Big, bold, overpowering tattoo sleeves don't suit everyone's style. But if this is your only idea of a sleeve tattoo (a large tattoo or a bunch of smaller tattoos that, when placed together, cover a significant portion of the arm), you're missing out on a world of possibility. Thanks to tools like Instagram, we're able to discover artists, styles, and techniques that challenge our old ideas of sleeves, so much so that we bet even the most tattoo-shy could find a design they like.
Any tattoo is a huge commitment, but since your arms are relatively difficult to hide, you'll want to be 100% sure about your design, placement, style, size, and color. To walk us through everything we need to know before getting a quarter, half, or full sleeve of ink, we tapped two industry experts, Amanda Wachob and Bryan Gutierrez. Keep scrolling for their best advice and the most important things to consider before getting a sleeve tattoo.
Meet the Expert
- Amanda Wachob is a NYC-based tattoo artist. She specializes in abstract, watercolor-like designs.
- Bryan Gutierrez is a tattoo artist at Bang Bang NYC.
Pick the Right Artist for You
If you're only interested in a tiny, hidden tattoo, you can probably get away with going to most artists. But when it comes to prominent, large-scale designs, like a sleeve tattoo, the most important factor is choosing the right artist for the job. "There are so many amazing tattoo artists who specialize in different styles," Wachob says. "It wouldn’t make sense to approach an artist who does traditional Americana and ask them to do something delicate." In other words, find an artist whose work and overall aesthetic fits that vibe you're going for.
Thankfully, finding that perfect tattoo artist is much easier than it used to be with the help of social media. But although Instagram is a great tool for finding your artist, Wachob advises against sending direct messages. "I'd check out their website and see if they have a preferred way of being contacted or if they open their books up at specific times," she adds. "Signing up for someone's mailing list is always a great way to stay informed, too."
Once you have an artist in mind, Gutierrez suggests going in for a consultation to feel out the vibe of the studio and the artist and see if you're a match. If the artist you've found isn't in your area, Wachob says it's definitely worth the travel. "Not everyone in the tattoo industry has the same skill set," she says. "And this is on you forever, after all."
Put Thought Into Your Sleeve Design (But Not Too Much)
When working on a large area with ample space, you have a lot of freedom when picking the design (or multiple designs). But since your arm is such a prominent part of the body, choose a design that feels timeless to you and not too trendy. "Think about the future you," Wachob says. "Think about you 10 years from now. If you feel like that design will still resonate with the future you, go for it."
Another reason why it's important to choose the right artist first is that if you are unsure of the design you want, you can fully trust their input. Gutierrez says if you like the style and the aesthetic of the artist, you'll be happy with whatever you end up with, even if it wasn't your idea.
Although it's important to communicate your vision to your artist, collaborate with your artist for the best design. "I would make sure that your goals for your tattoo are communicated and clear, but that you also step back and trust your artist on what they think will work best for you," Wachob says. "Oftentimes people try to art direct their tattoo design, and it kills any sort of excitement or enthusiasm that may have existed for the idea."
Decide on the Right Placement and Size
Tattoo sleeves generally come in three sizes (quarter, half, and full) and can start from any place and cover any segment of the arm. Once you have your design chosen, your artist can help you decide on the best placement and the best flow for the area.
"I like to put the show-stopper parts of the design in areas that are more visible, like the outside of the arm," Wachob says. "I always think about musculature and curvature of the body. I think about how images will look when they wrap, I think about how to make them feel more like they are a part of the body, rather than something stuck on it."
Plan out Your Sleeve Design
Some people start with just a few randomly placed tattoos and bridge them together later with a more significant piece, but if you're just starting your sleeve idea, consider the final project and scale by planning it out in advance.
"For something large, I'll spend one session consulting and planning with a client," Wachob says. "When we begin the tattoo, I like to schedule sessions on the same day of the week at the same time, two weeks apart until the tattoo is completed. Consistent appointments are just easier to remember and commit to. Usually, two weeks in between sessions is enough time for your body to heal."
According to Gutierrez, how long a sleeve takes to complete is based entirely on the design. "I’ve seen people knock out sleeves in two days, but I’ve seen it take up to a year or more," he says. "It’s always good to plan it out so that you know the layout and there’s no guesswork involved."
Incorporate New Tattoos Seamlessly
If you're someone who goes with the flow, planning out your tattoo in advance might stifle your creativity. If a design that's too contrived doesn't feel right for you, start with a few smaller tattoos and add to them over time. If you want your collection of tattoos to have a cohesive feel, there are a few different ways your artist can aid in the look and flow of the overall design so that they don't look disjointed.
One common way to integrate everything is with a continuous background color or design. However, if you prefer a more delicate look, this might not be the best option for you. "The more skin you have showing, the less overpowering it feels and the airier it feels on your body," Gutierrez says. If you are a fan of "empty space," Gutierrez recommends keeping the sleeve cohesive by using artists with similar styles. Wachob says another way to keep your tattoo sleeve cohesive is with a theme. "Having a theme or a subject matter in mind is always helpful," she says. "Gather images and books that you love and bring them to your artist."
Don't Be Afraid of Colorful Tattoos
Adding vibrant details to your tattoo sleeves can make them really stand out, but that doesn't mean that adding color will make your design too overwhelming. If you prefer the look of delicate tattoos, you don't have to be afraid of incorporating color. Gutierrez, who has mastered the art of the delicate, large-scale tattoo, says the artist can use different techniques when incorporating color so that it doesn't feel too overpowering.
"Some artists work really dark, and some are really bold," he says. "If you see their style and it’s more on the softer side, they’re probably going to be able to work with you as far as delicacy so it doesn’t look too harsh on you."
But as far as choosing specific colors that are better to work with for a softer overall effect, Gutierrez says color has little to do with it. "It comes down to technique and what the actual design is," he says.
However, one important thing to consider with color is the touch-up you'll need down the line. "Color tattoos especially need a little extra care when it comes to sun exposure and do tend to fade faster than black and gray tattoos," Gutierrez adds.
Consider the Cost of a Sleeve Tattoo
When even the tiniest tattoos can cost you, you might be a little hesitant to ask about a full sleeve. But the truth is it just depends. "Pricing varies artist to artist, studio to studio," Wachob says. "Some people will charge by the piece, some will charge hourly, some will charge a day rate. I often feel like price shouldn’t be much of a consideration when you are thinking about altering your appearance permanently, though. A tattoo isn’t something to bargain hunt for. It’s an investment in yourself and your future happiness. Especially for something like a sleeve, which will be so visible. If an artist whose work you love is expensive, save, save, save."
How much does a sleeve tattoo cost?
There are a lot of variables to consider when estimating the cost of a full sleeve tattoo (hourly rate of the artist, intricacy of the design, etc.). You can expect to spend at least $2,000 and up for a full sleeve.
How long does a sleeve tattoo take?
Sleeve tattoos vary widely depending on how intricate they are, or what colors they include. A full sleeve will likely take at least 12 hours (or around two days' worth of work) but can require as many as 80 hours.
How do you plan or design a sleeve tattoo?
First, you'll need to decide whether you want one large design, or a collection of smaller pieces. From there, you can visit an artist to talk about what step comes first. Likely, this will require multiple sittings, even if it's all part of one design, and your artist will likely first create an outline and then go in to add detail and color.