Tattoo Placement Guide

The term “tattoo placement’ simply means where on the body you put a tattoo. As a tattoo artist, placement can make or break your design because even incredible tattoos will look awkward with the wrong placement. 

By the end of this article, you’ll know where to place tattoos so your designs flow with the body, which means your tattoos will always look good.

In this article, we’re breaking down:

  • What to consider when it comes to tattoo placement
  • How to alter designs for different parts of the body
  • Tattoo placement ideas

Tattoo Placement Considerations: Customer Consultation

Most customers won’t have a good understanding of tattoo placement and what makes a design look good on the body.

Whether the client has an idea of where they want their tattoo or they’re open to your suggestions, it’s a good idea to run through these ideas with them before you start designing:

Visibility

Whether your client wants their tattoo to be easy to hide or not will make a big impact on their tattoo placement. For example, the torso, upper thighs, and upper arms will be easier to hide than their forearms.

neck tattoo
upper thigh tattoo
shoulder tattoos

Size and Detail

The size and detail of the tattoo should match the placement of the tattoo. If you consider each part of the body as its own “canvas,” then it’s easy to see that large and detailed tattoos (like a Japanese design) just won’t fit right on someone’s wrist. Even if you could somehow cram all that detailed linework into such a small space, overtime the lines would blur together and leave a “blob” of ink on the skin.  

On the other hand, while small tattoos (ex: symbols) can look good on large parts of the body, having lots of small tattoos on a large area ruins the “canvas.” Trying to piece together a bunch of small tattoos will never look as good as a big tattoo done all at once.

If your client wants a design that won’t work for the area they want tattooed, you’ll need to let them know that it won’t turn out exactly how they imagine and steer them toward a different placement.

full body tattoo vs small tattoo

Most artists - and clients - will decide that pain is temporary and worth a tattoo that lasts a lifetime.

However, if it’s a client’s first tattoo, it might be best to advise away from big tattoos or particularly painful areas, like the ribs or armpit. It’s hard to mentally prepare for that type of pain if they’ve never felt it before, and talking them into an easier placement will help them have a better experience (and keep them from tapping out).

Pain tolerance chart
Tattoo placements pain chart

Future Plans

Bodies change over time, which means the tattoos on them change, too. If your client is planning to see a big change in their body (if they’re planning for major weight loss, pregnancy, significant muscle gain, etc.), then a tattoo’s design might become warped as the skin changes.

For example, if a client is planning to get pregnant, then it might be best to wait for a tattoo near the stomach or hips. It is possible to tattoo over stretch marks after pregnancy, but if they get the tattoo beforehand, the design could change permanently.

Tattoo Goals

If your client is planning to get more tattoos (for example, if they want a full sleeve later on), then putting a tiny tattoo in the center of their forearm or bicep could make that more difficult. They’ll either need to cover it up or it’ll have to be incorporated into a future sleeve design.

Even turning a 3/4 sleeve into a full sleeve will be hard. Let your client know that it’s best to decide what they want before they start getting tattoos, and then to stick with that decision.

Designing for Tattoo Placement: Design Process

Now that you’ve figured out the placement, you’ll need to design for that part of the body. Here’s a few things to keep in mind:

Fit the Body Part

Ideally, the tattoo you design will fit the shape of the body and fully “fill” the space. For example, a half sleeve should be big enough to fill up the rounded shape of the shoulder or a forearm tattoo shouldn’t wrap so far around the arm that it overlaps.

Flow with the Muscles

Tattoo designs that flow look like they belong on the body. Designs that don’t flow look awkward. Designing with flow means following the musculature of the body.

For small lines of script, you can follow the “flow” of the body by putting the tattoo directly on one of the prominent lines of the body, like on the spine or in a straight line down the inner bicep or forearm.

Note:

If your client wants a bad placement, giving them a quick explanation of how a tattoo should fit and flow with the body might help them decide on a better area.

Images Right Side Up

When a person is standing with their arms relaxed at their sides, their tattoos should be right side up. Some customers prefer to have their designs facing them, but it’s generally considered against the aesthetic “rules” of tattooing.

small tattoo on forearm

Faces Look Forward or Inward

When a tattoo design has a face, it should either face inward or forward, depending on the tattoo’s placement. For example, an image with a face on the chest should face inward toward the body’s center line. An image with a face on the outer thigh should face forward.

large tattoo on woman’s back
stomach tattoo of wolves
upper arm tattoo of a woman

Redesigning Tattoos for a New Placement

In some cases, your client will have a design they like, but they’ll want it in a placement that won’t work. If they want a design they found online that isn’t a tattoo, you’ll need to rework the image so that it will flow like a tattoo on their body and work with the placement they’ve chosen.

However, sometimes an image won’t work as a tattoo. For example, if a client has a photo of roses side by side on a piece of paper that they want tattooed on their wrist, you would have to explain that having roses side-by-side like that would wrap around their wrist…and that all the little details wouldn’t fit on such a small area of the body.

