How to Tattoo – Step by Step | Set up and Breakdown

Setting Up A Tattoo Work Space, Applying A Stencil, And Breaking Down.

The process of tattooing has been broken down by click-bait websites the internet over. We are here to tell you, our discerning reading clientele, that it isn’t as easy as it seems. Regardless of what is written on a website the fact is: it takes a long time to get good at tattooing. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to being a superstar. Tattooing is something more than a copy/paste translation of artwork onto the skin and whoever may be springing for your next beer/joint/back rub tattoo trade may be more interested in the process rather than the end result (at least for now).

The first step in learning to tattoo is getting an apprenticeship.

The next step is going through the process of living a literal hell, waiting for the chance to screw up time and again until you get lucky enough to feel that you understand something. This leads to knowing you know nothing and repeating the whole process over for the next 30+ years.

How To Tattoo, A Guide for Those Who Want to Know Some Basics.

Listen to your mentor and ask questions.

We at the BetterTattooing.com understand that not all mentors are created equally. Some may be a wealth of knowledge, willing to give up any and all information at the drop of the hat. Others may be more attuned to the “lifestyle” that accompanies some artists out there.

If you are in a bind and need to advance your skills away from the mentor YOU chose, listen carefully to us – the time you take understanding the processes that go into tattooing will result in a better tattoo. Critically think about what you are going to do before doing it.

So, let’s get into step 1 – planning.

Step One – Planning the Tattoo.

Planning a tattoo consists of consulting your client and producing artwork for the tattoo.

Tattoo Consultation

Consultations should consist of you asking relevant questions to your client to better understand their expectations at the finish of the tattoo. Some questions you should ask are:

  1. What is the design you are looking for?

Knowing what your client wants will make it easier to make them happy. If you don’t know this already, please, STOP TATTOOING!

     2. Why do you want this tattoo?

Having an idea as to why the client is getting the tattoo will make it easier to create the correct mood in the design. Is your client getting a memorial tattoo for a lost child? If they are, the skull and dead animal background may not be the best fit (although it may… Whatever floats your boat, right?)

        3. Where do you want this tattoo to be placed?

Creating a tattoo for a hip is much different than a tattoo for the forearm. Knowing where it is to be placed will help you create the correct dimensions. Knowing something as simple as this will improve your client’s enjoyment of the final draft.


     4. When did you decide on getting this tattoo?

Did your client decide on this 2 minutes ago or have they been waiting years for this design? Knowing how much time your client has invested in the design should influence the time you put into creating something unique. Most clients who have waited more than 3 years to get a design are pretty set on the final image. No need to try and change things up!

     5. How do you expect to pay for the tattoo?

Are your clients paying cash or do they expect to trade a bike and a case of beer for the work you’re about to do? Seriously, let them know your rate and what you expect for payment (cash, credit card, bikes, etc.).

     6. Who will be with you when you get the tattoo?

Are your clients coming alone or with an entourage? Be prepared for the “whole family experience” if you haven’t already had that day.

This is not a full list of questions (of course) but it is a launching point for you if you have a hard time conversing with clients (or people in general). 

Take notes during the consultation and if it is possible, make a couple of sketches to get into the client’s head. Keep all of the reference photos they have and make sure they are available for the next part of planning: Designing the tattoo.

Designing The Tattoo.

Tattoo design is where your unique voice will come into play and hopefully, your client knows how you like to do things.

Start your design by taking the notes you have from the consultation and put them to use. If they want color or black and grey, use that in the tattoo. 

Do they want a phoenix? Don’t give them a chicken.

It is pretty simple to do the design as long as you keep the client involved and utilize their critiques in a way that betters the final design. Don’t go rogue and do what you want. This will surely lead to a short career and cost you what could be a decent client. Remember: Tattoo artists are in the service industry. We aim to serve.

Now that you have a design that was built off your client’s wants, it’s time to move to step 2.

Step Two – Setting Up for the Tattoo

Patients expect a clean hospital or doctor’s room when they go for a visit. Think about it: 

Would you go into a doctor’s office if there were candy wrappers and beer cans sitting around the procedure table?”

If you answered yes to this, and you are planning on doing a tattoo, please QUIT TATTOOING!

Tattooing is a medical procedure. You are permanently altering a body in a cosmetic way. You open the skin and expose it to a variety of possible pathogens – the kind that makes you sick.


Everything that you do before a tattoo should be focused on maintaining a clean space for the procedure to be conducted in. Before every tattoo:

  • Wash down surfaces with a mid/high-level disinfectant while wearing freshly gloved hands.

