Tip 5 Tattoo Linework Problems (And How to Fix Them)

Line work is one of the first skills you learn as a new tattoo artist. But, it can be pretty unforgiving. Just a few wobbles in your lines can make the entire tattoo look off, and make a customer angry.

If you’re struggling to tattoo lines, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with one of the five most common lining problems new tattoo artists face. In this article, I’ll explain how to fix all of them.


“Shaky” Lines

Shaky lines are usually caused by stability issues or not stretching the skin correctly.

3 Points of Contact

If you’re struggling to keep the machine or your hand from shaking, you can make yourself more stable by using three points of contact. This will keep you still, which will keep wobbles out of your lines.

  • Place your elbow on the massage table or lock it in against your ribs.
  • Place the side of your palm against the skin.
  • Connect the thumb of your stretching hand to the pinky of your tattooing hand.

Stretching the Skin the Wrong Way

You should always stretch the skin in the direction of the line you’re tattooing. If you’re stretching in the opposite direction, the moment you let the skin go, the line will look shaky.


“Faint” Lines

If your lines look faint, the needle might not be going deep enough into the skin. However, if your needle depth is right and your lines still look too light, you might be running into one of these problems:

You’re Holding Your Machine at a 90-Degree Angle

Because the needle is going in and out of the tube, you’re not really moving the needle across the skin like it’s a marker. Instead, your needle is making tons of tiny dots on the skin each time it moves down. The dots are so close together that it looks like a line.

However, if you’re holding your machine at a 90-degree angle above the skin, your lines will look faint because those dots are not overlapping. Holding your machine slightly below that angle will make the ink deposits overlap, which will make your lines look darker.

Hand Speed is Too Fast

As mentioned above, each time the needle moves down, it leaves a tiny dot of ink in the skin. If you are moving your hands too quickly, then your machine can’t put enough ink down to make a bold line.


Blown-out Lines

A blowout is when ink is placed too deep in the skin and starts to spread. A lot of the time, this will make the skin look slightly blue or greenish. There’s a few ways to accidentally cause a blowout:

Wrong Needle Depth or Angle

Blowouts are usually caused by the needle going too far down into the skin. However, you can also cause a blowout if your machine is at too shallow of an angle, and the ink “blows out” sideways into the skin.

Machine is Running Too Fast

While it’s more rare, a blowout can happen if your machine is running too fast for your hand speed. In this case, the needle is packing too much ink into the skin too quickly, and there’s nowhere for it to go but to spread out.


You Can’t See the Stencil Well

If you’re struggling to see your stencil while tattooing, you’re probably experiencing one of these issues:

Stencil is Getting Wiped Away

Wiping off the stencil before you’re done with the tattoo is a big problem new artists face. The easiest thing you can do to fix this is to put a thin layer of Vaseline over your entire stencil and then dab - don’t wipe - away an excess ink.

Needle Cartridge is “Blocking” the Stencil

The other reason you might find it hard to follow a stencil is if you’re riding the tube. This means that you have the tip of the cartridge actually touching the skin, and you hang your needles out just far enough for them to get ink in the skin without causing a blowout. 

This is a great way for beginners to get started, but it can block your view of the stencil (and a lot of cartridges spit ink out onto the skin when you do this).

As soon as you’re ready, I’d recommend floating the needle.

This means you hang your needles out a little further and leave a small amount of space between the tip of your cartridge and the skin. You’ll have to manually control the depth this way to avoid a blowout, but without the cartridge in the way, you’ll clearly be able to see exactly where the needle is putting ink in the skin.


Your Equipment is Messing Up Your Linework

Most of the time, problems with linework means you just need more practice. But, there are times when the issue is with your equipment. Here’s a few things to look out for:

Burred Needles

Sometimes, the sharps in your needle will look bent or hooked. This causes extra trauma to the skin and can mess up your linework. You can check for this problem before you start the tattoo using an eye loupe.

Clogged Needles

If you use too much vaseline to protect your stencil, it can get clogged up in your needle and stop the ink from flowing. This usually results in faint lines.

Bad Ink

A lot of cheap inks aren’t well-pigmented, which means your lines will look too faint. Additionally, if you haven’t shaken the ink bottle, then the pigment and carrier liquid might have separated, and you aren’t getting enough pigment in the skin.

Your Machine Doesn’t Have Enough Power

Most beginner tattoo machines don’t have enough power to push larger needle groupings. If you’re ready to move on to larger tattoos and your machine is struggling to push big needle groupings, you might need to upgrade your machine.

Final Thoughts

Creating perfect linework is a skill every tattoo artist needs in order to be successful, but it can be hard to master when you’re first learning how to tattoo.

If you apply these tips to your tattooing and get plenty of practice, you’ll have taken a big step toward tattooing professional-grade designs that clients love.

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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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