How to Tattoo Tribal

Tribal is a tattoo style that was at its most popular in the ‘90s. However, you’ll still see plenty of clients getting tribal tattoos, as well as clients who get tribal designs that are symbolic to their culture. 

Tribal tattoos require you to create perfect long lines and consistent, saturated fills.

In this article, we’ll be breaking down how to create a perfect tribal tattoo, including how to:

  • Use a hand-drawn Sharpie design as a stencil
  • Separate long lines into easier pieces
  • Make sure you aren’t overworking the skin

Tribal Tattoo Tutorial

Layer One: Red Pencil Layer

When you’re tattooing tribal, it’s very important that the design follows the flow of the body perfectly. Because of this, most tattoo artists will skip the stencil and draw the design directly onto the client’s skin. (This is not recommended for new tattoo artists. You should have a few years of tattooing under your belt before freehanding designs.)

However, Sharpie lines are much thicker than normal stencil lines, which makes them harder to follow. To avoid any wobbles in your lines, focus on following the inside or outside of the Sharpie line.

This will make it easier to be aware of where all your lines are so they can all come to a perfect point.

Pro Tip: 

You can wipe away some of the Sharpie before tattooing a line. This will make sure the mark of the Sharpie isn’t so powerful, which makes it easier to see your line work.


If you use a Sharpie to draw directly onto someone’s skin, always throw the Sharpie away after the tattoo. Reusing Sharpies on different clients can result in cross contamination.

Use a Thick Liner

When you’re tattooing tribal, you’ll want to go with a thicker liner. That way, when you go back and fill in the design, you don’t have to worry about tattooing all the way up to a very thin line. This will make the job of filling in the tattoo faster and more efficient. 

In the video, Brandon is using a 10 hollow liner for his line work.

Whip Out Long Lines (2-Step Lines)

tattoo needle flicks out to make straight lines

Tribal tattoos usually have a lot of long lines in their designs. Because of this, you’ll want to get comfortable being able to pull long lines.

If you’re not comfortable with long lines yet, you can pick up the needle mid-line by whipping the needle out, moving back along the line a bit, and then joining that line with the next one. This will make your lines look seamless and consistent. 

If you try to tattoo a long line and it’s not comfortable, you’ll start to shake toward the end of the line. So it’s best to break it up into two steps.

Fill in the Tattoo From the Corner

To fill your tattoo with solid black, we recommend hanging out your needles a bit so you can see exactly where you’re tattooing. Because you need the fill to go perfectly up against your line work, we recommend starting with the corners and edges of the tattoo and working your way in.

This can make it easier to stay inside your line work and know where you’ve already tattooed. If you go over the same section too many times, the area will be overworked and have a hard time healing.

Packing Technique

Because you’re packing ink into the tattoo, you’ll want to use your mag to create tiny circles. 

If the circles are too big, then there are going to be areas in the middle of your circles that aren’t completely saturated. This will cause the tattoo to look super light and patchy when it’s healed. We recommend slowing down your hand speed and lowering your voltage, if needed, until you get the feel of creating those tight circles. 

In the video, Brandon uses a 15 curved mag to fill the tattoo.


You don’t want to go back over a section of skin multiple times because you can damage the skin.

Pro Tip: 

Hold your machine at an angle. This will help make sure the area is completely saturated. Because the ink is being put into the skin at an angle, it will cover more space as the ink deposits “overlap” one another.

How to Avoid the Gap Between Shading and Line Work

A lot of new tattoo artists will find that there is a small gap between their line work and their shading. This is because they are looking at where the outside of the cartridge is, and not where the needle is. 

Tattooing at the Right Depth

When you hit the right depth in the skin, you will feel a slight vibration in your hand. Tattooing at the right depth will make sure you’re not causing extra damage or blowouts

To get rid of this space, you need to make sure the needle is reaching all the way up to your line work.

Watch Your Client

Tattooing tribal can be pretty repetitive, especially when you’re filling in large areas. 

On larger tattoos, it can take hours, and the body can only take so much. This is why you need to be aware of your client’s pain level and have a plan if they tap out. (This could mean working in sections, making sure all the line work is done first, etc.)

Become a Tattoo Artist With the Artist Accelerator Program

student work from the Artist Accelerator tattoo artist training programs

Having a career in tattooing is not only fulfilling, but it’s also the most stable way to make a living as an artist. However, for decades, the process to become a tattoo artist has been notoriously difficult. 

The apprenticeship process requires aspiring tattoo artists to work 50-60 hours a week without pay for 2-4 years. That, combined with the toxic culture of abusing apprentices, makes getting into the industry almost impossible for newcomers. 

That’s why we created the Artist Accelerator Program. Our online course provides a simple, structured way of learning to tattoo that has been proven to work by over 2500 successful students, with many of them having gone on to open their own shops all around the world. 

Inside the program, we’ll take you through every step of the tattooing process in 9 clear, easy-to-follow modules and support you along the way within the Tattooing 101 Mastermind online community.

In the Mastermind group, you’ll collaborate with other students, get answers to your questions, and receive personalized video feedback on your artwork and tattoos from professional tattoo artists. With this friendly community of both new and experienced tattoo artists, you’ll never be stuck again. 

When you join the Artist Accelerator Program, you’ll have instant access to the full course and the Mastermind community, as well as our 30-Day Flash Challenge and recorded interviews with tattoo artists from all over the world. 

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

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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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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