Guest Blog: Cheating with Lidocaine
The use of numbing creams and sprays has been a hot tattoo topic (recently discussed here in our Robert Atkinson profile and my new tattoo post). In this guest blog, John Mack is back to share his experience using anesthetic while getting tattooed by Horiyoshi III.
** This post has been updated with further information since its publication **
During my first appointment with Horiyoshi III, I asked what he thought of trying Lidocaine. He replied, "Sure, it's better if it doesn't hurt." Well, all right then. I'll give it a try.
I already had Lidocaine 5% cream (from another procedure) but the taboo against
topical anesthetic for tattooing dissuaded me from trying it, that is, until I spoke with Horiyoshi. Before I went to Japan for my tattoo sessions (combined with a business trip) I researched Japanese law as transporting drugs across borders is a dicey business. According to the Koseirodosho-iyakushokuhinkyoku, bringing your own duly prescribed medical drugs into Japan is permitted.
For my next session, an hour before my appointment, I applied the cream and covered it with Saran Wrap. Even though I washed my hands immediately, my fingertips became a little numb. This stuff really works. And then I went to get tattooed. The project was koi fish on the insides of my thighs, a very painful place to be tattooed. But with local anesthetic, it was completely tolerable. Horiyoshi's son Kazu was observing the session, and commented to me, "Wow, you're really strong." I sheepishly told him the real reason I was taking it so well.
I missed some places with the cream, and I tell you, that was some serious pain. An even more distressing problem with this area was the nerve reflexes that made me move involuntarily. The anesthetic reduced this effect at its source.
When I asked Horiyoshi III for his opinion, he said that Japanese law prevents him from making a recommendation without a license to practice medicine. He did say that personally, he would prefer to not cause suffering, and if the client had a way to avoid it, then there was no reason not to. If the client seeks the therapeutic effect of becoming stronger through the painful ordeal, then that too is fine. He added that there was no particular unfairness in how some people endure the pain of tattooing while others can choose to escape it.
But wait. Isn't pain an integral part of tattooing? Is it really okay to remove just this part of the experience? It certainly removes the macho "I can take anything" element of being tattooed. I'm cheating, and cheaters like me will never make yakuza boss.
Next, I would like to share the technical details of my experience with this controversial approach to tattooing. It is important to note that I have no training in tattooing nor medicine. I can only offer anecdotal evidence to help those who do have qualifications make their decisions.
The anesthetic reduced but did not completely eliminate the nerve reflexes that made my thigh twitch involuntarily as it was being tattooed. Getting tattooed on the floor helped -- Horiyoshi could further arrest my movement by sitting on my calf as he worked (thankfully, he's not very heavy). He also had a sand bag close at hand that he plopped onto my leg to hold it down.
The next area to tattoo was my arms. The result I want for this public area demands that I be an absolutely still canvas. I used the Lidocaine for the outline, and was able to completely relax. During the tattooing of both arms, I did not even come close to tensing my muscles or twitching.
A particularly delightful part of my tattoo experience is my conversations with Horiyoshi. Discussing wide ranging topics in a foreign language over the din of a tattoo machine while not facing the speaker is hard enough. The anesthetic allows me to better concentrate on the conversation.
Nonetheless, a few sessions after the critical outlining was done, I eventually stopped using the Lidocaine on my arms. Being tattooed there is not particularly painful, and not using anesthetic is undeniably more authentic. But I will definitely use it again for my underarms.
If there is a problem with using Lidocaine cream for tattooing, I think it is the physical form of the cream. A potentially inexperienced client must properly apply it before coming under the supervision of the tattooist. It is a bit messy, and is best applied in private where soap and water are available. It must be applied according to schedule, potentially when you are in an inconvenient location. I once had to apply it in the restroom at the Dai Ichi Hotel Tokyo while wearing a business suit. After application, the cream must be covered with Saran Wrap for maximum effectiveness. Why would anyone bring Saran Wrap to a business meeting?
It is essential to remove the cream before beginning to tattoo. I wash it off with soap and water immediately before starting. [The tattooist can also wipe it off.] If you leave the cream on, paper stencils stick to it and disintegrate upon removal. During tattooing, it is difficult to wipe away excess ink. Injecting the cream into the skin during tattooing causes inflammation, pain afterward, and retards healing, but there was no permanent damage the one time this happened to me.
The half life of Lidocaine is 1.5 to 2 hours. This is more than enough for my one hour sessions with Horiyoshi, but probably insufficient for a session of even two hours. A continuous process might work whereby the client applies anesthetic to a new area as the artist tattoos toward it. Kind of like a steel mill.
The spray form of Lidocaine, and the new product, Vasocaine are presumably easier to apply, less sticky, and more foolproof. Lidocaine 5% cream often requires a prescription. This is inconvenient, but I am more comfortable knowing that we are all within Japanese law. If I try Vasocaine, I will just declare it to Japanese customs, and if it is illegal they can confiscate it.
On the trunk of my body, I never really noticed any inflammation after getting tattooed, but on my forearms the swelling is quite pronounced. The vascular constrictor in Vasocaine looks useful for preventing swelling.
If you're not getting tattooed for the pain, the ultimate objective of all this is a quality finished tattoo. On my skin, Lidocaine 5% cream gives the benefits of pain relief and motion arrest without adverse effect on the finished tattoo. In fact I think improves the result by keeping me still and allowing me to extend my bodysuit into areas that would otherwise be intolerably painful.