How can I Design a Tattoo?

Mary McMahon

Many people like to design a tattoo rather than picking out an already-made tattoo design so that they can have a customized tattoo which is also deeply personal. Anyone can design a tattoo, but there are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about a tattoo which can be used to create a more effective tattoo design.

Shading and linework are crucial aspects of tattoo design.
Shading and linework are crucial aspects of tattoo design.

The first step is thinking about the elements you want to include in your tattoo design. You may want to sit down and think about what the tattoo means to you, and which elements would represent that meaning, or you may want to rework an existing design, such as a family crest. If you see a tattoo which appeals to you, you may want to file the look and feel of the tattoo away in your mind for future reference, but don't copy a tattoo. People who design their own tattoos or work with an artist to create a custom design do not appreciate seeing their work duplicated on others!

Woman with tattoos on her arm and back.
Woman with tattoos on her arm and back.

It may help you to sketch out some of the elements of the tattoo design on paper. If you're not a very good artist, you can still design a tattoo with some artful use of tracing paper, although you may find yourself adjusting the design to meet your needs after you have traced it out. Start with a basic pencil or black ink for your roughs.

Thinking about the elements to include in your tattoo design is the first step to designing a tattoo.
Thinking about the elements to include in your tattoo design is the first step to designing a tattoo.

Once you have an idea of what you want, think about where you want it. Placement of tattoos is an important consideration in tattoo design. If, for example, you want a tattoo which runs up your side, you can design a tattoo which highlights the natural curves of your body and flows with it, rather than one which looks pasted on. When considering placement, you should also think about size. As a general rule, the bigger a tattoo is, the better, because big designs will remain striking and bold after years on the body, while small designs can turn muddy and indistinguishable. You might want to ask a friend to trace the area of the body you plan to use for a tattoo site so that you know how much space you have to work with.

Once you have completed these steps, you can advance to working on the actual tattoo. Many people like to start with the linework, the part of the tattoo which will be applied first. Linework should be simple, clear, and bold, since it is just the outline. Details will be added later, so think plain, and remember that every wavering line will be replicated by the tattoo artist. It's a good idea to do linework in pencil, lightly sketching in the details, and then to go over the work in pen so that it stands out.

After you finish the linework, make a copy of it, and use the copy to flesh out the details you want, such as highlighting, shading, and color. You may want to be aware that the tattoo artist may recommend changes based on his or her experience, and sometimes it's better to provide rough hints of the type of detailing and color you want, leaving the precision work up to the artist. The artist may also have textural suggestions, such as shading in the background; you can reject these suggestions if they are not in keeping with your vision of the tattoo.

With your tattoo design and linework in hand, you can seek out an artist who will work with you. It's good to find an artist who likes your design and works in the style you are aiming for, to ensure that the tattoo is well-executed. You may need to shop around awhile, but it's worth it; after you design a tattoo, you might as well make sure that it looks as good as possible.

A tattoo machine.
A tattoo machine.

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Discussion Comments


I got my first tattoo last year. The first shop I went to, the artist did not want to do the design I had thought of. He wanted to make the rose huge and the font tiny. A tiny font is not a good idea because it can become muddy fast. The second shop I went to I met with the owner and we talked about my design. She loved it. She just changed the style of the rose and added a few touches that look amazing. The writing isn't small, but it isn't huge either.

Its all about finding an artist you can communicate with and who understands your vision when you bring a design to them.


@cellmania- Many times, when someone has an idea but no artist, they ask previous tattoo artists to sketch out their idea. However, if this were your first tattoo this wouldn’t apply to you. In that case, I suggest going to a local tattoo shop and ask an artist there to sketch it out for you. Some tattoo shops will charge you to get an idea sketched out so I would suggest seeking good recommendations on an artist before doing business with him.


I have decided where I want my tattoo, the size, and every detail about it. My problem is that I cannot draw it out and I don’t know who can. How do I find the right person to design a tattoo for me?


Designing a tattoo can be either very complicated or easy. Most people prefer having a tattoo designed personally for them rather than choosing one that has already been drawn out. Aside from the time put into designing a tattoo, it is easy to accomplish.

First, you need to know the general layout of what you want. It’s best to have some sort of idea on what you’re wanting before approaching an artist. Second, you must figure out who will make your idea come to life. In other words, either you must draw the tattoo yourself or find someone who can. If someone is drawing a tattoo for you, make sure you are very clear and precise as to every detail you want. Keep in mind the artist cannot work well with a broad and unorganized layout. An important tip is to know where you want the tattoo before you draw it out. Size also makes a difference.

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