Some tattoos just look better than others. But why? As a beginner tattoo artist, it can be hard to figure out what makes or breaks a tattoo...especially when you’re staring at a blank page, trying to draw. 

Tattoo artists know that designs that work with the body will always look good...even if they aren’t tattooed perfectly. On the other hand, a poorly-designed tattoo will always look bad, even if you have perfect tattooing technique.
Luckily, learning how to draw tattoos that work with the body isn’t too hard once you know a couple tricks. By the end of this article, you’ll know how tattoo artists create drawings that look great on skin…and how to draw tattoos yourself. 

This post will cover how to:

  • Identify the “flow” of the body
  • Draw tattoos that flow with the shape of the body.
  • Develop your tattoo drawing skills
  • Master one style that will allow you to begin tattooing faster
  • Make sure your tattoo designs age well on the client

Drawing tattoos that “Flow” with the Body

What is “flow”?

Human bodies are not made of straight lines and edges, but rather more organic, curved shapes. Because of this, every part of the body “flows” in an S-shape. 

tribal tattoo that flows with the body

Why does flow matter to a tattoo? 

Working with the flow of a client’s body means creating a tattoo design that goes along with the lines and curves of their body. This makes the tattoo look more dynamic (because it “moves” with the body) and gives it a stronger aesthetic (because it “fits” that part of the body. It also ensures your design doesn’t get warped over different bones and planes of the body.

How working with the flow improves a tattoo: Just like well-fitting clothes, a tattoo that works with the lines of the body is more pleasing to the eye. A tattoo that is not warped by the planes of the body not only looks better, but makes the overall design more attractive. While designing a tattoo, try to place elements in a way that moves along those curves of “flow.”

A good design that flows with the shape of the body will still look good, even if it is not tattooed perfectly. In the same way, a poorly designed tattoo that is also placed poorly will stand out much more and be far more difficult to repair later when your skills improve. 

Pro Tip: Identifying Flow

The way the muscles are placed under the skin is what gives the body "flow". If you're struggling to identify the "flow", try to imagine how the muscles wrap around the body.

Fitting Designs Within the Body’s Shape

What does “fitting” a tattoo mean?

Fitting a tattoo with a person’s body shape simply means aligning your design elements with the “outline” of the person’s shape, whether you’re working on their arm, leg, torso, etc.

Why is fitting a tattoo important? While a design might look great on paper, a 3-D human body is a different matter. If your design is trying to wrap around an elbow or reach around a shin bone, it’s going to look stretched on the client.

Note: Most tattoo designs are long and skinny for this purpose.

While you can wrap simpler background elements around the body (for example, letting a few leaves or waves reach around the back of the arm to extend the tattoo’s coverage), you do not want to do this with the key elements of the tattoo (like faces, animals, intricate linework, etc.).

How to make sure a tattoo fits a body part correctly:

  1. 1
    Print out an image of the body part you’ll be working on.
  2. 2
    Place your tracing paper over it.
  3. 3
    Work to align the elements of your design within the space of the body part you are going to be working on.
  4. 4
    Place a dotted line around the body part, and decide which smaller elements you’d like to wrap around the body.
  5. 5
    When the design is finished, use a photocopier to adjust the size of the design if needed.

Pro Tip: Faces Look Forward & Inward

Images of faces always look forward or inward. When the face is on the side of the body, it should face forward and should not appear to be "looking back". If the face is closer to the center line of the body (inside of the shin, inside of the upper arm, torso, ribs, chest, etc.), the face should always be looking inward toward the body's center line.

a custom tattoo with a face on it facing forward

How To Practice Drawing Tattoos

What makes tattoo drawing different from “regular” drawing? Designing great tattoos requires instincts that don’t always apply to drawing on paper or painting a canvas. As you’ve seen when it comes to flow, fit, and placement, there are extra considerations to take when developing a tattoo design

flash designs on a white sheet of paper

Generally, traditional tattoos are easier to draw because they: 

  • are 2D
  • use only one line weight (14 RL)
  • use “flat” colours (no complicated shading)

This makes them the perfect style to begin practicing on.

