Please read our disclaimer for more info.
Do you want to begin to Tattoo but are wondering where to start? Not sure how the complete process works? Let’s break it down into basic elements and steps.
What are the basics of tattooing for beginners? Tattooing can be broken down into 3 basic elements. 1. Lining, or the outline shape of the tattoo. 2 Shading, which creates the depth and 3D elements of a tattoo. 3. Colour, which brings the tattoo to life. A good Tattooist excels at all 3 elements.
Beginning to Tattoo can be very daunting. It can be hard to know where to start. It’s a difficult learning process to understand the mysterious art of tattooing.
I’ll break down the tattooing process for you into a simple step by step guide to make it easier for you.
What are the basics of tattooing for beginners?
The tattoo process can be broken down into a series of steps that get you through to the final result. Each step is a skill in itself that you need to master to be an experienced Tattoo Artist.
You must have nailed each step perfectly on practice skin before you start working on human skin and doing any actual tattooing.
Practice all of these steps over and over with the practice skin before you go anywhere near real skin. I’m talking months to years before you will be ready. Don’t rush it.
All these steps are important.
You need to make sure that you don’t neglect to practice any of the steps as they are all equally important.
For example, you can’t do a great tattoo if you can’t apply the stencil right.
If you neglect the hygiene side your client could end up with an infected tattoo or worse, a serious disease.
So you can see that all of the tattooing process steps are of equal importance and add up to a great tattoo.
1 – Understand Cross-contamination and hygiene procedures
Time to get serious before you do anything else.
As a tattooist, the rule is that you MUST understand the principles of hygiene and cross contamination inside out.
Cross-contamination means that if you touch something that is contaminated you can then easily spread the contamination around to other surfaces.
For example, if you have blood on your gloves and then touch the light switch with them, anyone else touching that switch will then be contaminated by the blood.
It’s amazing how far stuff will spread if you aren’t careful and you don’t understand cross-contamination.
You need to understand this to protect yourself as well as your future clients. If you don’t know what you are doing it’s super easy to make a simple mistake and infect yourself or your client with Hepatitis, HIV or any other blood-borne disease.
Hepatitis is especially easy to catch and hard if not impossible to cure.
I’m deadly serious here as I want you to be safe.
I highly recommend that you take an online cross-contamination and bloodborne pathogens course.
There are many available and they are generally not expensive. You will get a certification which is actually good to show any future tattoo shop where you will work.
2 – Design the tattoo to fit the body
This is where your drawing skills come in. Create a tattoo design that fits the body part you are going to tattoo on. You need to start to think in 3 dimensions and not on flat paper.
A great tattoo design should follow the curves of the body and accentuate it in a flattering way.
It can be a helpful practice to actually draw on a person if you have a friend who will volunteer.
Get some sharpies and draw a design on their skin. The arm is a good place to start. That way you start to move away from designing for a flat piece of paper and start to think in 3D and figure out how your design will fit.
I use an iPad and apple pencil to create my designs. I highly recommend this setup as it’s easy to take a photo of the client’s arm or body part.
I create a design to fit on the iPad. Print it out and turn it into a stencil. An iPad is expensive but try and get one as soon as you can as it will save you tons of time.
Without an iPad, you can create designs on tracing paper with pencils. Trace over and over the design until you have perfected it.
Make sure you are working on your drawing skills and artistic abilities and improving them all the time.
3 – Prepare your workstation
Your workstation is your sterile area where you lay out all your equipment and inks. I use a two-tier stainless steel trolly.
The top tier is my sterile area. Here I have…
- The tattoo machine
- Vaseline and process cream
- Squeeze bottle of wipe down fluid containing green soap.
- Cups of distilled water to clean the needle between colors.
On the bottom tier, I have…
- A power supply
- Stack of clean paper towel for wiping
- Box of gloves
I also have a side table where I place…
- My tattoo design stencilled up
- The sealed packaged needles I am going to use
- The tattoo ink I will need in the tattoo design
4 – Create a stencil
You can either hand trace a stencil or use a stencil machine.
I highly recommend that you invest in a machine.
Hand tracing a stencil can take forever if it’s a complex design. You can only get 2 or 3 goes out of it.
So the nightmare scenario is that you spend half an hour tracing it. Mess up the application and have to trace it all over again. You will be behind time and the client will be pissed off.
So do yourself a favour and buy a machine as soon as you can.
