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Tips on How to Start and Design a Tattoo Sleeve

close up shot of sleeve tattoo taken by Matheus Ferrero via Unsplash

If you have dreams of fully inked sleeves or a massive back piece, you’ve probably tossed around countless ideas of exactly how you’d like these tattoos to look. Whether you want a collection of different but cohesive designs or a single limb-encompassing tattoo, taking the time to brainstorm and sit with an artist about your ideas are essential steps towards getting any large-scale ink work. If you're serious about getting a large-scale piece, the following tips are simple, but important to consider.
 

How to Start a Tattoo Sleeve

As you plan out your sleeve tattoo or any other large-scale piece, there are a few major questions you’ll want to ask yourself:

Various answers to these questions will come up as you plan out your new tattoo, but as long as you go into the process with an open mind, you are sure to get a one-of-a-kind tattoo tailored to your goals and your canvas.
 

Choose a theme and style.

Picking a theme is the fun part of planning your tattoo sleeve, and it can be easy to let your mind run wild with ideas. You may already have an idea of what you want long before you decide to embark on the journey towards getting it tattooed. When it comes to theme, your biggest challenges may be trying to avoid adding too many elements to your design and/or sticking close to your ideas.

The main factors to consider early on in the planning process is the overall vibe or mood of the tattoo design you want and the style. Sleeve tattoos and other large-scale pieces are generally comprised of multiple designs that fall under a central theme. Whether you want one hyper-realistic half sleeve tattoo in full color or multiple American traditional pieces in black and grey, the sleeve design should be tattooed in the same style throughout to ensure your final tattoo is both attractive and cohesive. Keep your theme simple and be realistic about what you're trying to achieve.

black and grey ornamental tattoo sleeve in progress by Noksi

 

Decide on a length and start from the bottom (or top).

You will need to decide on the scale of the piece and choose which end the design will begin so that you can gradually build onto it. Some people are able to commit to getting a full back piece or a full sleeve tattoo, while others opt for a quarter or half sleeve tattoo. It is important to make it clear to your tattoo artist from the outset that your final goal is to have a large-scale piece. With this information in mind, your artist can design and place tattoo(s) in a way that will allow everything to flow with any additional ink you get in the future.

 

Be patient.

Are you looking to start small or do you wish to jump right into the deep end? Large-scale tattoos are time-intensive, so any artist you work with will want to be particularly careful in planning out this scale of work to ensure the process is smooth.

Planning a rigorous timeline for tattooing isn't for everyone, but you will need to be patient regardless of whether you want to slowly build on your piece or knock it all out in as few sessions possible. The outline usually takes a single session for most tattoo sleeves and other large-scale pieces. Once the outline is done, the following sessions are devoted to shading, color, and background. These subsequent sessions are typically scheduled 3–4 weeks after each other, depending on how dedicated you are to the timeline you and your artist set out, the level of detail of your particular design, and the overall cost. This process can take months or even years.

 

Communicate with Your Artist

As you make your final decisions about exactly what to incorporate into your sleeve tattoo or back piece, your chosen artist will be an unmatched resource. For this reason, it is important to connect with an artist early in the process to begin discussing what is and is not possible. The right artist will be open-minded, honest, and confident. They will be receptive to your ideas, honest about what can and cannot be done, and confident in their abilities to meet your tattoo goals.

Establishing open and clear communication with your artist from the very beginning of the process will help keep your ink aspirations realistic. If you maintain constant contact, the artist can provide feedback, draft designs, and revise them accordingly. Above all, it is important to trust your artist. Remember why you chose them — you admire their work, so give them the creative liberty to really show off their abilities.

As tattoos become increasingly popular, it can be easy to forget that they are a work of art. Tattoos take time. They require planning. Because tattoos are tailored to the expertise of the artist as well as the desires of the client, planning and designing a tattoo also require open-minded communication and a willingness to hear criticism. If you set out clear and achievable goals with an artist you trust, you will surely — in time — have an enviable large-scale piece.