Wash down all surfaces with a disinfectant before getting to mopping. Why, do you ask? Because you are going to be brushing stuff onto the floor and if you mop it first, you will be making it dirty. While you are at it, do the windows if you have any and also get to dusting the place.

  • Clean the floor with a mop held with gloved hands.

We shouldn’t have to tell you that a clean floor is a happy floor. Sweep and mop all surfaces that the client or you may walk across before, during, or after the tattoo. Use fresh water in the mop bucket and be sure to drain, rinse, and store the bucket in the dirty room after you have finished. If you tattoo over carpet, please, QUIT TATTOOING! All tattoo procedures should be conducted over a smooth, non-porous floor which is able to be cleaned effectively with a mop/bucket.

  • Set up your tattoo workspace with a new set of gloves for disposables and things that contact skin.

Your space is clean! It is safe to set up your workspace. Use a set of gloves to prep the space you work off. Tack down dental bibs, get out your rinse cups and pull out the pigments you plan on using (be sure to set these aside on a surface that is NOT your tattoo workspace). Change your gloves and use some hand sanitizer in between. With the clean gloves, pull out your item covers, ink caps, and A&D/Vaseline. If you already know the needle groupings you are going to use, pull them and the associated tube out and set it on your workspace. DO NOT OPEN THEM YET!

Notice something from above? Yes. You’re right! Use a ton of gloves! Change them frequently!

This is some pretty basic stuff that is absolutely necessary for safe tattooing. If you are a licensed tattoo artist, you probably already know about CROSS CONTAMINATION. If you are new to the industry and do not know about infection control procedures, please, take an online BBP course.

We Recommend the industry-specific course for BBP in tattooing offered by the Red Cross.

Click here to be taken to their page to register.

Now onto step 3.

Step Three – Setting up Your Client.

I’m assuming that your client is already in your space, and you have made the stencil. If you haven’t made the stencil, do so before you set up. 

This step in the how to tattoo guide is for single-pass, smaller tattoos. We will write up another article that explains stencil application for large tattoos.

Shaving The Skin for a Tattoo

Once the stencil is made and the client is in your room, it’s time to shave some skin. Get on some gloves.

Before soaking your client’s skin with soap, be sure to ask if they have any allergies to the products you are using. Take a detergent/soap, soak the area you are going to tattoo and shave it with a new, unopened razor (plus 2 inches extra around the tattoo area). Be careful when shaving to not nick or cut the skin as this will render the client un-tattooable. When finished, put the spent razor in the sharps bin.


Tattooing freshly cut or recently cut skin increases the chances of infection. 

You are prone to overworking the skin which will lead to a hard heal. 

Tattooing cut skin may not hold pigment.

Prepping The Skin

Once the skin is shaved, use an astringent to clean the skin. 70% alcohol is perfect and will ensure the skin is clean, free of germs, and dry enough to absorb the stencil application fluid you are about to use. Do not use other products to prep the skin, especially products that contain oils.

It is now time to now place your stencil.


Using Stencil Application Products

The skin is dry, clean, and free of hair. Take the product you use for placing stencils (StencilStuff™, Stencil Anchored™ or products like Dettol™ and Green Soap) and apply enough product to cover the skin enough so that it is easily absorbed. You can tell you have enough because there won’t be any sitting on the surface that you can see. 

Let the application product sit for a minute or two and test the skin surface before placing the stencil. With your gloved hand, lightly touch the skin surface. Does your gloved hand stick to the skin/does the skin feel tacky? If it does, your skin is ready for the stencil. If not, you may need to go back and re-clean the skin with alcohol to dry it out enough before setting your stencil.

Placing the Tattoo Design Stencil

If the skin is clean and feels tacky after using your stencil application product, you can go ahead and place the stencil. 

Hold the stencil in your dominant hand, hover over the area that your client wishes to get tattooed and lay it on their skin once they think it is in the right place. Make sure it is laid flat and evenly. 

Remove your hand.

You should see the stencil paper turn a darker tone which means the paper is absorbing a small amount of the stencil application product you had placed on the skin. If it is too wet the stencil will bleed and get really messy. If there is not enough product, the stencil won’t stick to the skin and will fall to the floor.

When and if the stencil looks like it isn’t bleeding and not falling to the floor, take an open hand, and apply even pressure over the whole stencil. Remove your hand and take a look at your stencil. Did it move or is it bleeding? If not, pinch a corner and peel it back slowly to remove it from your client’s skin.

When the stencil looks good you can move onto step 4. If not, repeat step 3 until you get it perfect!

*PRO TIP* – Remove stencils with hand sanitizer instead of rubbing alcohol if your client isn’t allergic to the product. The glycerin mix in hand sanitizer slows the evaporation of alcohol allowing it more time to soak into the skin and remove the ink/wax.

