Tattoo Design And The Body | Body Mapping And Tattoo Placement

Creating Tattoos for the Body – Tattoo Design and Body Mapping

Have you ever seen a tattoo on the web, on social media, or in real life, where the tattoo just looks good? Over the years, almost everyone we have talked to has spent countless hours surfing the web to find inspiration when choosing their tattoo. These same clients log a few complaints when we ask them about it:
  • There is not a lot of variety in popular tattoo designs. (They all kind of look the same)
  • We only see super white skin wearing tattoos.
  • Some tattoos look good at first glance, but they look awful upon further examination.
We can’t help the lack of variety in tattoo designs or that tattoo artists like to only post pictures on skin that appear nearly impossible to define as real or fake. We can help you understand why some tattoos don’t look “right” when you see them online, or on your best friend.. Holding-Tattoo-machine- tattooing-design

Placing The Tattoo Is Only One Part of a Great Design.

Two things are the most likely culprit when checking out a design that starts as WOW and ends up Meh… The first is that the tattoo has been altered to make it look more vivid and fix the artist’s errors. The other is the tattoo has been placed improperly on the body. This article covers most of what you need to know as an artist or as a client to ensure the beautiful artwork used for the tattoo looks its best.

Concepts to know before moving on.

  • Focal Points:
    • Focal points are a point in a design that you want the viewer to hone in on. These parts of a design usually have greater detail, are more prominent, and are used to explain what the tattoo means to viewers. Are you tattooing a hummingbird and flowers with a washed-out background? What part of that tattoo would you like people to focus on? The bird, the background, or the flowers? Whatever the choice is, dumping details into that part of the design will increase viewability and understanding for onlookers.
  • Transitions:
    • These are aspects of the design that lead a viewer through the design.  Transitions are helpful if artists want to join multiple focal points. Artists use these transitions to point to main elements in the design and create a flow between different body parts that connect over a large-scale design. Transitions can be subtle bits of soft shading or a foreground element that points to the focal point you want to be seen.
  • Viewable point:
    • This is where, when the body is at rest, the focal point is viewable by a person looking at it.
Before we get in depth on mapping the body and the stresses each part of the body produce, let’s take a break to watch this video (Coming Soon) explaining mapping a tattoo to the body before discussing skin.  

The Skin

The skin is a wonderful organ. It covers our bodies, keeps us warm, and makes sure we don’t get sick from all the pathogens that lurk in every crevice of our existence. It is also home to the pigment used to create unique tattoo art. Any blank area of skin that is being prepared for a tattoo requires serious consideration when being mapped for a design. Simple questions that should be broached when mapping a body part include:
  1. How mobile is the area that will be tattooed?
  2. Does the skin stretch and contort if it is moved?
  3. How muscular is the client, and will this affect the design’s viewability?
  4. Is this body part more exposed to the elements than others?
  5. What tone is the skin?
  6. Is there any age-related wrinkles or tissue degradation?
  7. Are there any areas of worry (skin cancer, age spots, scars, bruising, keloids) that will become part of the tattoo?
You can learn a bit more about skin care and tattooing by following this link to our article on tattoo

Custom Tattoos Versus Custom Artwork

Every client is different. They all have different lives and come with different skin. This is why all designs that are large scale must, from the beginning of creation, take into account the individual, not the design. All designs that are fit to the body are considered custom tattoos. Compare that to custom artwork designed before the client is ever consulted. Custom artwork is excellent. It shows the skills of an artist and can help wandering clientele make decisions about what it is that they enjoy looking at. They may even enjoy it so much that they choose to put it on their body. Custom tattooing can come from custom artwork, but there is a need for every design to be retrofitted to fit the body of an individual client before it is considered a custom tattoo. Pexels-photo-sleeves-bent-arms

Everything under the skin influences design.

The Muscles

Muscles make it possible for humans to move through the world. A person’s mass and muscular definition can influence how tattoos age, as well as how the world views it. A very vascular person with large muscles at nearly 7 feet tall will require a different design compared to a person who is 5 feet tall, weighs 250 pounds, and has almost no muscular definition past their calves. While everybody has the same muscles (except for one forearm tendon/muscle in some humans), each person is built differently. If an artist designs a full-back koi fish design for a professional wrestler, that same design may look different on someone who lives a different life.


