Your tattoo techniques form the foundation of all your tattoos. If you have great technique, you can expect to create solid tattoos that look great for years to come.
If you’re an aspiring tattoo artist, perfecting the fundamentals of tattooing is what will take you from an average tattooer to a master artist.
Whether this is your first dive into the world of tattooing, or you’re just here for a refresher, this article will explain everything you need to know to nail down your technique.
Want to skip down to more advanced techniques? Click here.
Your lining technique is the most important one to get right. Your lines act as the basic shape or outline of your tattoo design, so if they aren’t good, then the entire tattoo will look amateur.
Unfortunately, lining is also one of the hardest things to master in tattooing. However, there are a few tricks of the trade that can make things a lot easier:
3 Points of Contact
A tattoo machine is much bigger than a pencil, but more importantly, it doesn’t stay still. This makes it difficult to grip like a drawing pencil. Instead, you need to establish more stability when tattooing a line than when you’re simply drawing one. You can create that stability using three points of contact:
You’ll use the thumb and forefinger of your stretching hand to stretch the skin in the direction of the line you’re tattooing.
Move the Tattoo Machine With the Line
Whether you “pull” the line toward you or “push” the line away from you is up to you. However, you’ll always want to keep the needle at an angle with the skin, and move the needle cartridge in the direction of the line. (Don’t move the needle side to side across the skin.)
Making Fluid Lines (Even When You Pick Up the Needle)
Some lines are going to be too long to make in one single motion. But an experienced tattoo artist can make it look like one fluid line.
To create this illusion, you need to “flick” the needle up so that the line comes to a tapered point. To do this, instead of picking the needle up off the skin, do a small dragging motion while you lift up.
When you’re ready to continue the line, do the opposite. Don’t just put the needle down onto the skin, swing the machine in at an angle (see image below).
An important part of line work is making sure that your lines are “readable.” If you have a design full of lines that have the same “weight,” or thickness, it will be more difficult for someone looking at the tattoo to understand the image. However, if you use different needles, you can make different line weights and create more dimension in your tattoos.
Thicker bold lines should make the main part of the outline, and thinner lines should help fill in the details. For example, the outline of a tree branch will be thicker than the lines that compose the bark of the tree.
When you’re lining, you’ll almost always use a Round Liner. On the needle package, this will be listed as “RL” followed by a number. The number represents how many sharps are in that individual needle. The larger the number, the more sharps in the needle, and the thicker the line it’ll produce.
For example, a 1207RLLT needle will have seven sharps and will be thicker than an 1203RLLT needle, which only has three sharps.
Not sure how to read these needle classifications? Check out our Tattoo Needles Guide.
Riding the Tube Vs. Floating the Needle
“Riding the Tube” means pulling a line with the needle cartridge placed directly on the skin. This lets you set the needle depth before you begin tattooing and makes sure you never go deep enough in the skin to cause a blowout. However, it makes it more difficult for you to see your stencil.
“Floating the Needle” means hanging your needles out further and leaving a small space between the skin and the needle cartridge. This lets you see exactly where the ink is going into the skin. This method is recommended, but it does require you to control the needle depth on your own.
Not sure how to control your needle depth? Find out how here.
It is normal for new tattoo artists to “ride the tube” at first to make sure they are getting the right depth. However, with more practice tattooing, you’ll want to learn to float the needle. We highly recommend practicing this on fake skin before you start tattooing on real people.
When you’re first starting, you’ll want to keep the voltage on your machine a little lower. This lets you work slower without chewing up the skin.
As you progress and pulling lines becomes easy, you can up the voltage. This will speed up the motion of the needle so you can pull your lines faster.
A lot of people think that if someone can tattoo with a faster hand speed, then that means they are a good tattoo artist. And there are great artists who happen to tattoo quickly. However, every tattoo artist is going to have a speed that’s perfect for them. We recommend all artists start slow in the beginning and then find which speed is most comfortable. Many tattooers find that a slower speed allows them to do their best work.
Advanced Linework Techniques
“Bloodlining” means running a tattoo needle along the skin as if you were using ink, but you’re only using distilled water. This makes blood rise to the surface so that you see a “bloodline” on the person’s skin. Artists will use this as a way to temporarily outline intricate details - usually in realism. These lines can’t be rubbed off with the stencil.
How to Create a Bloodline
While bloodlining, you want to cause the least amount of trauma to the skin as possible:
Bloodlining only works if you’re doing the tattoo in one session. Within 12 hours, the skin will heal, and the bloodline will be invisible.
Even though bloodlining doesn’t leave ink behind, it’ll feel the same as normal tattooing to your client. Keep in mind that if you spend a ton of time bloodlining and the client taps out shortly after, that time - and the pain for you client - will be wasted.
Graylining is similar to bloodlining, but you use a very light gray wash instead of distilled water. Tattoo artists will grayline their stencil if the tattoo will take more than one session. That way, when the client returns, they don’t have to re-do the stencil and pick up where they left off.
