What to Consider Before Getting a Tattoo Sleeve

Updated 05/22/19

Lucas Ottone/Stocksy

A tattoo sleeve is a glorious work of art–and getting one says a lot about you. First, you place a high value on aesthetic; second, you're not afraid of commitment; and third, you probably have a high pain threshold. All of that, plus whatever message or story you're trying to convey through your body art—a sleeve is one of the ultimate forms of self-expression.

For the uninitiated, a tattoo sleeve is a large tattoo or a bunch of small tattoos that, when placed together, cover all or a large portion of the arm. Since sleeves are relatively difficult to hide, you need to be 100-percent sure about not just getting one, but also what the visuals contain. We tapped an industry expert to find out what you need to know before you decide to get fully inked. Keep scrolling to figure out if you should get a tattoo sleeve.

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Placement and Size

Tattoo sleeves generally come in three sizes:

  • Quarter sleeve: From the shoulder to the mid-upper arm
  • Half sleeve: From the shoulder to the elbow
  • Full sleeve: From the shoulder to the wrist

TKTKThere's also the Japanese-style hikae sleeve, which starts at the chest

Some people start with just a few random placed tattoos and bridge them together later with a more significant piece. If you're just starting your sleeve idea, it's the right time to consider the final project and scale.

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Color or Black and Grey

Tattoo sleeves often look their best colorful. Whether you opt for traditional old school tattoos, mermaid or pin-up designs, or an armful of colorful flowers, adding vibrant details to your tattoo sleeves can really really make them pop. When you select your designs, analyze the colors as well. There's nothing worse than despising orange on your skin only to sport a huge Tiger Lily later. Often overlooked, this step is important so pay attention. Your artist isn't going to analyze or know these things about you so think about them first and speak up.

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Workplace Woes

Each military branch has its own restrictions pertaining to tattoos. As of April 2007, the United States Marines Corp. banned tattoo sleeves except for those already grandfathered in prior to the policy change. If you plan on enlisting you can forget tattoo sleeves for now. This consideration must also be made for employment. Potential employers may have regulations banning sleeve tattoos or any visible tattoos for that matter. If you must stay sheathed from shoulder to wrist, you'll be hot in the summer.

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Many people start their tattoo sleeves without intent and that's just fine. If you take the organic approach and let one small tattoo turn into another and somehow tie it all together with a background of some sort later, you'll likely have an armful of meaningful body art. Others go full on with a sleeve from the get-go and that works too. Of course, with this approach, you'll be investing a larger sum of money upfront, and you'll need to dedicate the time in the chair to complete the work. Most likely you'll be going back to the same artist which means their schedule will need to be considered as well. If you have the time and the money to complete the job, get it done. Otherwise, start a slower and more balanced approach. Never compromise quality for quantity.

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Design Ideas

Many designs work well into a full sleeve fashion. Consider mythical pieces, religious tattoos, Celtic, tribal, and even ​feather tattoos. You can also wear a few romantic verses on your sleeve and opt for a literary tattoo. Take a look at a few quotes and verse for inspiration.

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Down the Road

No one wants to be told how to feel about their tattoos ten, twenty, or fifty years down the road. The truth is you might hate your tattoos or you may love them. There's no way to tell if you'll have regrets. The best advice for tattoo sleeves is to stick with a theme and then invest time into your idea from start to finish. Consider your job, future, and your lifestyle. Avoid name tattoos when you can and, by all means, spend the time to find a few good artists to create a pleasing display.

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