Bones are the structure and support of each person. Bones are connected to the muscles by tendons. Bones are connected with ligaments. The length and girth of each bone and its apparent visibility through the skin can create distortions when interacting with tattoo designs (think of fingers versus thighs). Each bone inside the body is unique and should be looked at individually when mapping a design. Before starting any large-scale tattoo design, artists should know how the bones anchor to the muscles or basic anatomy. pexels-photo-2713983

What’s on Top of the Skin Can Affect the Procedure and Healing.


Hair can affect how you view the image, so knowing how dense, what color, and how long it grows on a person will help you define colors and tones when designing a tattoo. Using bright, bold colors may not be an option for people with thick, dark hair on their bodies.


Burns, scrapes, and cuts. These marks covering the body show how the body has tried to repair something damaged. The resulting skin can affect the results of a design and make it more difficult actually to tattoo.

Age/Stretch Marks

This design aspect is what planning and mapping are all about, regardless of the individual. We all know that the skin ages. Understanding how the skin will age or making assumptions about how the skin will look 10, 15, or even 30 years in the future will help a design stand up to the test of time.

Skin Tone

Skin tone is a definable characteristic of the individual. How dark someone’s skin is will influence the design as a whole. Line weight, colors used, and size of design elements are all things that can be affected by skin tone.

Muscles and Fascia

The muscles and connective tissues are a variable that constantly changes throughout their lives. If you start or stop working out, get hurt, or advance in age, your muscles will change in size (which affects the length, thickness, and strength of your connective tissues) and affect the skin above it. This is inevitable. Designing a custom, large-scale design requires knowledge of human anatomy and excellent inferential skills. Every design, on every person, must go through a reasonable vetting process. Vetting Process ** This is where a tattoo artist makes assumptions about the health and viability of a section of skin on a client.  ** Taking into account the underlying structures of the body, regardless of where an artist is placing a design, should help influence how the design flows, fits, and where to apply contrast effectively. The Arms

The Arms

The lower parts of the arms are prone to twisting (torsion) stresses the closer a design gets to the hand. Further up the arm, around the elbow area, designs will be less prone to torsion stress but more prone to squishing (compression) and stretching (tensile) stresses. Moving past the median of the biceps/triceps area, a design will again succumb to torsion stress and compression stresses if the arm is lifted past 30 degrees from a resting state. The Back

The Back

The back has two distinct regions, the upper and lower. Lower Back

Lower Back

Yes, I include the buttocks in the lower back region others may not, but I believe that an actual full-back tattoo incorporates this body part. The lower back has a shape that mimics the gastrocnemius muscles of the calves; only it is inverted. The oblique(s) muscle groups, latissimus dorsi, and the underlying structures (which are too numerous and confusing to put into this list) make up the horseshoe shape. This part of the body experiences massive compression and tensile stresses and experiences torsion stress when people twist at their trunks. The Chest

The Chest

The chest includes the pectoral muscles and the front deltoid muscles, depending on the design. This body part experiences massive compression and tensile stresses, especially around the armpit and the collar bone.

More on Muscles

The Legs

The Legs

Just like the arms, the legs deal with torsion stresses to some degree, yet these stresses are not as extreme as seen with the forearm. The legs do suffer quite severely from compression/tensile stresses. The stretching/compression stresses are most experienced on the thighs (quadriceps) near the knee. Some artists find it challenging to place designs in a way that works with the stresses of this area. The calves also deal with unique stress, as most people have a definition that is apparent on the backside of the lower leg. The gastrocnemius muscle (located on the backside of the lower leg and connects to the back of the knee area) is a horseshoe-shaped muscle that can cause massive distortion if a person stands on their toes. The Upper Back

The Upper Back

<pictures> The upper back has a shape that looks a lot like a diamond. The major muscle groups of the upper back include the trapezius muscle group, the teres muscle groups, and the rear deltoids.  There is not a lot of torsion stress experienced by the upper back, but there is plenty of compression/tensile stress – most commonly seen along the spine and around the rear-armpit areas. Abdominals


Like the lower back, the abdominal muscles (including the obliques, intercostal muscles, and the rectus abdominis) experience compression and tensile stress, along with torsion stresses. Depending on the individual, this area of the body is influenced by the amount of adipose tissue (fat) that is under the skin. More fat equals less definition, making it easier to place a design that won’t conform to many hills and valleys. Of course, this has a limit; large cavities inside the skin may occur if a person has large quantities of fatty tissues. This makes placing a stencil difficult. Another thing to note with abdominal designs: this part of the body is prone to change throughout a lifetime. A 20-year-old abdomen will not look the same as a person who is 65. Also, every 20-year-old will be 65 someday, so making sure that the design considers the inevitable will increase the chances a person enjoys a tattoo throughout their lifetime.

