

If your tattoo is very large or stylistically complex, it might take several days. Your artist might complete it piece by piece over the course of several sessions. You’ll heal after each round and return to move on to the next part in a few weeks. 

Consider the Color (or Lack of Color) in Your Tattoo

A linework tattoo will usually take the least amount of time to complete. If your tattoo looks more like a blank coloring page than a full mural, your artist can call it a wrap at phase one. 

If your tattoo is black and gray and involves some shading, it will go a little longer. If your tattoo is full color and fully shaded, it will likely take several hours. You may not get the whole thing done in a single day. 

Consider the Placement of Your Tattoo

Tattoos on flat surfaces of the body are easiest for tattoo artists. A tattoo on your forearm or your bicep is going to be a breeze compared to a tattoo that goes across your body. 

A tattoo that wraps from your back to your ribcage or a tattoo that winds from your neck down to your chest is a complicated feat for a tattoo artist. You’ll have to move around, and your tattoo artist will need to change up their technique to accommodate the contours of your body.

Does Your Tattoo Have Unique Circumstances?

It may be more challenging for a tattoo artist to tattoo over scars or stretch marks, but it’s completely possible. The technique is a little bit different, and they may need to work a little harder to get the ink to set perfectly between the layers of your skin

Your artist will want to take their time to make sure they get it right, and it’s worth the extra care they’ll take to give you a great piece of art.

How To Survive a Long Tattoo

If you’re feeling a little bit iffy about sitting for a long tattoo, you can do a few things to make it easier. 

Numb It Up Before You Go

How Long Does a Tattoo Take? Size Guide

Tattoos hurt. Nobody wants to be in pain for a few hours, all for the sake of art. It’s a good thing you don’t have to be. 

You can use tattoo numbing cream before your appointment. Apply it before, wrap it up, and unwrap it when your tattoo artist is ready to prep the area. The numbing effects can last as long as three hours!

Split It Into Sessions 

You don’t have to get the whole tattoo in one day. Your artist would probably appreciate doing the outline in one session and the color in another if your tattoo is on the larger side. They also need a break from tattooing after a few hours. 

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask for a Short Break

Your tattoo will feel a lot longer if you really need to run to the bathroom. Your artist wants you to be able to do that and will work to give you a break if you feel like your bladder is going to burst.

Tattoos stimulate the body’s healing response, which draws heavily on blood sugar. Tell your artist if you feel like your blood sugar is bottoming out. Your artist would rather take 10 minutes to give you some time to sip a smoothie and recover before you finish.

In Conclusion: Plan Accordingly

Even a small tattoo can take a little while. Try not to double-book yourself on the day of your tattoo appointment. Afterward, you’ll want to go home and take it easy. 

If you feel like a long session isn’t in the cards for you, don’t be afraid to ask your artist to split it into two sittings. If you’re worried about discomfort during the tattoo process, our tattoo aftercare kit has everything you need to stay comfortable after your tattoo session. 


Hygiene Standards in the Tattoo Parlour and Practices for Prevention of Infection | Tattooed Skin and Health | Books Gateway | Karger Publishers

Medical tattoos help hide surgical scars | Corewell Health

Tattoo You: Immune System Cells Help Keep Ink In Its Place | NPR

What Should I Know About Getting a Tattoo? | Right as Rain | UW Medicine

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