Most aspiring tattooers know they can’t just pick up a machine and start tattooing right away, even if they are already talented artists.

Why? Because tattoo machines are heavier and harder to control than pencils or paint brushes, and tattoo designs have a different set of rules to regular drawings. Plus, unlike paper, skin stretches and bleeds, making it a difficult medium to work with. 

This is why it’s so important to first practice drawing tattoo designs and learn how to use a tattoo machine before taking on clients.

In this article, you’ll learn how to start practicing tattooing by

  • First, drawing tattoos on paper
  • Then, learning on fake skin
  • Finally, moving to tattooing on real people

That way, you'll feel confident when you take on your first real tattoo client.

Learn to Draw Tattoos on Paper | Understanding Design

While you’ll need to master using tattooing equipment to become a tattoo artist, the most important first step is to level up your drawing skills. You’ll need to be at the top of your game in order to design tattoos that make you stand out as you develop your own style. 

Draw Constantly

The first piece of advice you’ll get when you search how to practice tattooing without a machine is to draw…and draw constantly.

This is because your ability to draw is the ceiling of your ability to tattoo. The more time you spend drawing, the more potential you will have as a tattoo artist. 

That being said, there are ways to shortcut the process when it comes to learning to draw tattoo designs. Check them out in our article, How to Tattoo for Beginners. It’ll explain how to develop your own style, triple your drawing speed, and design world-class tattoos.

Use a Weighted Pencil

This is the best way to practice tattooing with a pencil. 

Tattoo artists need to have strong hands to support a tattoo machine for hours on end while still remaining steady. You can start building this strength by putting a pencil in the tattoo machine.

When you draw with the added weight of the machine on your pencil, you’ll not only get a feel for the machine’s size, you’ll start building the muscle memory you need to tattoo like a professional way faster. 

Bonus: Practice Drawing Temporary Tattoos on Friends and Family

A huge part of tattooing is knowing how to work with the curves and contours of the body. If you’re not ready to leave behind a permanent mark, you can practice drawing tattoo designs directly onto the body using a Sharpie. 

While this doesn’t train you to use a tattoo machine or how to get the right needle depth, it will prepare you to design tattoos that flow with the shape of the body and learn to steady yourself without a drawing table or desk (a luxury you’ll always have when drawing on paper). 

Practice Tattooing on Fake Skin | What to Practice Tattooing On

Drawing on paper or using a marker on skin can only get you so far. You’ll need to practice using your machine on fake skin so you can get used to the vibration of the machine, understand needle depth, and learn the basics of tattooing: lining, packing, and shading. (If you’re not sure how to do these three things, visit Tattoo Techniques for in-depth explanations.)

When it comes to fake skin, there are a few different things to practice tattooing on:

  • Synthetic skin
  • Fruit skin
  • Pig skin

Synthetic Skin: Our #1 Choice

Synthetic skin (our favorite brand is ReelSkin) is a sheet of silicone that looks and feels like human skin. Synthetic skin can lie flat on your work area, which makes these first “tattoos” much easier. 

If you overwork the skin on a real person

The tattoo will heal patchy or may even scar. If the fake skin is cut or has chunks missing from it, then you’ve overworked it and have caused too much trauma to the skin.

How to Practice Tattooing on Fake Skin:
  1. 1
    Make sure you have a sanitary setup. Even though you’re not at risk for any diseases while working with synthetic skin, it’s important to build up good tattooing habits.
  2. 2
    Apply the stencil to your practice skin
  3. 3
    Let the stencil dry (the longer, the better).
  4. 4
    Line the tattoo first. You’ll want to use round liners (RL needles). 
  5. 5
    Use a round shader (RS) or mag (M1) to pack in black ink or color.

Pro Tip: Float the needle

If you’re confident with your depth control, “float the needle” while you’re lining. It will give you more accuracy. However, you’ll want to be careful with this method because floating the needle increases your chances of blowouts and overworking the skin.