Things not covered

We will not go over tattooing the hands, feet, or neck. For an article on tattooing hands and feet, see our article: Tattooing Hands And Feet – How Long Do They Last And Can You Do Them? two-arms-tattoos

Movement and body mapping

If you rotate, pull, or push a part of your body, muscles will engage to make that happen. When that happens, the skin above these muscles will distort. The key to making a lasting design is knowing how to place a focal point where distortions either work with the design or are not going to affect the image clarity. Putting a focal point or a static part of the image in a place that experiences a greater degree of distortion could create a situation where the design is illegible. This could occur every time the person moves, so try and avoid that whenever possible. Any areas that succumb to distortion or age-related degeneration/wrinkles should be covered with aspects that are not important to the understanding of the design.

How To Work with the body

Designing a tattoo that incorporates all aspects of intelligent design – rule of thirds, proper use of planes, excellent contrast, flowing elements that lead a person through the image – can be challenging to achieve when using something like a canvass. When you take the step to create a large-scale tattoo design on the body, which is a 3-D surface that moves and ages, designing becomes more difficult. To start becoming competent in these designs, an artist must start simply. Learning to focus on a single aspect of design until mastery in the artwork is achieved is one way of working through this complex task. large back tattoo To start, an artist must learn how to effectively map a body so that the design can be transferred from a 3-D surface to a 2-D surface (like a canvass, paper, or digital design tablet). Effectively translating the body part that will be tattooed can help the design process go more smoothly by showing an artist where the focal points should be placed, where joints and muscles are located, and where potential spots on the design area will be affected are located.

How To Map the Body

Body Mapping – Analogue

Most commonly, rice paper is used and attached to the body. In more modern times, digital tablets and photo manipulation are used to create a design that is custom-made for the body. For this example, paper instead of digital products will be covered. First, take a piece of paper that is slightly larger than the surface that will be tattooed and tape it directly to the skin’s surface. Next, mark the outline of the arm. Line out or use shapes to mark the important joints that will be involved in the tattooed area. Now find the flow within the image. This design aspect should have already been agreed upon during the consultation and will consist of whatever directional elements agreed upon -i.e., smoke, water, filigree, etc. Map out the direction that will be used by using flowing, organic shapes or lines that correspond with areas of high distortion, stress, or the possibility of aging. Finally, map out the focal points that will fit the major aspects of the design. These points of the design will correspond with whatever areas on the body part should be less prone to stresses. Every viewable point should be marked out along with the position of the body at rest, or wherever the body part exposed will be at rest. The final step is removing the paper and transferring it to a suitable surface for the design process.

How To Map the Body

Body Mapping Digital – Creating Layers

The joints on the body are usually denoted with a circle when mapping designs digitally. Creating a new, blank layer to work off of is the first step. Drop the opacity of the page to around 60% and set it is the primary/top layer. Begin mapping the joints by placing circles over any joints that will be covered or connect with the design. Next, create another layer and setting it as the primary/top. Drop the opacity to 50-60% again and begin mapping out the musculature and directional elements. After that, mark the position of focal points in the design by creating another layer and setting it up the same way. Finally, merge the layers to create a single cell. Once this is finished, save the complete mapping to a new file so as to keep the original photo without any edits. chronic-ink-half-back-tattoo

Making Sense of the Mapping

If you must place part or all of a focal point on top of a distortion area, do your best to place whatever curve or organic shape in line with what is going to move. It will cause a distortion but placing an aspect of the tattoo which is contrasting to the natural curves and movements of the body will make the final tattoo look out of place and age it prematurely. Each major section of the body should or will connect with an adjacent body part. Looking past the initial design space, especially when an artist is planning on building onto an image in the future or if the design is already very large; care must be taken to ensure any and all designs can connect to something in the future. Below are forward thinking tips when approaching a design that will extend in the future: arms-muscles-veins-nerves

