Expect to take breaks. Expect to need some tattoo-session aids. Expect deep breaths. Expect to be patient with yourself. A sternum tattoo is one of the harder tattoos to receive, and we know tattoo artists who won’t even get one!
Getting a sternum tattoo is not an easy process, and it’s not something we’d recommend for your first tattoo. Sternum tattoos are infamously painful because of their location (less cushion = more feeling). You can ease the pain with HUSH anesthetic products and some deep breathing techniques, but when the needle hits your bone, we can’t promise you won’t notice.
Knowing what to expect when your sternum is under the needle will mitigate some of the more surprising factors of getting a sternum tattoo. Let’s dig into it.
What Is a Sternum Tattoo?
The sternum is a bone in your chest. It is that hard, boney spot between your pecs in the middle of your chest.
A sternum tattoo is when you get a tattoo across the boney part of your chest. Pretty simple, yeah? Well, the process is way less straightforward.
A sternum tattoo is considered one of the most painful tattoos to receive because the skin is so thin, and there is very little padding over the bone.
Sternum tattoos can range from decorative and delicate pieces around and under the chest to whole-chest pieces covering the pecs. Think Rihanna’s sternum tattoo or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s chest tattoo.
While many tattoos are meaningful, sternum tattoos are usually done with a little extra dash of meaning because they are so physically close to the heart.
What Should I Expect Pain-Wise With a Sternum Tattoo?
Sternum tattoos can be very painful. There is not much fat or thick tissue between the skin and the bone to cushion the blow. Ever been kicked in the shin? It’s like that, in the middle of your chest.
The vibration from the tattoo machine will reverberate in the bone directly below and enhance any kind of sensation you initially felt. It can even feel like you can hear the pain.
The sternum tissue can also be more sensitive. If you have a sensitive chest, chances are the skin over your sternum is also sensitive. So even without the whole bone-right-below thing, it’s a painful area to get inked.
When Will I Need a Break During My Tattoo Session?
When the pain becomes overwhelming, take a break. Use thought and breath control to reduce the pain.
You know when you’ve been drinking a lot and you “break the seal?” Similarly, try to save your tattoo breaks for when you really need them.
It’s also a good idea to limit your breaks to preserve your pain threshold and keep that adrenaline pumping. When you take a break, your skin has time to react to the wound by swelling and clotting, only for you to return to the needle possibly more sensitive than before.
Taking breaks also gives your adrenaline time to calm down, which may not be a good thing. When your adrenaline slows, so does the release of endorphins (your body’s natural painkillers).
Try some mind-over-matter if you feel the pain of the tattoo starting to creep near your threshold.
You can also reduce your pain with some mindful breathing exercises:
- Take a deep breath through your nose and into your belly for a count of four. Place your hand on your stomach to feel yourself breathe deeply.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds.
- Slowly release your breath through your mouth for a count of eight.
- Repeat until your whole focus is on counting your breath and the pain starts to subside.
- Once you feel regulated, you can return to your normal breath.
Whatever you do, don’t hold your breath!
Pro-tip: More breaks equals more time equals more money. Break when you need to, but don’t break the bank.
How Do I Prepare for a Sternum Tattoo?
Come prepared for the pain! If you come prepared for your sternum tattoo, you will have a much easier time. You’ll be focused on how your tattoo looks rather than getting it over with, which is never a recipe for success. So, how can you make sure your tattoo session goes smoothly?
Prepare for the Pain
Everyone has a different pain threshold. Some are just better than others at enduring pain (redheads, for example, generally have a much higher pain threshold). There are a lot of factors that determine your personal pain threshold that scientists are still trying to understand.
Are there ways to prepare yourself for the kind of pain a sternum tattoo entails? Absolutely.
If pain is kind of your thing, we promise this sternum tattoo isn’t the time for this kind of enjoyment. Don’t just grin (or grimace) and bear it — do something about it!
Reading this article is already one way to prepare for the pain. Just knowing it’s coming is going to alleviate the shock factor of showing up and getting thrown under those pointy needles without knowing what’s really about to go down.
The best way to prepare for a sternum tattoo is to make sure someone — you or the tattoo artist — has some numbing gel or cream. HUSH’s numbing gel contains 4% lidocaine to block the targeted area from sending pain signals to your brain.
It’s also chock-full of other natural ingredients, including aloe vera, chamomile, calendula, and green tea extracts — which can help soothe your wound and help reduce irritation.
If you apply HUSH numbing products to your sternum an hour before your tattoo session, you will have a much better time and should be better able to focus on your body art rather than the pain.
You can wash the area with our CBD Foam Soap, which is loaded with CBD and other botanicals to soothe swelling and irritation.
Pro-tip: Don’t touch your tattooed area during tattoo prep or the tattoo session. Let your artist do the washing, spraying, wiping, or whatever else. Leave it to the professional! You can bring your HUSH products and ask your artist to apply it for you.
Get your sternum tattoo in the winter. It will be healed up and ready to show off in the summer, and it will be easier to care for and keep clean.
In the summer, you might want to wear smaller tops or tighter clothing that won’t give your sternum tattoo the space it needs to heal. If you get the tattoo in the winter, you can wear baggier tops that will allow space between the tattoo and the fabric.
