In the past, novice tattoo artists and skilled artists wanting to test out new equipment and techniques had limited options for practicing their art. They could tattoo themselves, grapefruit, trusting friends, or pig skin, when available. The thing is, each of those options presents its own set of challenges. Tattoo artists only have so much free space they can easily access on their own bodies, if they choose to practice tattooing on themselves. The shape of grapefruit limits one's design options, and the texture of the fruit is nothing like human skin; it doesn't receive stencils, ink or needles in the same way that skin does. As for trusting friends willing to be guinea pigs for novice tattoo artists, there are fewer than you might think who are willing to carry a permanent piece of practice art on their bodies. That leaves pig skin as the best alternative--or at least it was one of the better tattoo practice skin options until recent advancements in synthetic practice skin.
Pros & Cons of Pig Skin as Tattoo Practice Skin
In addition to being more like human skin than other options like grapefruit, pig skin takes ink well and is especially good for practicing line work. You should be able to get pig skin from a butcher for free or a very minimal cost. The minor expense associated with this type of tattoo practice skin is definitely an advantage, but it can be hard to find. Some parts of a pig provide better canvases than others, so if you decide to use pig skin as tattoo practice skin, avoid back skin and opt for pieces from more tender areas, like the belly. You'll be able to see and feel needle depth in a way you just can't with traditional plastic practice skin, which is another benefit of working with pig skin.
On the downside, pig skin is smelly and somewhat gruesome to work with, plus it can be tough/leathery, which can lead you to overcompensate and tattoo more aggressively than you'd ever want to do on a real person. If you get too used to the motions needed to successfully tattoo pig skin, you'll have to be extremely careful when you work on real people and reign in your technique a bit to avoid damaging your client's skin. Pig skin also accepts colors differently than human skin does, so you have to learn to adjust when you switch over to working on live people. Gray wash doesn't take very well, and light colors like white and yellow won't take on the same reddish hues they tend to on real skin. When you do start tattooing real people, keep these things in mind, take your time, make sure your colors are taking the way you want them to, and be gentle so you don't damage your client's skin.
Synthetic Tattoo Practice Skin
When synthetic tattoo practice skin first became available, it was typically made from either plastic or rubber that had little to no resemblance to real skin. It's no wonder that people continued to use things like pig skin and grapefruit when these less-friendly forms of tattoo practice skin first came on the market. Although pig skin is smelly, often hard to find, leathery the longer it's exposed to air, and somewhat gruesome to work with, it gave artists a more realistic canvas for practicing their craft when they couldn't find live subjects on which to practice. Even grapefruits, with their curved, hard-to-work surfaces, often posed better alternatives to early practice skin alternatives.
Things have changed dramatically in the past couple years, though, thanks to the development of A Pound of Flesh. A Pound of Flesh (APOF) was developed by tattoo artists Shaun Miller and Abraham Cobaxin to give artists practice surfaces that both feel and behave more like real skin. APOF is made from silicone, which is a softer, more supple substance that responds to tattoo needles and ink in a manner more like real skin than any previously-developed practice skin. A Pound of Flesh practice skin pieces are also shaped like hands, feet and arms to give artists the more realistic experience of tattooing contoured body parts. All you have to do is look at the many experienced artists creating extraordinary display pieces with A Pound of Flesh hands, arms and feet to know that APOF is the future of tattoo practice skin, and the future is happening now.
Here are a few examples of the stunning artwork tattoo artists are creating on APOF products, from A Pound of Flesh's Instagram page:
Pros & Cons of A Pound of Flesh
There are numerous benefits to using A Pound of Flesh products as tattoo practice skin. First, they're shaped like real body parts, so you can see what it's like to tattoo contoured flesh when you practice tattooing on APOF hands, arms, and feet. Since these body parts aren't attached to an actual body, you can manipulate them as you need to while creating your designs. APOF body parts are made from soft, supple silicone that feels more like real skin, too. Plus, it accepts ink in a similar way to real skin, yielding the vibrant colors you'd hope to achieve when tattooing a real person. You can use A Pound of Flesh products to practice line work, shading, and other tattooing techniques, and you can use them to test out and get comfortable with new equipment before trying it out on a real client. Best of all, when you're done tattooing A Pound of Flesh hand, foot or arm, you can put it on display in your shop and at conventions to showcase your talents. You can even sell your best practice pieces as art that tattoo enthusiasts will be proud to display in their homes.