Find out more about the stencil machine I use here on this post. How To Use Tattoo Transfer Paper – With or Without A Thermal Copier
5 – Apply the stencil to the body
Applying a stencil is a whole art form on its own. You need to practice making them and applying them to your own skin or your volunteer friends.
Get used to the way the stencil wraps around the body. Again this will help you to start to think in 3D.
Practice creating stencils that are bigger than A4. You will need to stick 2 or 3 sheets together. Yeah, big back tattoo stencils are fun!
Use an application cream like Stencil Stuff. Don’t use the old traditional method of Speedstick as this has a risk of cross-contamination.
Stencil Stuff Tattoo Stencil Application Solution
6 – Outline the tattoo
Now your stencil is on you are ready to tattoo. Wow. So much preparation involved before you even get to tattoo!.
Again, you should be practising this on fake skin. Not human skin.
You need to get all the tattoo outlining done first. Once you have the lining on you can relax as you don’t need to worry about losing your stencil.
Decide which tattoo needle you are going to use. A 7 RL [round liner] is a good all-round size to start with.
Make sure you use a layer of petroleum jelly or process butter to lubricate the practice skin and prevent ink staining.
Concentrate on creating clean and smooth lines. Move your hand smoothly and fully concentrate on perfecting each line. Keeping the hand speed slow can result in smoother lines but you need to make sure you don’t overwork the skin. You can see if you are overworking even on practice skin.
Practicing on bananas is great for improving this. If you line too heavily or slowly you will see the skin of the banana start to break up as it’s fragile. This is great to help you develop your lining technique.
Move from bottom to top so you don’t rub out your stencil with your hand. If you are right-handed move from bottom right to top left. Bottom left to top right for left-handed people.
At this stage, you may also want to consider line weights. Tattoos look much more dynamic if they have both thin and thick lines. You may want bold lines around the edge of an object to emphasise it.
Areas that you want to mark for shading, but don’t need a line can be bloodlined. This means lining without ink on the needle. It leaves a fine mark for you to follow.
7 – Shade the tattoo to bring it to life
This is the point where you start to bring some dynamism to the design. You can make it look 3D and alive.
Gray shading, where you use various dilutions of black ink is very effective. Black and gray tattoos are always popular.
You don’t need to buy pre-mixed grey shade ink. You can create your own dilutions.
When you are drawing, practice pencil shading to get better at understanding shading. Analyse different tattoo styles and look at how their shading is done.
Try to make your tattoo shading graduations smooth and velvety. This takes practice.
8 – Colour The Tattoo
If the tattoo has colored elements, this is the time to do it.
In tattooing, you work from darker colors to light so you don’t contaminate a lighter color with a darker one.
Layout your inks, going from the darker colors in the cold colour range [blues/greens] to the lightest warm colour range [reds/pinks/yellows]. Then as you tattoo, work your way up through the colours.
This way you avoid smearing dark colors into light colours and making the tattoo look muddy and murky.
You will find that each shade of color is different to tattoo. Some go in much more easily than others. A lighter or pastel shade of color can be difficult when you first start to tattoo real people. The blood shows through the light shade of color and makes it difficult to see what you are doing.
Improving how you work with this color of ink comes with practice.
The color you will use in the tattoo depends on the skin color too. Paler pastel colors won’t show up well on dark skin. As you gain experience you will gain knowledge of what colors work nicely on each skin type.
Pack the colour in solidly and avoid “holidays” or missing patches.
9 – Discuss Tattoo Aftercare
If you were working with a real human client this is the point to discuss aftercare. Making sure they understand the healing process is crucially important.
The tattoo is only as good as the aftercare so you have to make sure your client understands what they need to do to facilitate the healing of the tattoo.
Most tattoo infections happen after the client has left the tattoo studio in the first few hours. However, you will get the blame for it if this happens.
People do crazy things and always want to touch and poke their fresh new tattoo with their mucky hands. Their friends will want to poke it too. People can’t resist it!
For that reason, I highly recommend you use a dressing film. That way you can immediately cover the tattoo for 24 hours away from poking fingers.
Check that the client doesn’t have sensitive skin as this can make them more prone to aftercare problems.
Explain things they can’t do such as swimming or saunas. Have a printed sheet so they can take it away with them as people tend not to listen as they are buzzing with their new tattoo.
10 – Breakdown and sanitise the workstation
Time to clean up.