Fruit Skin: A Cost-Effective Option

Practicing on fruit, especially at the beginning of your tattooing journey is more difficult than synthetic skin. However, if you’re on a tight budget, it’s cheaper than fake skin. Additionally, fruit has curves, bumps, and creases like human skin. 

How to Practice Tattooing on Fruit:
  1. 1
    Make sure you have a sanitary setup.
  2. 2
    Choose a “good” fruit for tattooing. Bananas, oranges, and grapefruit tend to be the best options.
  3. 3
    Wash the fruit thoroughly. You want to go through the entire stencil process with any fake skin. This includes using a sanitizer to strip the skin of oil, which keeps the stencil from sticking well. However, you’ll want to do a more thorough wash first for fruit, since it will be more likely to have dirt or debris on it that can clog the needle than synthetic skin. 
  4. 4
    Apply the stencil to your fake skin. 
  5. 5
    Let the stencil dry (the longer, the better).
  6. 6
    Line the tattoo first. You’ll want to use round liners (RL needles). 
  7. 7
    Use a round shader (RS) or mag (M1) to pack in black ink or color. 

Peel the skin of your fruit after tattooing.

If you’re tattooing a fruit with “thick skin” like a grapefruit, your needle should not make it all the way through the skin. If they are, you’re going way too deep.

Pig Skin: The “Real” Skin Option

If you’re really wanting to practice on “real” skin but you’re not ready to tattoo yourself or a family member, you can try tattooing pig skin. The best way to get pig skin is to ask a local butcher, who might give it to you for free. 

You should use gloves and sanitary equipment for every practice tattoo. However, when dealing with real skin like this, you must make sure those safety measures are in place. 

How to Practice Tattooing on Pig Skin:
  1. 1
    Make sure you have a sanitary setup.
  2. 2
    Apply the stencil to your fake skin. 
  3. 3
    Let the stencil dry (the longer, the better).
  4. 4
    Line the tattoo first. You’ll want to use round liners (RL needles). 
  5. 5
    Use a round shader (RS) or mag (M1) to pack in black ink or color. 

Tattooing Human Skin | Who to Tattoo First

This step should only come after you are confident working with practice skin. That being said, if you are going to be tattooing yourself or another person, you must have an understanding of the health risks and get your Bloodborne Pathogens certification. Keeping a sanitary tattooing station is more complicated than it might seem, and in most states, it is illegal to tattoo another person without this training. 

Tattooing Yourself

Most artists begin by tattooing on themselves. Tattooing your thigh (as opposed to an arm) allows you to use both hands and practice getting a good stretch on the skin. This gives you the best practice because you will be using both hands while tattooing other people. 

Additionally, thigh tattoos are also easy to cover. If you’ve practiced enough, you’ll be ready to tattoo human skin, but your first tattoos won’t be your best work. You’ll probably want them in a place that isn’t visible at all times.

Tattooing Friends and Family

Of course, the space on yourself is going to be limited. Once you feel comfortable, giving small tattoos to friends and family will let you sharpen your skills by tattooing more often. 

There will be mistakes in your first tattoos.

There will be mistakes in your first tattoos. Some of those mistakes can be hidden if you do the right tattoos. Check out this video tutorial on The Best Tattoos for Beginner Artists to learn which designs give you a little margin of error while you’re learning:

Practice Tattooing with Professional Guidance

Everything we’ve listed here will help you get a good start when it comes to practicing your tattooing. However, to be great at tattooing, you need a full understanding of how tattoos are designed, as well as how tattoo artists use different needles and techniques to produce professional designs.

This can take years - or even decades - to learn on your own without help. 

The Artist Accelerator Program lets you learn without having to give up your income for years in an unpaid apprenticeship. Cut years off the learning curve and learn from professional tattoo artists. Our proven course allows you to learn the craft of tattooing in a structured way that’s worked for over 2500 students. 

Get instant access to the training, mentorship, and guidance you need to become a professional tattoo artist. 

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

Tattooing 101's Artist Accelerator 90 day program is the closest thing to a real apprenticeship

  • 500 video modules
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AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain. When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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