The Appendages

Keep in mind that any point between 2 joints creates stress to the skin when muscles contract. Moving in closer to the heart, the forearms and lower legs have a higher incidence of torsion stress (twisting). You can see the torsion stress decreases as you move further in. Look at the gastrocnemius in the legs or the brachioradialis, flexors and extensors of the arm. The lines that they draw across those areas of the body show a distinct increase of torsion the further you move past them however, they are easily dealt with if approached correctly. Body Core

Connecting to the core

The upper thigh (quadriceps on the front and hamstrings in the back) and upper arm (biceps on the front and triceps on the back) create a great amount of compression stress. Images placed here will crush and stretch to a higher degree than the other parts of the extremities. Take extra care to notice that the areas around the elbow, armpit, knees and groin will experience this to a greater effect than other places. Legs-Vascular-muscles

The buttocks and Iliac muscles, The shoulders and chest

You can apply the same tracing aspects when mapping the buttocks or shoulder. The leg areas are broad, flat and have torsion and compression stress. The shoulders work in tandem with the back and chest to rotate the upper arm so you get a good amount of compression/tensile stress when those are engaged. This also occurs when someone lifts an arm or leg to be perpendicular with the ground, or if lifted high in the air. Paying special attention to the amount of compression is important in the mapping phase as every person is different: everyone will have a different range of motion, muscle size and density, scars, stretch marks, and skin tone. core-muscles

The chest, back, and midsection

These parts of the body stretch and twist more than other parts. These parts of the body are hyper-mobile when compared to the upper and lower extremities yet are less commonly seen in public. They experience different environmental stresses and age in a way that is unique when compared to the appendages. Along the spine, skin can compress to a point that the motion creates peaks and valleys, as the skin loses all tensile stress applied when a person is at rest. The tensile stresses applied to the lower back can be so extreme that designs placed in this area can grow in size to be 4-5X (four to five times) the size they appear as on paper or canvas. “For those that want an in depth look at muscles and how they interact with our body, follow this link” bones

The Bones

While the bones are relatively static throughout our adult lives, although they grow and change constantly during our childhood and early adult years. The bones behind an image being placed onto the skin create stresses that modify the image. Look at how the bones connect at different pivot points, and with your new knowledge of how muscles work, see how the bones and their attachments affect the movement of muscles. We attach a straight line to any bone when mapping that follows its course and a circle for any junction point that they attach to (joints). For an in depth look at how the bones age follow this link

Starting the design

Now that a mapping (either analogue or digital) has been created, it is time to start the design process.

Directional Elements

The muscles are mapped with the use of perpendicular lines that traverse the section of body you are working. Each  mapping of musculature should work both ways, moving in both directions along the line that was created. These lines that were created off the muscles will give you the directional elements direction. Paying close attention to each muscle contraction, or the movement of the body part, will give an artist a better idea of how the flowing elements may work with the focal points in the design. arms-muscles-veins-nerves

Foreground and background elements

Artists utilize something that approximates a distorted figure 8, a loose “s” curve or infinity symbol, when mapping out a design that is custom fit for the body. This works well for most applications and, like stated in an earlier section, is the easiest way to create depth in an image. The overlapping point of the “3-D figure 8” go so far as to show you exactly where to put each object, in each plane. The hollow openings of the “8” are for focal points, the flowing lines for directional elements, and the background to be inter dispersed throughout. Mapping foreground and background elements in a way that custom-fits the body is different. The artist will look at how the muscles contract and extend and how this exerts a type of stress to the skin’s surface. As the most, each element will be considered as to how it will look from multiple angles (if the viewer is standing in front, beside or behind), how each aspect of the design will hold up to environmental stresses and age, as well as how the focal points work with the directional elements, contrast, and skin tone of the client. Body Core In most designs, the foreground elements are those that are “closest” to the viewers eyes. This is accomplished by manipulating colors, contrast and sizing of the image or line work that creates the foundation of the element. Things that are closer to the viewer must act in a way that makes sense to the viewers eyes. If line work is consistent throughout a design, where the lines used are the same weight in the background, foreground, and middle ground, a viewer will unconsciously view the image in a way that makes the design appear flat. To experience this, place a hand in front of your face and slowly move it away from your eyes. As it moves further away from you face it appears to get small, even if it is still the same size it always is. Horiyoshi 3 tattoo design Working through the creation of artwork and understanding how the planes and distancing of objects work, an artist can utilize the movement of transitional elements to walk a viewer through the design. This is also possible with a large-scale tattoo design.

