3 Steps to Fixing Tattoo Line Work Problems

Line work is one of the fundamental skills a tattoo artist needs. Bad line work is one of the most obvious mistakes in a tattoo, and it’s one of the main issues that makes a tattoo look amateur.

If you’re struggling to tattoo perfect lines, you could be having problems with your equipment or with your tattooing technique. Keep reading to learn the three steps you can take to figure out why your lines aren’t coming out right…and how to fix them.

In this article, we’re breaking down how to:

  • Check your equipment to make sure it isn’t messing up your lines
  • Fix line work problems…whether your lines are shaky, faint, or blown out
  • Practice your tattoo line work so you can tattoo perfect, bold lines every time

Step 1: Check Your Equipment

Sometimes, problems with your lining will come from issues with your equipment. If you’ve been tattooing straight lines for a while and you’re suddenly having issues, it’s likely that you’re running into one of these problems:

Problem 1

Burred Needles

Even an experienced tattoo artist will struggle to create a solid line if they’re dealing with a damaged or burred tattoo needle.

Needles can be easily damaged if you’re not careful. For example, if you’re using traditional needles, and the needle hit the inside of the tube while you were setting up your machine, that contact could have damaged the needle. Also, if your needle hits the bottom of the ink cap while you’re getting more ink, that contact can cause a burred needle.

When a needle is burred, the tips of the sharp bend up, and it’s like you’re tattooing with a fishing hook. This makes it harder to get ink in the skin correctly, and it will cause massive trauma to the skin.

Though it’s pretty rare, needles can also get dull from too much use, or the needle could come damaged from the manufacturer. 

Checking out your needles with an eye loupe can help you see if your needles are damaged and need to be switched out.

burred tattoo needle

Burred needles will look “hooked” on the ends.

Problem 2

“Shaking” Needles

Why your needles might be “shaking” depends on whether you’re using traditional needles or cartridges:

Traditional Needles

You want to make sure your needle is sitting back against the tube. If it’s not resting there properly, the needle could be “bouncing” around while you’re tattooing.

Make sure your needle is sitting flush against the tube and that you have a grommet and rubber band to keep the needle from moving around while you’re tattooing. Additionally, using a diamond tip tube with your liners will make sure the needle sits flush against the bottom of the tip.

For more help, check out this video about setting up your coil tattoo machine:

If you’re using cartridges, there’s a chance that the cartridge casing is too big for the needle, and that the extra space is giving the needle a chance to “bounce” around (and leave behind a shaky line). You want to make sure that the needle is snug inside the cartridge. 

This is usually a problem with cheaper cartridges (particularly those you can order off Amazon). If possible, we recommend trying out a more premium brand, like Quelle.

Problem 3

Clogged Needles

If your lines are turning out very faint or there is ink spitting out of the tube, there might be something clogging your needles.

In this case, you might be using too much Vaseline on the skin, or there’s a problem with your ink, preventing proper ink flow from the needles.

Problem 4

Ink is Old, Cheap, or Needs to Be Shaken

If your ink isn’t the right consistency, then it won’t be able to flow through the needles and into the skin. If you aren’t shaking your ink before pouring it, the pigment and carrier fluid might be separated, which can mess with your ink flow.

However, even if you shake it, expired ink can still clog your needles because the carrier fluid evaporates over time, making the ink too thick.

Additionally, using cheap ink can clog your needles, make your tattoos look faint, and put your client at a higher risk for an infection or allergic reaction. Always make sure you’re buying ink from a reputable supplier.

Problem 5

Machine Settings are Wrong

To get solid lines, you need to make sure the needle is moving at the right speed and hitting the right depth:

If you’re using a machine that has a set stroke (most popular beginner machines use a 3.5mm stroke), then you might be struggling to get the right needle depth to get solid lines, since the desired stroke for lining is 4mm*.

*For rotary machines

Step 2: Check Your Line Work Techniques

If the problem isn’t with your equipment…then it’s probably with your tattooing. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s going wrong and how you can fix it. There are four main problems most new tattoo artists run into:

Problem 1

Lines are Shaky

Most of the time, lines turn out shaky because your hand isn’t completely stable. The best way to make sure your hand stays completely still while you tattoo a line is to have 3 points of contact:

  • Anchor your elbow to the massage table or your ribs
  • Anchor your wrist against the skin
  • Anchor the pinky finger of your tattooing hand to the thumb of your stretching hand.

Additionally, when you are stretching the skin with your non-tattooing hand, make sure you’re stretching in the same direction you’re tattooing (see image below).

tattoo artists use 3 points of contact
a tattoo artists stretches the skin while tattooing with black ink
Problem 2

Lines are Faint

If your lines look faint, you are either:

  • Not dipping in the ink often enough
  • Using needles clogged with Vaseline
  • Not stretching the skin correctly
  • Holding the machine at the wrong angle

If it seems like your needles are “bouncing” off the skin, you probably need to stretch the skin more firmly. However, if you are stretching the skin and your lines are still faint, you might not be angling your machine enough. 

Because the needle in a tattoo machine is moving up and down, it is not “drawing” a line like a pencil on paper. Instead, it’s making a bunch of small “deposits” of ink in the skin. 

If these deposits don’t overlap, the gaps between them will make the line look faint. You make the line look more solid by keeping your machine angled between 65°-85°.

tattooed skin with small deposits of tattoo ink
tattoo artist angling their machine correctly
Problem 3

Lines are Blown Out

A tattoo is “blown out” when its lines look fuzzy or when you see ink spreading out beneath the skin (this usually makes the skin around the tattoo look blue or green). 

tattoo blowouts with black ink
tiny tattoo showing tattoo blowout on fingers

The skin is made up of three layers, and the middle one (the dermis) holds tattoo ink the best. Blowouts are caused by the needle going too deep in the skin and reaching the third layer (the hypodermis, or subcutaneous tissue). 

Because the third layer is more liquidy, the skin will have a hard time keeping the ink in place, and it will spread around and mess up the look of your tattoo.

top layers of the skin
tattoo artist tattoos black lines in the skin
tattoo blowout caused by the tattoo artist putting too much ink in the third layer of the skin

It’s easy to mistake a tattoo blowout with bruises. The easiest way to tell the difference between a tattoo blowout and healing is to note that a tattoo blowout gets worse overtime, while bruising from tattoos will get better after a few days. Unfortunately, tattoo blowouts are permanent, and the only way to get rid of them is through laser therapy, surgical tattoo removal, or with a cover up tattoo.

Note

It is much easier to cause a blowout with a smaller needle grouping. This is why fine line tattoos are not recommended for beginner artists.

Problem 4

Lines are not a Consistent Width

When you’re tattooing a line, you might notice that the line looks wider or thinner in different areas, even though you were using the same needle.

Strangely enough, how deep your needle goes will determine how thick your line looks. If you don’t keep the same needle depth the entire time you’re tattooing, then the line will look thinner or thicker in different places (see previous section: “Lines are Blown Out” for an explanation on proper needle depth).

Usually, it takes forever to learn linework on your own unless you practice the right way. Using drills created to build your lining skills like the ones below can help you master linework much faster.

*Images from Tattooing 101’s Free Linework Secrets Guide

For more tattoo line work practice designs, watch “Easy Tattoos for Beginners” on YouTube.

examples of students own tattoo

Results from Tattooing 101 students after going through the Artist Accelerator’s advanced line work modules.

Master Tattooing Career with Help from Professional Tattoo Artists

Learning to tattoo perfect lines is an essential step in your journey to becoming a tattoo artist, 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 with a thriving career. 

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 in our online Mastermind group.

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…

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
  • 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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