Why you should practice drawing tattoos instead of pictures:

Using real tattoos as references when drawing (as opposed to just looking at images or pictures) will expose you to what type of designs work on the body. By learning from designs that already work as tattoos, you’ll be preparing yourself to “think like a tattoo artist” when it comes to creating your own tattoos that need to fit and flow with a client’s body. 

As you draw tattoo designs over and over, you’ll quickly build up muscle memory for elements that often occur in tattooing like anchors, rope, ships, etc. This will prepare you to craft your own designs with these simple elements in no time.

How to develop your skills quickly:

To begin developing those instincts yourself, choose an artist you admire and begin drawing their tattoos on paper without tracing them. If you can, choose an artist that tattoos in the traditional style, as it is an easier style to learn and you will be able to begin tattooing much faster.

Do not use tracing paper to trace over the image (you’ll never truly learn that way). Instead, use tracing paper while looking at the image to sketch in stages. Start with the main shapes, and then build up to thicker lines and details. This will ensure that you are getting your proportions right, and that you’re building up solid outlines (instead of going with a wobbly first try). 

How To Sketch In Stages

Pro Tip: Drawing Hands & Faces

When working on photorealism design (particularly with faces and hands) 

trace your design from a reference photo. Tracing reference photos will save you time and ensure your version of the image looks realistic.

For example, if you need to tattoo an image of a hand in a specific position, take a reference picture of your own hand in the position you need and trace that. From there, you can add details to make it unique, whether you widen the eyes of a face or add stacks of rings to a hand. Tracing isn’t cheating; it gives you the framework you need to create a stunning tattoo.

Drawing Long-Lasting Designs

art done with a thin tattoo needle

Tattoo ink is made to be in the skin permanently. However, as the skin changes and the tattoo grows older, you’ll often see crisp lines becoming blurry. Where there was once an intricate design ten years ago, there is now a blob of grayish ink. 

What causes designs to blur?

There’s a variety of reasons that can cause a tattoo to blur overtime. Some of them, you as the artist can cause:

  • Placing the ink too deep 
  • Too much detail in a small area, leading the lines to blur together

However, many of these will be caused by the client and the regular wear-and-tear of the skin:

  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Pregnancy
  • Body-building
  • Sun exposure

In these cases, the skin is getting stretched or the collagen building blocks of the skin are breaking down. This causes the ink to shift. However, a tattoo that has been applied correctly can keep most of its sharpness long-term.

Why is it important to take aging into account?

While some of the causes of blurring may not be your fault as an artist, you’ll want to take the possibility of blurring into account when creating a design. This will prevent lines from softening and details from fading into blobs of ink. Instead, you’ll leave your client with a stunning design for years to come.

How to prevent tattoos from aging poorly:

When applying a script tattoo, use a fine liner and space the letters and words a little further apart. That way, if the ink shifts a bit over time, the words will not blur together. 

If you’re creating a small design or working on a more intricate piece of a tattoo, make sure it isn’t so detailed that you can’t use a 7 mag to pack the ink. If a 7 mag is too large of a needle for your tattoo, the design is too small and the ink will blur in time.

Pro Tip: Placement & Blur

If your client is particularly concerned about a design blurring, you can suggest either

  1. 1
    Placing the tattoo where the skin does not stretch as much ( like the shoulder, as opposed to the abdomen).
  2. 2
    Placing the tattoo in a place that is almost always protected from the sun by clothing.

Learn More About Tattooing

Understanding how to draw designs that work with the body is just one part of drafting a successful tattoo. You also need to know which settings on your machine will create the effects you need, how to keep your clients safe, how to market your skills, and more.

Trying to scour the internet for updated and complete information can be time consuming and lead to incorrect or even unsafe habits. Instead, you can find everything you need in one place with Tattooing 101’s Artist Accelerator Program. 

We created the world’s first and largest online education platform for tattooing to help artists achieve their dreams at their own pace from the comfort of their own home. Tattooing 101’s Online Course gives you the information you need from professionals in the industry so you can stop searching online and start practicing your craft. Join our students and go from beginner to professional tattoo artist in as little as 90 days.

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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  • Private mastermind community
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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