- Put all needles and sharps in a sharps bin for hygienic disposal
- Wrap up all the inks etc from your sterile area for hygienic disposal
- Wipe down all chairs, beds etc with a sterile spray
- Spray and wipe down the workstation and equipment.
- [I highly recommend that you run a fully disposable system so that you don’t need to autoclave anything]
- Wash your hands thoroughly with antibacterial soap and water. Basic soap and water, done thoroughly will also work.
So those are the basics of tattooing for beginners. The more you practice the more things will start to fit together seamlessly.
It’s a bit like driving a car. At first, you struggle to remember what to do but as you get better all the things flow together easily.
What does a beginner tattoo artist need?
A basic set-up of supplies and tattooing equipment for a beginner tattoo artist will include
- A tattoo machine [Rotary is best]
See my Starter Tattoo Machine Review Here
- A power supply
- A foot pedal
- Needle cartridges. [7 Liner and 9 Magnum and 9 Round shader are a good start]
- Black ink
- Practice Skin
- Stencil paper
- Stencil stuff – to transfer the stencil to the practice skin
- This basic setup will allow you to practice lining, shading and colour packing on your practice skin.
Ive put a gear list together for you which you can check out here. You can view my gear list here.
Why you need to use disposable Equipment
Whether you use a rotary machine or coil machine, the major issue in tattooing is the sterilization of equipment.
When you are working on practice skin this doesn’t matter but it pays to think ahead. One day you will be working on people if you make it to be a professional tattooist and you need to think ahead.
Bloodborne diseases such as Hepatitis and HIV can easily be spread through equipment that isn’t sterized properly.
Many people think that they can sterilize equipment such as tubes and grips at home. They think that boiling them, soaking them in bleach or flaming them will sterilise them.
THIS IS NOT TRUE.
You can’t sterilise equipment properly unless you have an autoclave. An autoclave uses pressure and high temperature to ensure 100% sterilization. Anything short of this doesn’t work.
However, to buy an autoclave costs upwards of $1500.
For this reason, I highly recommend that you work with disposable equipment. You can buy disposable grips, tips and tubes as well as all your pre-made needles and just throw them away at the end of the session.
You will need to dispose of them into a sharps bin or biological disposal system. Not into domestic trash.
It’s so much safer to use a fully disposable system and also saves you the hassle and expense of an autoclave.
How Do You Become a Licensed Tattoo Artist?
The information here is to give you a basic overview of how the tattoo process works. However, you should only be working on practice skin or fruit when you do your beginner tattoos.
If you want to work on people, you need to start training to become a licensed tattoo artist. I wrote a detailed post on how to become a tattoo artist which you can read here.
I go through the various ways you can learn how to tattoo and enter the tattoo industry as a professional tattooist.
How can I teach myself to tattoo?
Tattooing is difficult to learn. An apprenticeship is the best and easiest route. However, with dedication, it can be done. Focus on your art, take a course in tattoo techniques and practice heavily on fake skin before attempting to tattoo a person. Tattooists practice on their own skin first.
Can I be a tattoo artist if I can’t draw?
You do need to be able to draw to be a good tattoo artist. Most people want custom work these days. However, drawing is a learned skill and something that everyone can improve with practice. Take some online art classes and draw every day to improve your artwork.
How deep should a tattoo needle go?
Tattoo needle depth is crucially important for a good tattoo. The needle needs to go into the middle layer of skin, the Dermis. This is approximately 1 to 2 millimetres deep. Too deep and you hit the fat layer which can cause a blurry tattoo and infection. Too shallow and the tattoo will grow out.
What can I practice tattooing on?
You need to practice tattooing before you graduate to real skin. You can buy silicone or plastic practice skin. You can also use fruit and vegetables such as bananas, oranges and squashes. Pigskin is often free from butchers and is the closest thing to human skin to practice tattooing on.
You can read more practice ideas in this post. What is the best thing to practice tattooing on?
I hope this has given you a good overview of the basics of tattooing for beginners and the basic tattoo process. If you want further tips please download my free guide below Good luck
More Information about the Basics Of Tattooing
The information on the site is for entertainment only. Anything you do is at your own risk. Consult with your own Tattooist, Piercer or Doctor for advice.
- Xed Le Head Death Obituary – Dotwork Tattoo Pioneer - October 18, 2023
- How I Started Tattooing – - October 16, 2023
- Healed White Tattoos: How Long Do White Tattoos Last - September 8, 2023