You’ll also sweat less. Less sweat equals a cleaner tattoo — something we love to see in aftercare.
If you get that sternum tattoo in the summer, you’ll be inclined to show it off and have it out in the sun — a big no-no for the wound healing process.
If you can line up your sternum tattoo to take place in the winter and be ready for the sunshine, you and your new art will be better off.
What To Wear
Some people worry about wearing a bra during the tattoo session and after. You won’t want anything going across your sternum, so you’ll most likely have to go braless during and after the tattoo session. You can bring something to cover the tatas if you like, but the artist will likely have something to cover you as well.
Wear a loose shirt that you don’t mind getting dirty. That way if the tattoo bandage leaks, you won’t be ruining that sweet vintage band shirt.
During the healing stage of your sternum tattoo, you’ll also need to take care when you need to wear a bra.
You don’t want anything rubbing against your tattoo and irritating the skin or removing scabs; it could reopen the wound and result in a longer healing time or infection. Try to go braless as much as possible, and if you absolutely need to wear one, find a loose-fitting one with a soft band going across the sternum.
What To Bring
Are you planning on having a long tattoo session? You’ll want to either bring your earbuds or something else to entertain yourself if you or your tattoo artist are on the introverted side. Come with something to read, your phone, phone charger, or music.
You’ll also want to make sure you’re hydrated and well-fed. Being well-fed means being well-fueled to deal with the pain you might encounter. You don’t want a growling stomach while you’re being stabbed a million times with tattoo needles.
Plus, low blood sugar + pain + your body trying to heal itself can = passing out. And no one wants that.
Should My First Tattoo Be on My Sternum?
If you’re thinking about getting your first tattoo, we don’t recommend you start with the sternum. It’s an especially painful and bizarre sensation.
Getting your first tattoo elsewhere is recommended before hitting up the sternum. You’ll want to know how a tattoo needle feels on a less painful spot, so it’s not as shocking when you get a sternum tattoo.
Some great first-time tattoo spots are:
- Upper arm
These spots generally have more fatty tissue that will add padding between the needle and your bone. Getting your first tattoo on any of these spots is an excellent way to gauge your pain threshold.
Common Sternum Tattoos
Sternum tattoos, though painful, can be gorgeous. The pain doesn’t stop people from getting them and shouldn’t stop you either! Don’t compromise your body art because of pain. Use numbing products and consider any of the following designs for inspiration.
Chandeliers are probably the most common sternum design. These tattoos include a centerpiece in the middle (maybe a flower or mandala) with branching lines like a chandelier, and ornaments decoratively hanging from it. Usually, these types of pieces are symmetrical from left to right.
A bouquet accents the sternum and can extend further underneath each breast. Floral sternum tattoos can include many other elements, like butterflies or bees.
Mandalas at the center of the chest are also very common. The sternum area is where the solar plexus chakra is located and is associated with power and purpose. Certain types of meaningful mandalas can focus the energy of the third chakra.
Bird sternum tattoos are among the most common designs. The bird (usually an eagle or dove) sits closer to the top of the sternum with its wings spread, often including other design elements like words, branches, or crests.
We also see many sword designs going down the sternum, sometimes decorated with roses.
A rose is on the easier side of sternum tattoos. Some people get just a single rose at the center of their sternum — much easier than a full chandelier or bouquet of flowers.
Getting a meaningful phrase or word is also a common sternum tattoo. Having text close to your heart is a good reminder or energy channel for something important to you.
How Do I Choose an Artist?
What style of tattoo do you want? Are you going for something fine line and symmetrical? You should put some extra care into choosing a tattoo artist for a sternum tattoo.
You’ll need someone very precise if you are doing any work that needs to be symmetrical. You don’t want the centerpiece of your body to look lopsided!
As usual, make sure you are choosing a reputable artist. Find an artist with pristine hygiene practices. They should use sterilized tattoo needles and non-toxic ink, and have a clean place of work. Make sure your tattoo artist has the cleanest practice possible. This ensures less chance of infection and will make you more comfortable during an uncomfortable experience.
If they don’t meet these basic requirements, they aren’t the tattoo artist for you (or anyone).
You should also ask them about their products. Do they have numbing gels, numbing sprays, and soothing tattoo soaps? If not (or even if so), you can bring your HUSH products and have them use them on you to make the whole process less painful!
A sternum tattoo is no beginner tattoo. It’s going to hurt, and the feeling of the needle reverberating through the bone is going to add an extra weird and maybe more painful sensation.
Take breaks when you need to but not too often or too many. You can do it! Make sure you choose a fantastic artist for your sternum tattoo. You don’t want a lopsided centerpiece — or an infection! So choose a precise artist and make sure to focus on aftercare. You’ll be lookin’ and feelin’ good in no time.
Anatomy, Thorax, Sternum | StatPearls | NCBI Bookshelf
Breathing Exercise for Relaxation | Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
Lidocaine | StatPearls | NCBI Bookshelf
Wound Healing | StatPearls | NCBI Bookshelf
Sex differences in pain: a brief review of clinical and experimental findings | PMC