By the end of the tattoo, the shading will cover up the gray lines.
“Packing” in ink means filling in a section of skin with a single color or pure black ink. Being able to pack ink so that it looks like a solid plane of color is important to making tattoos look vibrant. Without solid packing, your tattoos will look “patchy” and the color will look like it’s been scribbled onto the skin.
How to pack
The best way to pack in ink is to move the needle in tight ovals. These ovals should be so tight that it’s impossible to actually see the outline of the ovals. Instead, the skin just looks like it’s completely saturated with the ink’s color.
To make sure you’re getting a consistent fill, you can “crosshatch” your ovals. Just remember that each pass over the skin causes more trauma to the skin.
When packing with a magnum needle, make sure you hold the machine at an angle so the sharps don’t line up and cut the skin. Need a visual? Check out our article How to Tattoo for Beginners.
As a rule of thumb, you want to use the largest needle the tattoo will allow. For large back pieces, this would mean a large mag. For a tiny tattoo, you might need a small round shader.
However, you’d never want to use a 5 RS needle to fill in a massive tattoo. It’ll take you forever - and increase your chances of chewing up the skin with too many passes. (You would only need a smaller needle for little details. Then you can use larger needles for the rest of the tattoo.)
Always buy your needles and other tattooing equipment from a reputable supplier. When you are a licensed tattoo artist working in a tattoo studio, you will be expected to use high-quality equipment. Practicing your art form with high-quality materials right away will make sure you aren’t developing any bad habits to compensate for poor equipment.
Order of Color Application
While you tattoo, it’s normal to wipe away excess ink. However, when you’re doing a color tattoo, wiping darker colors into an area that’s already filled with a lighter shade can stain it, since the skin is still open. If you drag dark blue ink over an area that you’ve just tattooed a light yellow color, the dark blue will stain the yellow. This is what makes a color look “muddy.”
Apply Colors Darkest to Lightest
To avoid the “muddy” look, make sure to apply colors from darkest to lightest. If you wipe some yellow over dark blue or black, it won’t show up because the darker color will overpower the lighter pigment.
If you’re using the same needle for multiple ink colors, make sure to clean out the needle in your water between each color. Use two rinsing cups.
White is such a light color that any water left in the cartridge after rinsing the needle will dilute it and make it hard to see in the skin. To make sure the white ink turns out bright, it’s best to use a new cartridge.
If you have a specific color in mind but don’t have that ink color from a supplier on hand, you can mix the color on your own.
For example, you could pre-mix colors in an ink cap or mix colors in the tube by dipping into a cap of red ink and then into a cap of blue ink to make a purple color as you go.
There’s pros and cons to each of these methods. When you mix ink in the cap, it uses more ink, but your color will be consistent. If you mix in the tube, you might save ink, but you need to know what you’re doing. If you use the wrong amounts of each ink you’re mixing, then the color won’t be consistent in your tattoo.
Most of the time, you’ll use a Round Shader or Magnum needle to pack ink into a tattoo. In tight areas where the design comes to a fine point, use a small round shader (like a 5 RS) to make sure those details stay extra sharp.
Shading allows you to add depth to your tattoo by making certain areas darker than others. Shading changes how your eye sees the design on the skin by making some parts look like they’re closer than others.
For example, the rose on the left looks “flat” because there’s no shading. The rose on the right has depth because the shading makes it look like the petals are 3-D.
There are a few ways to shade your tattoos and each method is determined by how you move the needle.
Whip shading is one of the most common shading techniques you’ll use as a tattoo artist.
Place the needle on the skin and then “whip” the needle up and out of the skin. This will create a gradient in the skin. The darkest part will be where you placed the needle initially. The lightest part will be at the end of the “whipping” motion, where the needle was just barely in the skin.
Rock the needle back and forth like a pendulum on a clock. This motion will create a darker area in the middle of the swinging motion with lighter gradients on either side. As the needle dips into the skin, it will gradually go deeper into the skin, leaving behind a darker and darker mark as it goes. As the needle lifts up and out of the skin, it won’t go into skin as far, which creates a lighter gradient.
Stipple shading is about speed. If you move your hand fast enough, you won’t leave behind a hard line because the needle won’t be going fast enough up and down into the skin. Instead, it’ll leave a bunch of dots behind, almost like the needle is “skipping” across the skin. If you’re going for this effect, it’s recommended to slow down your machine so you don’t have to move your hands as fast when you are working.
You can use the same hand motions you’d use in whip shading or pendulum shading as well as cross hatching and moving in a larger oval motion to get a nice, even fill.
Stipple shading is done with a Round Liner needle.
For more information about each of these methods, visit the Tattoo Shading Techniques guide.
Gray wash is diluted black ink that lets you build up “layers” of shading to give an image even more depth and create smooth texture.
You can buy premade gray wash or learn how to make your own gray wash here.
Become a Tattoo Artist With the Artist Accelerator Program
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 tattoo 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 6000 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.