Complete Guide to Tattooing Yourself

As a new tattoo artist, tattooing yourself can be intimidating, especially if it’s your first tattoo on human skin. It’s important to know these practice tattoos probably won’t be your best work. However, a lot of artists consider tattooing yourself to be a rite of passage when you’re starting out (and we’ve all done it).

tattoo artist with black ink tattoo
tattoo artist
tattoo artist using a tattoo machine

If you could use some guidance through that process, you’re in the right place. We’ll go through what you need to know before tattooing yourself, as well as walk you through the tattoo process. 

In this article, we’re breaking down:

  • How to prepare to tattoo yourself
  • The best placements for working on your own body
  • How to figure out what to do to improve

Note:

We highly recommend practicing tattooing on fake skin before moving to human skin - even your own.

How to Tattoo Yourself

Almost every tattoo artist has tattooed themselves for practice. It lets you learn...without messing up someone else’s skin. However, even though this is “practice” - it’s still a real tattoo. It’s important to remember that tattoos are open wounds.

Tattooing in your kitchen, bathroom, any space where pets have access, etc. is dangerous and will raise your risk of infection.

Note:

If you don’t use the right safety techniques, you’re putting yourself at risk for disease caused by blood-borne pathogens. The best way to stay safe is to get your Blood-borne Pathogens (BBP) Certification before you tattoo anyone - including yourself. BBP certification is required for tattoo artists in almost every state. 

  1. 1

Get the Right Equipment

Do not use sewing needles, pen ink, etc. to tattoo yourself. You’re more likely to get infections, it will make the tattoo more painful, and it will make it impossible to get a good result. Here’s the products we recommend:

Your Station

Before you start tattooing, you’ll need to set up a station that helps you keep everything clean and safe. 

You need a non-porous station you can completely disinfect.

Massage table or metal chair

To protect yourself from infection, you need to be sitting in an area that you can easily wrap with plastic barriers and disinfect. This means either a metal chair or a massage table. Couches, cushions, carpet, etc. are difficult to clean and put your tattoo at risk of infection.

Note:

Having a massage table will make it much easier for you to position clients correctly and make your job much easier.

This is a hospital-grade cleaner that kills blood-borne pathogens like hepatitis, HIV, and tuberculosis. Use these wipes on your tray, chair, and all surrounding surfaces. 

Plastic Barriers

Cover all surfaces with plastic wrap. Make sure to wrap your machine with a machine bag and secure it with grip tape, and to use a clip cord cover if your machine is not wireless.

You’ll use this to seal the machine bag around your machine.

Put a dental bib down on your tray. This will make cleaning up your materials after your tattoo easier.

You’ll need to clean your skin with green soap and alcohol before tattooing. Green soap is very heavily concentrated, so you’ll need to dilute it in a squeeze bottle with distilled water. Alcohol will get all the oils off the skin and help the stencil hold up longer. 

Dilute your green soap down with distilled water. We recommend filling 10% of the bottle with green soap and filling the rest with distilled water.

Note:

Some artists prefer using Dial soap instead of green soap since it can be softer on the skin. If you use Dial, add 12 pumps to a standard-size squeeze bottle and fill with distilled water.

Distilled water has all contaminants, metals, etc. removed from it, which makes it safe for tattooing. Tap water has not gone through that treatment, and should not be used to clean the skin before tattooing.

Always wear gloves while tattooing, even if you’re working on yourself. Germs on your hands or under your nails can cause infection.

We recommend using nitrile gloves instead of latex to avoid any allergic reactions or skin irritation. 

Use tongue depressors to take Vaseline out of the tub instead of your fingers to prevent cross-contamination. 

A thin layer of Vaseline over the stencil will protect it while you’re tattooing and wiping away ink. 

Paper Towels

You’ll dab at any excess ink on the skin with a thick paper towel while tattooing. We recommend Viva paper towels. 

Lighting

You need a lot of light to tattoo. Just turning on the light in the room where you’ll be tattooing won’t be enough and you’ll be fighting with your own shadow trying to see what you’re doing. An LED light (like a ring light) aimed at the spot where you’re tattooing will make your job much easier.

Tattoo Machine

Which tattoo machine is right for you will depend on your personal preferences and what you find comfortable. However, we recommend using a pen machine for most beginners. They’re generally more comfortable to work with, since they aren’t back-heavy like a coil or rotary machine.

While coil machines are considered more “traditional,” they require a lot of tuning, are heavy, and tend to vibrate more than pen or rotary machines. 

Note:

Check out our article Best Tattoo Machines for Beginners for our favorite brands and machines.

Tattooing Materials

Before you start tattooing, you’ll need to set up a station that helps you keep everything clean and safe. 

 stencil paper for diy tattoos
tattoo ink
cups for india ink
tattoo needle

Beyond your setup and machine, you’ll need these materials to actually do a tattoo:

Note:

It’s easier to tear or cut the skin with a small liner (like a 3 or 5 round liner). However, most beginner tattoo machines don’t have the power to push larger needle groupings (like a 14 round liner). Sticking to something in-between (like a 9 round liner) might be a good choice for your first tattoo on yourself.

  1. 2

Pick a Design and Placement

ram’s skull body art for diy tattoos
skull stencil for tattoo artists
paw print stencil for professional tattoo artists
koi fish stencil for diy tattoos

We recommend picking something small and simple. That way, if it’s not your best work, it’s not taking up a ton of space and you can cover it up in the future. 

These Easy Tattoos for Beginners are a great place to start and focus on clean linework and simple shading techniques.

Note: 

Your tattoo should be “right side up” when you are standing, which means you’ll probably be working upside down.