Setting Up Your Machine and Dispense Pigment.

The stencil is placed – Check.

Your client is happy with the design and placement – Check.

Now you can set up your machine and dispense your pigment.

Dispensing Tattoo Pigment for the tattoo.

Change your gloves and grab that ink bottle. Shake the hell out of it (for about a minute if you have used it recently. If it’s been more than a week’s time since you have used it, shake for 3-5 minutes). Open the tip of the pigment bottle with a fresh piece of paper towel and dispense 2x the amount you will need for the tattoo

**WHY 2X THE AMOUNT? Because we don’t want blood and plasma thinning out the pigment during a tattoo. We also do not want to re-dispense pigment during a tattoo. Opening a bottle of pigment and pouring it into a dirty ink cap could ruin a bottle of good ink. Think Cross-Contamination! **

Once your ink is poured, change your gloves to set up your needle and tube.

Setting up your needle and tube for a tattoo.

With those fresh gloves begin to open your needle package. Do so by holding the needle bar by the middle and pressing the loop-end through the paper backing of its sterile packaging. Once the paper is broken, adjust the packaging so that you can peel the paper fully off the back. Be careful not to drop the needle on the ground. If you do, you may need to rethink your current profession (especially if someone in the shop sees you. Be ready to become the butt of jokes for the day).

Set your needle package with the backing removed down on the dental bib you have set up, plastic side down. 

Repeat the same process with your tube.

Once both are safely placed on the workspace you have prepped, pull out your jeweler’s loop and take a look at the needles you plan on using. You do this by holding the needle bar up in the air and looking at the needle ends. If they are backward, burned, or bent, choose another needle to do the tattoo with.

If the needle is good to go, insert it into the tube and set the combination aside. When you have multiple needles to set up, repeat the process as needed.

Now, take your tube end, loop side left, and put it into your tattoo machine.

Setting Tattoo Needle Depth

This is a point of contention amongst artists the world over! Do you lead off the tip or needle? Each set up will change the amount of hang you want with the machine you are using.

**Leading off the tip: When you use the tube like a pen and press it into the skin (GENTLY!!!) **

**Leading off the Needle: When you watch your needle tips enter the skin and adjust your depth on the fly (More ADVANCED!) **

A quick set up guide for the throw of a machine is:

Have 2-3 mil lead off the tube tip with the armature bar fully drawn for leading off the needle when lining. 3-5 mils are needed when you are using larger grouping mags and liners. 

Cut each of those measurements in half if you lead off the tip.

Here is a video where we talk about leading off the tip and tube:

**Machine Throw: How far the needle tip moves when the machine is in motion. **

Start With Lines

Most tattoos will require line work so that is what we start with. Starting with the lines ensures that the tattoo’s framework will be there in case our client is unable to finish the entire session in one sitting. The lines are the foundation of the tattoo and without them being completed successfully, a tattoo that relies on them will look weak, age prematurely and lack the contrast needed to look great well into the future.

Start from the bottom corner of the tattoo that is the same as the hand you hold the tattoo machine with. Move from that corner, across, working upwards. This ensures you will not wipe off the stencil during the procedure (something we old-timers remember when using Speed Stick long ago).

If the field of view gets dirty, clean off the tattoo. Use fresh paper towels that have been moistened with your detergent BEFORE they come in contact with skin. 

Here is a video explaining how using A&D ointment can help you keep a tattoo clean:

NEVER SPRAY THE SURFACE OF THE SKIN DIRECTLY!! This can aerosolize infectious agents and get you or your client sick.

Be sure to only clean off the area that you need to see and not the rest of the tattoo. If you wash the stencil before you have had time to tattoo it, it may come off. If that happens… You are in trouble. (Ask your mentor how to fix this situation if you run into it. This is a first/second tattoo issue. If you are running into it well into your second year, you need to change how you tattoo).

Take A Break

Once you finish the line work, take a few minutes to stretch your eyes. Look up from the tattoo and find the most distant object you can see and focus on it for 5 seconds. Next, find the thing halfway between that object and yourself and look at it for 5 seconds. Finally, find something close to you that is easily focused upon and stare at it for 5 seconds. Repeat this 5 times. Remember to blink.

Now you can start the fill (if needed),

Filling In a Tattoo

When it comes to filling in a tattoo you won’t always need the largest needle grouping in your arsenal to do the job. The idea is to have the most efficient needle for the job. Before the tattoo began you should have paid attention to the nuance of your tattoo.

If your design has large, open areas with lots of bold, solid colors: Using a large grouping shader works best.