Then, you can offer them possible solutions. For example, they can simplify the design and keep the wrist placement, or they can keep the detailed design but move it to a different area.

flower tattoo

Finding the Perfect Placement

Here’s our suggestions on small, medium, large, and extra large tattoo placements:

Small

The smallest areas on the body are best for simple designs made of basic shapes.

Small areas of the body include:

  • Wrist
  • Back of the palm
  • Top of the foot
  • Fingers
  • Ankle
  • Behind the ear
  • Above the elbow
  • Knee
medium tattoo placement area

Medium

“Medium”-sized canvases on the body are great for flash tattoos, script, and designs that can fit on a long and skinny area.

Medium areas on the body include:

  • Forearm
  • Calves
  • Shins
  • Neck
  • Shoulder
  • Upper arm
  • Shoulder blade
  • Inner thigh
  • Sternum
large tattoo placement area

Large

A larger canvas gives you more area to work with, letting you create more detailed tattoos with more elements.

Large areas on the body include:

  • Upper thigh
  • Upper back
  • Lower back
  • Chest
  • Stomach
  • Hip
  • Ribs
extra large tattoo placement area

Extra-large

Because these are the biggest areas on the body, they are the largest canvases tattoo artists have. “Extra-large” canvases are usually a combination of several areas. These allow for extended pieces of work that the artist and client create together.

Extra-large areas on the body include:

  • Full sleeve
  • Full leg sleeve
  • Chest + stomach
  • Upper back + Lower back
  • Full back + buttocks + back of thighs (traditionally used for Japanese body suits)

Note:

Some clients will have their hearts set on getting a small tattoo on a large “canvas.” These can still look great, as long as the design still works with the flow of their body.

Small

The smallest areas on the body are best for simple designs made of basic shapes.

Small areas of the body include:

  • Wrist
  • Back of the palm
  • Top of the foot
  • Fingers
  • Ankle
  • Behind the ear
  • Above the elbow
  • Knee
medium tattoo placement area

Medium

“Medium”-sized canvases on the body are great for flash tattoos, script, and designs that can fit on a long and skinny area.

Medium areas on the body include:

  • Forearm
  • Calves
  • Shins
  • Neck
  • Shoulder
  • Upper arm
  • Shoulder blade
  • Inner thigh
  • Sternum
large tattoo placement area

Large

A larger canvas gives you more area to work with, letting you create more detailed tattoos with more elements.

Large areas on the body include:

  • Upper thigh
  • Upper back
  • Lower back
  • Chest
  • Stomach
  • Hip
  • Ribs
extra large tattoo placement area

Extra-large

Because these are the biggest areas on the body, they are the largest canvases tattoo artists have. “Extra-large” canvases are usually a combination of several areas. These allow for extended pieces of work that the artist and client create together.

Extra-large areas on the body include:

  • Full sleeve
  • Full leg sleeve
  • Chest + stomach
  • Upper back + Lower back
  • Full back + buttocks + back of thighs (traditionally used for Japanese body suits)

Helpful tools for Deciding on Tattoo Placement

If you want to get inspiration for different placements or test how a tattoo will look on a certain area, you can use these tools to help:

InkHunter

augmented reality image showing tattoo inked onto skin

This app uses augmented reality to let you see a tattoo on your own (or your client’s) body and test how it looks in different areas.

This is a giant online library of tattoos. You can search tattoos for individual body parts to get inspiration.

artist applying a tattoo

Learn to Master Tattooing with the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning about design and tattoo placement are some of the first steps on your journey to becoming a tattoo artist. Next, you need to learn how to tattoo the right way and bring your artwork to life.

There’s a ton of information out there that promises to teach you to tattoo, but a lot of it is outdated or incorrect. This is why most tattoo artists trying to learn online pick up bad habits that can take years to unlearn.

If you want to learn how to tattoo the right way, you can still do it online and at your own pace.

We created the Artist Accelerator Program to give aspiring artists all the lessons and techniques they need in an easy-to-follow, 9-step roadmap that can take anyone from complete beginner to professional tattoo artist in as little as 90 days.

Inside the program, you’ll learn the skills tattoo artists use every day, get personalized guidance from professionals, and put together a portfolio that gets you hired.

Skip the years of trial and error and start building a career you love today.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

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

  • 500 video modules
  • Professional tattoo artist coaches
  • Private mastermind community
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.

write a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

SUGGESTED ARTICLES FOR YOU

MORE FREE CONTENT FOR YOU
July 13, 2022

To become a tattoo artist in the state of Alaska, you must ...

How to Get a Tattoo License – Alaska
July 20, 2022

As a new tattoo artist, it can be hard to come up ...

Tattoo Practice Drawings

Our Community

Join the Tattooing 101 Community today and get free, instant access to tools and resources that take you behind the curtain of all things tattooing. From apprentice to shop owner, we've got you covered.