darker colored tattoo design in progress

How To Create Your Own Tattoo Design

How To Approach Designing Your Own Tattoo.

Have you ever wondered what it was like designing a tattoo? For those of us who look at the artists of the world with awe and wonder the idea of creating a permanent piece of art seems impossible. Taking into consideration how the body moves and how best to place a tattoo design is beyond complex, even for those experienced in tattoo art. 

Can You Design Your Own Tattoo?

You absolutely can! Even if the final design is tightened up by a professional artist, the job of creation can land fully in your lap. If you take your time, think hard about the why’s and what’s, the tattoo design process can be led by your effort.

Let’s get into how to tackle the tattoo design process like a professional.

Step 1 – Why Are You Getting The Tattoo?

Asking yourself a couple  questions is the perfect starting point. Understanding your intentions will help focus your efforts later on. Questions like:

  • Is the tattoo a memorial for a loved one or is the design you found online just really pretty?
  • Do you have something you want to cover up or is the tattoo design you are making filling space?

Any questions like these will help you with the next aspect of designing your own tattoo.

Step 2 – Start With Small Tattoo Designs.

With practice comes mastery and this will be your first attempt st. Sting small is a great place to ensure you aren’t wasting time learning the basics and feel of the design process. Even if you are creating a large scale piece, like a tattoo half sleeve or full sleeve, the smaller aspects of the design will come first.

Understand A Tattoo’s Focal Point.

The meaning of why you are choosing the tattoo is just as important as understanding the focal points in the design. A focal point is where you want to have the viewer of a design focus on. This is an area where the viewer’s eyes hang for a bit to really enjoy the depth and meaning you are trying to convey.

Where The Design *Is*

Choosing what is going to be in the tattoo is where all tattoo designs start. Start with a broad term like, “This is going on my arm.” and stop there. Why should you stop there? Because taking a look at a very specific place may stop the design process in its tracks. If the design isn’t going to fit, there is no reason to do the design.

Once you have figured out what part of the body you want the tattoo, pick how you want people to interact with it. Each area of the body is going to be viewed best by standing in a different place, in relation to the design. Think about placing a tattoo on your back, 

“…unless you are standing in front of a mirror with no shirt on, you will never really see 

your tattoo. Is that going to be a problem or something you look forward to?”

What’s Your Style?

Are you into traditional Americana? How about fineline blackwork? Do you like color?

Creating a checklist of the things you are looking for will help you in narrowing down what you are looking for. It can also help you skip trying to design a tattoo that is not going to end up on your body.

Step 3 – Choosing A Place On Your Body.

Now that you have the broad aspects of the design picked out, it is time to pick where exactly you want the tattoo. The places where tattoos are designed to fit is the most important aspect of designing a custom tattoo. It is what separates something looking great on a piece of paper versus looking great in someone’s skin.

Break down the broad areas and body parts you had picked out before into smaller sections:

  • For Arms

    • Tricep Area, Bicep Inner and Outer, Forearm Front, Forearm Back, Hand, Above The Shoulder, Armpits.
  • For Legs

    • Thighs, Calves, Hamstring, Shin Area, Buttocks, Inner Thigh, Feet
  • For Torsos

    • Chest Left and Right, Abdominals, Ribs Left and Right, Armpits, Xiphoid Process and Under Pectorals/Breasts, Collar Bone, Lower Abdominals, Obliques..
  • For Backs

    • Rear Shoulder, Trapezium, Spine Lower and Upper, Lower Flank Left and Right, Latissimus Left and Right, Transition Onto Buttocks.

All other areas can be grouped into designing the tattoo with the artist’s help!

Is The Tattoo Going To  Be Connected Or Alone?


If the design you are creating is a part of something bigger, plan ahead. Using a tertiary aspect of the design to tie things together is a trick most tattooers use. If there is a theme like water or air (some sort of element works best) figure out how that element may work with the design you are planning. 

Make a note and add it to the setup you are creating.

Step 4 – Get Inspiration And Do Research.

Now that you know where you are going to put the tattoo, what style it is in, and any potential tertiary organics that can be added to it, go start looking up references!

This can be the most exciting and time consuming part of designing a tattoo. Keep all things that you like in a file folder on your computer/phone. If you are using physical copies of things, like magazines or books, get a photocopy of what you are looking at.

Take Notes.