Tips and Tricks for Mapping the Body

Finding the Muscles

By utilizing the muscles, and their contraction lengths, we can map and place foreground and background elements. Trace the flow of each muscle grouping you are working with and find the points that the muscles crisscross to create perpendicular lines. These perpendicular lines create a mesh work throughout the area the design is being made for. While these lines may seem irrational when they are on a 3-D surface, once laid onto the flat surface where the design process takes place, the grid opens up an interesting finding – the areas where focal points will be best placed. body mapping tattoo design crisross Looking at the crossover of lines shown above something should become very clear. The lines and where they cross over each other create a void-space, in the space in between them, wherein focal points should fit nicely. The area directly around the void-spots works well to fit secondary or transitional elements that tie the design together with other aspects that may not be bordering the focal points. If these tertiary elements are continuous throughout the design, cohesiveness will be achieved as the uniformity of elements creates a composition wherein the focal points need not be related. An artist can utilize other aspects of the design to create movement throughout, but if there is something that is uniform, a more complete design can be achieved. body mapping crisscross

Creating Flow

These flow lines indicate movement through the design and are able to move with the muscles as they contract or extend, giving the applied tattoo the ability to breathe and move with the person as the interact with their world and age. The flow lines also create a way of bypassing the joints that move through the appendages, so the designs can continue past the normal boundaries applied by the mobile joints. Asian-styled-tattoo-sleeves

Competition between focal points

Human eyes are not the most acute at picking out colors or distance when compared to some in the animal kingdom. What human eyes and brains are good at it finding patterns. As an example, looking at a face that is perfectly symmetrical can give a viewer a sense of unease. <image> This is because nothing in nature is perfectly symmetrical. Nature is messy and having aspects of a design look symmetrical can play a trick on viewers. Luckily, tattoos are able to pull this off because the surface the tattoo is placed on is not symmetrical. While this seems to be a bonus for those who do tattoos, there are other issues that come up with planning a large-scale tattoo that can take away from the depth an image can possibly have. focal point competition picture example

A problem with competition

Our brains draw an imaginary line through the image that will bisect it as it tries to rectify what it should focus on. If you have multiple detailed designs that are competing for space, the brain (which is lazy) will try to look at both (all of them) simultaneously. <image> By doing this the brain takes the competing images in and levels them out on the same plane of space. This makes an image look flat. Contrasting that idea, when you have multiple aspects of the tattoo that are working together with foreground and background elements, you end up with an organic piece that is mapped to the body and moves well with the body. Designs that take into account the location of focal points and ensure they are not in-line with each other ensure the viewer will be gripped by the depth and dimension an artist created.  Mastering this aspect of creation will ensure a quality design that can withstand the test of time. shoulder-flowers

Body Mapping and Distortion

Every part of the body that is to be tattoo has muscles that overlay bones that is why confidence in body mapping must be achieved by the artist who wishes to tackle large scale designs. This skill isn’t relegated to the arms or legs though, all sections of the body can be approached and mapped in the same fashion. The practice of mapping out different areas, to see how an artist can manipulate the more static parts located near the transitional areas where muscles contract and extend, is necessary to better understand the process. In time, this practice becomes a more natural extension in the creation of art. Once the practice on paper or canvas becomes more fluid to the artist, time must be spent analyzing the effectiveness of the design by applying a rough-in of the design directly on a body. This practice ensures the artist is able to fully visualize how the design fits on the body, as well as making the artist better able to understand their own process in taking a mapping from the body and translating it to a design.


This aspect of art creation is extremely difficult to master but when an artist puts effort into understanding the most basic skills outlined above, the designs they will create have a better chance of looking amazing throughout a lifetime. As an advanced warning, work towards understanding the application of mapping and design slowly. Take a few minutes before and after each design you do and check to see if you can better map it to a body part. Asking questions like:
  • Is there any way you can increase the depth of the image or create better transitions between elements?
  • Is there any competition between your focal points?
  • Does your image look good from a distance as well as up close?

The Extra Stuff.

We also have a YouTube channel that breaks down commonly asked tattoo questions. You can find it by following this link: Better Tattooing YouTube Channel As always, we appreciate feedback: Let us know how we are doing. Why don’t you buy us a coffee to show us some support! Or buy some of our merch!