Decide on Placement: Thighs and Calves

flowers in black tattoo ink
deer tattoo in black tattoo ink

Here’s a few things to keep in mind when it comes to where you tattoo yourself:

Pain Level

It’s more difficult to stay focused on your tattooing if you’re in extreme pain. We recommend avoiding sensitive areas like your palms, fingers, feet, ankles, back of the knees, and ditch of the elbow for that reason. 

Places that are more “fatty” like the thighs and calves are less painful and tend to have “good” skin for tattooing since they’re already pretty naturally stretched.

Visibility and Prime Real Estate

Odds are, your first tattoos on yourself won’t be your best tattoos. That’s why we recommend tattooing on your legs. They’re easier to hide than a bad tattoo on your arm or hand.

Also, you don’t want to cover easy-to-see areas with bad tattoos at the beginning of your career. Save those areas for your favorite artists or the more advanced tattoos you’ll be able to do in the future.

  1. 3

Prepare Yourself and Your Skin

Tattooing can already be physically intensive and take a long time. Make sure you do all the things you would tell a client including eating a good meal, drinking plenty of water, avoiding blood-thinning pain killers, and getting good rest beforehand. 

Prepare the Skin and Apply the Stencil

Tattooing freehand is incredibly difficult, and something you shouldn’t try to do until you’re several years into your career. Instead, you should always use a stencil. If you aren’t sure how to create a stencil, check out our Complete Guide to Tattoo Stencil Paper. 

  1. 1
    Wash the area you’ll be tattooing with Green Soap.
  2. 2
    Shave the area with a brand-new razor.
  3. 3
    Sanitize your skin with hand sanitizer.
  4. 4
    Apply Stencil Stuff with a gloved hand and wait until it feels “tacky".
  5. 5
    Place the stencil on your skin and hold it there for a moment to let it transfer before peeling it off.
  6. 6
    Wait 15-20 minutes to let the stencil dry.
  1. 4

Tattoo Your Design

There’s a lot that goes into tattooing. If you need a refresher on your tattooing techniques, check out our guides to Lining and Shading. 

Here’s a few things to keep in mind while you’re tattooing:

Pay Attention to Your Needle Depth

It can be hard to ignore the pain of the needle, which makes a lot of people not go deep enough in the skin while tattooing themselves. You’ll naturally want to pull back a bit, so pay close attention that your needle depth is right. 

Stretch Your Skin

You have to stretch the skin to get clean lines - no matter where you’re tattooing. Remember to stretch in the direction of the line you’re tattooing.

Hold Your Machine the Right Way

Your machine should be facing in the direction of the line you’re tattooing. This will be even more difficult tattooing yourself, because it’ll be harder to move around the way you can with a client. However, making sure you’re holding the machine the right way - and not just turning the machine with your body - will keep your lines crisp.

  1. 5

Clean Your Space

Throw away all disposables, disinfect your work area, and put all used needles or cartridges into a biohazard sharps container.

Aftercare and Assessing Your Work

Make sure you follow proper aftercare so that your tattoo heals well and you can see the final results of your tattoo. While the tattoo heals, you’ll be able to start judging what you did well, and what you need to work on.

  • If the tattoo heals too light…
Your needle depth is too shallow. You may need to hang your needles out farther.
  • If your lines are blown out…
Your needle is going too deep in the skin. 
  • If your lines are very shaky…
You might not be stretching the skin in the right direction. Check out our Complete Guide to Lining Techniques to troubleshoot your lining.
  • If your shading looks “patchy”...
You’re not using the correct technique. Check out our guide to Tattoo Shading Techniques to learn more. 

FAQs

Is Tattooing Yourself Dangerous?

There’s some risk with every tattoo. The safest tattoo you can get is from a professional inside a tattoo shop. If you’re tattooing yourself, there’s additional risk for infection since your space has (probably) not been inspected and approved by local officials.

The best way to keep yourself safe is to use an all-disposable setup, which means your needles and grip should be single-use and EO gas sterilized before use. You should get your blood-borne pathogens certification before tattooing yourself to make sure you know how to avoid infections and disease while tattooing.

Is Tattooing Yourself Easy?

No. You’ll probably need to sit in an awkward position for several hours, and you’ll likely be tattooing upside down, since you’ll probably be coming from the opposite direction you would be on a client. 

This is difficult enough if you’ve already been tattooing for a long time, which is why we recommend being very comfortable working on fake skin before attempting to tattoo yourself.

Is it Illegal to Tattoo Yourself?

In the United States, every state will have different laws. In most places, it is illegal to tattoo someone who is under 18 (even if you’re the one giving yourself a tattoo). Other states have laws against tattooing people - including yourself - without a license. 

To learn more about your state’s laws, check out our Guide Tattoo Licensing Laws in every state.

Does Tattooing Yourself Hurt?

Yes. If you’re not going as deep as you need to into the skin because of the pain, your tattoo will turn out too light or have patching shading. Depending on your tolerance, fighting the pain while tattooing yourself might make it infinitely more difficult to tattoo.

However, most tattooers will tell you the tattoo pain isn’t the problem - it’s the awkward position. Keeping your leg at an angle or hunching over to reach the spot your tattooing can be incredibly painful after a few hours. Make sure you’re taking breaks to stretch when needed. 

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Tattooing yourself is an exciting experience, but it can also be pretty eye-opening to how difficult tattooing can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist. 

However, finding the straight-forward information you need to progress is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources..

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into tattooing because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits. 

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need to build your skills and create incredible tattoos. 

With the Artist Accelerator, you can stop wasting time searching through incorrect information. You just get the clear, easy-to-understand lessons you need to start improving fast… along with support and personalized feedback from professional artists.

Over 2500 students have already gone through the course, with many of them opening up their own studios. If you want to join them and learn the skills you need to start tattooing full time faster…

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.

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