With everything you collect, write a note or two and attach it to the copy. Things like, “The background in this is nice” or, “this shade of blue is amazing”  can come in handy when you are designing a tattoo..

Separate Everything That Is Similar.

If you find certain things that are very much alike, or share a level of importance in the design that is similar, put them together. This is really important if you end up with hundreds of images at the end of your research. 

Having 10 floral designs that look exactly alike are easier to separate when they are clumped together. You can pick the top 3 and discard the rest if things get bulky.

Make Sure You Aren’t Misinterpreting Another Culture, Or Appropriating It.

It is really important that you do your due diligence when adorning your body with another culture’s imagery. Reach out to people that are scholars in a topic you want to design a tattoo with or from. Ask questions and see if the idea you have is insensitive or just plain wrong. Get help so you don’t end up with something permanent that causes others pain..

Step 5 – Start The Tattoo Design Process.

Trace the spot.

Start by tracing the area you want to get the tattoo with a sheet of paper and a pencil or pen. You don’t have to be very exact. The key here is to understand how big the design can be, at its maximum.

Next, take the tracing and lay it out flat on your drawing surface. If you have tracing paper or a light box, this will be the time to go ahead and grab them. Get some pencils and an eraser as well!

Tips and Tricks-

Having a lightbox (also known as a tracing box or light table) or tracing paper is a great way to polish and transfer ideas without having to guess dimensions, line weights, or freehand a design. If you do not have a lightbox or tracing paper, use a window when the sun is up.


Transfer The Space To A Fresh Piece Of Paper.

Use the outline of the area to get tattooed as a border to create your design. If the space you are designing the tattoo for is small, use a single sheet of printer paper and copy the tracing as many times as you can fit onto it. THis will save trees and give you a better view when comparing layouts.

Do A Rough Sketch.

Using the border that you copied to the paper, try creating shapes that will mimic aspects of the design in different ways. Usually doing 5-10 different layouts will give you the best options when it comes to picking a final design layout.

Move things forward or backward in relation to each other. Turn things and add perspectives. Don’t be too busy with the details yet though, those can come later.

Pick your top 3 and move on to the next step.

Clean Up The Sketch.

Once you have a couple designs that seem to work well, transfer them to a fresh sheet of paper. Now is the time to rough in details . See where lines intersect, how aspects of the design flow into each other, and how the direction of everything works with where it will be set on the body.

Tips and Tricks – Redrawing

Take as many redraws as you need to make the linework perfect. The process of cleaning up a design is painstaking so don’t lose heart if it isn’t perfect the first time. Take breaks to loosen up if you need to.

Grab Your Pen.

Time to transfer the design again! This time, use pens to create a more formalized outline. The goal here is to pick out the aspects of the design that add structure. Draw things in the foreground with thicker lines and the things in the background with thinner ones.

This copy you are creating should be good enough to create a stencil for the tattoo session.


Final Copy Time.

Now is the time to pick your favorite out of the few you had drawn up. 

Take the one you are sure will be the tattoo and transfer it again to a fresh piece of paper. Make a photocopy (if you are able to) or trace a second copy of the final linework.

Take one of the copies you made and start finalizing the design. Add shading or color. Make it beautiful.

Tips and Tricks – Color and Shading

Knowing your skin condition, color, and undertone can help you find the best colors and tones to use when designing your own tattoo. 

Step 6 – Start Shopping For The Right Tattoo Artist.

Are They Being Fair?

Since you have made the design it is now time to look for someone to transfer it to your skin. This is part of the process that can take the most time but can also be rewarding. Most tattoo artists are unwilling to tattoo another person’s artwork, even if the person who is getting the design made it! So be prepared for a couple no’s before finding a good fit.

If a tattooer you meet is unwilling to do the design without changing it, ask them why. Get feedback and take the critique. Ask yourself:

  • Is the tattoo artist giving a constructive critique or being mean?
  • Is their opinion feeling fair and friendly, or are they not interested in talking?
  • Are they willing to work with you and make the design a collaboration or are they pushing you out of the design process?

If any of the answers you get make you feel uncomfortable or demeaned, walk away and look somewhere else. 

Make Sure You Are Being Fair

Be reasonable about your efforts. Yes, you made the design but is it better than what a professional can do? If you are adamant about making the design yourself, speak up and let the artist know that about you. Get their feedback and go home to try again if needed. Take your time and make it as good as it can possibly be before marking your body permanently.