How to Design Your Own Tattoos

Tattoo artist designing a tatoo

Choosing a tattoo design can be a daunting task. Although many people are happy with an exact image from flash art, others prefer a custom design which captures their unique sense of style and personality. By following a few basic steps and collaborating with a tattoo artist, you may find creating a custom tattoo is such a fun and creative process that you don't want to stop at one.

1. Choose a Tattoo Artist

Neon tattoo shop sign

The first step in creating the perfect tattoo is enlisting the help of a tattoo artist during the design stage. If you do not already have a tattooer in mind, begin by visiting the websites of local shops and checking out their individual artist portfolios.

When looking through portfolios, keep the theme and artistic style of your design in mind, and try to match that with the skills and talents of the prospective artist.

For example, if you are planning to have a portrait done, choose from artists who are proficient in portraiture and realism. Conversely, if you're leaning towards a design in the American Traditional style, choose from artists that exhibit the strong line-work and bold shading characteristic of the traditional style.

2. Schedule a Consultation

Once you've narrowed down to a few potential artists, pay a visit to their respective shops. Besides offering in-house portfolios, a shop should have a friendly, welcoming feel and a clean environment.

If you get a good overall feeling from a shop and believe that one of their artists would fit your needs, inquire about scheduling a consultation to get a design discussion underway. The preliminary consultation is crucial to designing a custom piece, so resist the temptation to skip this essential first step no matter how anxious you are to get your tattoo.

3. Prepare for Your Consultation

Before going in for your consultation, you should give some thought to what you want your tattoo to look like.

Find Inspiration

Consider the reason and inspiration behind your desire to create a custom tattoo so you can communicate your needs to the artist. Creating a custom piece is a personal process in which an individual takes great care to express him or herself in a permanent way. When trying to decide on what to capture in a tattoo design, consider things that have impacted you or truly express who you are. Remember that the design does not have to be a literal representation; it can act as a symbolic or metaphorical statement.

  • Maybe your perfect tattoo design portrays your kids, your partner, your pets or something that has simply struck you as beautiful or poignant.
  • Some tattoos are intended to be memorial pieces for lost loved ones even if they don't feature a portrait. For a memorial tattoo for your mom, for example, consider getting a tattoo of a character from a favorite storybook she read to you as a child. You might also consider a tattoo of the swing that hung from the oak tree outside of your childhood home.
  • Perhaps there is a line from a favorite poem or song that speaks to your soul. Rather than having the actual words tattooed, another option would be creating a custom drawing of the image it conjures it your mind's eye.

Your life tells the story of you, so take an event and try to imagine what it would look like described in imagery. If you can do that, you're well on your way to a custom tattoo design.

Gather Reference Material

It is also important to gather reference material to provide the tattoo artist with some visual examples of the concepts you have for your custom design.

As you work on creating an original piece, do not expect to find exact examples of the design. Instead, concentrate on trying to find samples that convey the overall style or contain certain elements you wish to incorporate. The reference material merely serves as a visual guide to help the artist create an original drawing.

There are countless sources for reference material, and they do not all have to be tattoo related, per se. While the most obvious sources would be from flash (images of tattoos that have already been designed) or previous tattoo work, you can also use sketches, illustrations from books, and any other visuals that help the artist conceptualize the design.

Use Technological Tools

With the continuing popularity of tattooing, there are now online tattoo design websites that provide users with a variety of customizable templates. You may find it helpful to work with one of these options before your consultation.

4. Have a Design Consultation Meeting

When meeting with the tattooer for the initial design consultation, remember that the best custom tattoos result from a collaboration between the client and artist. The ideal custom piece comes from staying true to your concept while remaining open to the modifications necessary to translate your abstract design into one suitable for the medium of tattooing.

While you have a concept of what you would like your tattoo to look like, the artist brings years of artistic and technical experience. Be open to suggestions and potential design modifications, and pay especially close attention to the artist's technical suggestions.

Important technical concerns to consider and discuss with your tattoo artist include:

  • Tattoo portrait drawing
    Location: Consider the body part on which the design will be tattooed. The design should fit that area of the body and complement the body's natural curves.
  • Number of elements: Avoid trying to incorporate too many elements into a single tattoo design. If you find you have many features you would like to include, consider spreading them out to multiple tattoos, or perhaps as separate components of a larger cohesive piece, such as a full sleeve. Too many elements will lend a busy and confusing look to the piece, ad there are also technical size constraints that your tattooer will discuss with you.
  • Size: One of the biggest technical considerations in tattooing is the size of the piece. Although you will determine the exact size at the time of tattooing, the artist will want an approximate size at the time of design. Often, in the interest of optimal clarity and longevity, a tattooer will suggest simplifying a design or increasing the overall size of the piece.
  • The future: As the skin ages, the lines of a tattoo will draw closer together and shrink the negative spaces (areas where skin shows through). As a result, some details become lost, and the tattoo may take on a blurry, muddled look. A good tattoo artist will consider what the tattoo will look like in the future and try to size the piece to look good for many years to come.

Once you and the artist have reached an agreement, he or she will be able to create a drawing of the design.

5. Get Tattooed

Tattoo in process

At the end of your design discussion, you should schedule a quick secondary consultation to check the drawing and make any final modifications.

Once the drawing is finished and you are ready to get tattooed, the artist will first place a stencil so you can preview how the tattoo will appear on your body. At this point in the process, you and the artist will finalize the precise size and placement of the tattoo and the exact shades of colors that will be used.

At this stage, all that's left to do is sit back and let the artist create the finished product of your custom design.

A Tattoo That Is Uniquely Yours

Designing a custom tattoo takes time and consideration and is best achieved through a collaboration with a professional and dedicated tattooer. Carefully gathering relevant reference material and remaining open to the tattooer's suggestions will result in an aesthetically pleasing piece as unique and expressive as its proud wearer.

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How to Design Your Own Tattoos