If your design has a lot of sharp, narrow spaces: Using smaller grouping is the smart move.

When your design has lots of blends: Using a mag shader is wonderful!

Just think ahead! Needles are like paintbrushes – There is a size or shape for whatever you are doing. When you are filling the design do not butt up to the lines! Leave a little breathing room and switch up your set up to finish the fill.

Learn more about needles by reading our article about Tattoo Needles and How to Hold a Tattoo Machine

Finishing The Tattoo.

Now that you have lined your tattoo and filled it in, it is time to put on the finishing touches.

Finishing the fill.

Use a liner needle or small grouping mag/shader to fill in the spaces next to the line work you laid down. Make sure the lean of your machine is facing towards the inside of the tattoo. This will make it easier to not go over the lines and tattoo outside that tattoo area.


If your tattoo needs highlights, put them on last. Be sure to clean the skin thoroughly, as well as the needle and tube tip. Use fresh water, clean paper towels, and clean the tube tip after each pass. 

Additional Line work.

Before you finish up, make sure your line work is perfect. People can deal with a little ‘red’ that has fallen out during the healing process but a ¼” section of line work… HELL NO!!

Use Other Techniques to Increase Satisfaction.

If you do not understand what these terms mean – Ask your mentor!

  • Blend colors by overlapping them. 
  • Don’t whip against the fill.
  • Utilize angles of insertion to increase saturation.
  • Scupping is your friend! This is especially true if you run small groupings (like I do).
  • Large grouping shaders are crap at filling solid color. Use smaller groupings or round shaders.
  • Stretch with the tension lines of the skin to increase saturation.
  • Build textures from mid to dark.
  • Start dark and build to light for most designs.
  • Increase contrast by doubling your black. Add a second pass!

Once you Have Finished.

Give that beautiful tattoo a good wash with the detergent you have on hand. Get all dried blood, pigment, and exudate off the skin. Don’t scrub the skin too hard with a paper towel, just use your hand. Pat dry with a paper towel.

Allow the skin to dry and take a peek at the edges and surface of the tattoo. See if there is any cracking or bleeding that is happening. A finished tattoo should look slightly swollen, a little red, and be dry after cleaning. If there is oozing, blood, or split skin, you have overworked the skin. Tell your mentor and have them give you a critique as to how to improve your hand technique for the next tattoo.

If everything looks good, you can grab a picture and bandage the tattoo.

Here is a short video to help you understand if you have overworked a client’s skin:

How to Bandage a Tattoo.

Depending on the climate you live in, as well as the type of skin your client has, prep their skin with a suitable product (ointment, humectant, or lotion). Put just enough product on the skin to ensure the tattoo gets a thin film and then apply a bandage. Use absorbent pads or non-stick gauze. Do not use plastic wrap to cover a tattoo.

If you are going to use surgical tape to attach the pads, make sure your client is not allergic to the adhesive. Use enough tape to make sure the dressing won’t fall off and start giving your aftercare instructions to the client.

Make sure any and all questions are answered before they leave. Also give them a hard copy of the aftercare, along with contact information for you and the shop, before you breakdown.

If you want more information about taking care of a tattoo, check out our article:

How Much Lotion Should I Put On A New Tattoo?

The Breakdown.

Put on some new gloves and start clearing off your workstation. Put all rinse cups in the garbage (fill them with leftover paper towels to sop up the water inside them) and clear off any barrier films that were on the client’s seat. 

To remove the needles safely from the machines, use the clean-hand/dirty-hand technique. Whatever your dominant hand is will be the mover and shaker in this operation, the other is the holder. 

  • With your non-dominant hand, hold that tattoo machine body. 
  • With the mover hand, loosen the chuck and remove the barrier. 
  • Remove the rubber bands with the mover hand.
  • Take the needle off of the armature bar and let it set in the tube.
  • While holding the machine body with your holder hand, use the mover hand to slowly twist/pull the tube out of the chuck.
  • Once the tube is removed walk to the sharps container and dispose of the needle. Be sure to not touch the needles.
  • If you do not dispose of the tube in your sharps container, toss it in the trash.
  • Repeat as necessary.
  • Now that your needles are taken care of, clear the rest of the mess on your workspace and toss it in the garbage.
  • Switch gloves.
  • Clean and mop your area with a disinfectant like you did before setting up.

Now that the tattoo is dressed and your station is cleaned, your client can leave after paying you for the hard work. 

Once they have paid, relax. Enjoy that hard-earned skrilla and have a coffee.

You earned it.

The Conclusion

Now you have all the tools necessary to do a safe and clean tattoo. Enjoy the wild fandom that will cram into your shop because you are awesome.