There are few disadvantages to using A Pound of Flesh products that aren't negated by their many benefits. The biggest con is the price of APOF products. Traditional sheets of practice skin usually sell for less than $10 per sheet, but APOF products can cost anywhere from $50 to $160 retail. The price doesn't seem to be an issue for artists who have discovered the benefits of tattooing this more life-like practice skin, though. All you have to do is look at the thousands of pictures artists have posted online of their A Pound of Flesh creations to know that.
Some artists say that it's also difficult to transfer stencils onto APOF products, but there's a work-around for that. Just use a Sharpie or other permanent marker to draw on your designs free-hand for optimal results. (Tattoo pens work, too, and the variety of colors they come in give you options for creating more detailed stencils before you begin tattooing.) The only other thing to keep in mind when working with A Pound of Flesh products is that, while it may be tempting to turn a hand, foot or arm to any angle that works for you while you're tattooing, it won't give you the same experience as tattooing a real person who can't rotate their hand or foot 360⁰ to make it easier for you to tattoo them.
What Artists Are Saying About A Pound of Flesh Practice Skin
The burning question for all new tattoo artists considering their tattoo practice skin options is this: Does tattooing A Pound of Flesh hand, foot or arm feel the same as tattooing real skin? According to artist testimonials on the A Pound of Flesh website, the answer is yes, APOF products feel and act more like real skin than any alternative. Tattoo artist Brandon Schultheis is quoted as saying, "I’ve never tattooed anything other than human skin, so I was surprised to find striking similarities when I was tattooing the silicone hand." Some of those similarities included the way APOF responds to ink staining, over-working and hand motion, and how the skin can be stretched, particularly over the pliable knuckles of an APOF hand. Brandon said, "Once my (coil) machines were turned up, I had very similar results to tattooing on real skin. I approached the piece the same way I would [when I] normally do a bio-organic tattoo on a client–sharpie drawing on the skin, a series of color/texture layers, and finally a clean outline and white highlights." You can see how well Brandon's first attempt at working with an APOF hand turned out in the image to the right.
Tattoo Practice Skin Alternatives
If you're a new tattoo artist and don't yet have the budget for A Pound of Flesh tattoo practice skin body parts, there are other decent tattoo practice skin alternatives that are more affordable. Precision Tattoo Supplies by Painful Pleasures offers a product called Tattoo 2nd Skin for under $10 a sheet retail. (Industry professionals can save on tattoo practice skin and other tattoo supplies by placing orders of $100-$499.99 in our Wholesale Store, or you can enjoy our lowest prices when placing orders of $500 or more in our Distributor Store.) We even offer tattoo practice skin sets, each of which includes an 11" x 14" sheet of tattoo practice skin, 2 tattoo tubes, 5 tattoo needles, and 3 bottles of Futura tattoo ink.
On top of being more life-like than some tattoo practice skin alternatives, the beauty of Precision 2nd Skin tattoo practice skin is that it comes in a flexible, flat sheet. You can wrap it around your arm or leg, or any body part of a willing model. If you're concerned about your tattoo needles puncturing through the 2nd Skin, you could wrap your tattoo practice skin around an inanimate object that will give you the shape you desire for your practice session. For instance, you could wrap it around a sofa arm, a baseball bat, or any other surface. You can even staple the ends together to secure your tattoo practice skin around the object giving it the contour you desire.
Tip: Instead of throwing away expired tattoo ink, use it on tattoo practice skin!
When you're ready to try A Pound of Flesh products, note that we offer aluminum display stands designed to show off your APOF arm and hand tattoo designs. We also offer an APOF hand and stand combo with two different style stands (version #1 is in the center below, and version #2 is shown from the front and back in the flanking images):
Ready to start practicing with the best tattoo practice skin options available? Visit our Tattoo Kits & Tattoo Practice Skin section to see all of the options we offer, pick your preferred tools, and start practicing! For tips on using Precision 2nd Skin, read our How to Use 2nd Skin Tattoo Practice Skin article.