Deciding to get any tattoo is an exciting commitment—getting a back piece, however, is also a big commitment. Tattoos on the back require a lot of time and effort from artists thanks to the amount of surface area that has to be covered and the detail they necessitate. Though any tattoo requires you to consider the time, cost, and aftercare, back pieces tend to be expensive, take multiple sessions to complete, and may be difficult to heal.
Keep reading to find out the most important things to consider before getting a back piece, as well as advice from expert tattoo artists on making sure the process goes smoothly.
Meet the Expert
- Katie Haertling is a tattoo artist and the owner of The Inked Huntress Tattoo in Fargo, North Dakota.
- Alex Rusty is a tattoo artist and the owner of Lighthouse Tattoo in Sydney, Australia. He specializes in traditional Japanese-style full-back designs.
Picking an Artist
Choosing an artist to do your back piece is the most important decision you can make in the tattooing process. While a simpler piece may allow you to go to a wider variety of artists, not everyone will be able to achieve the overall look you’re going for. If your back piece has a specific aesthetic or is particularly large, finding an artist that does work you like in advance is the way to go. “Look for an artist whose style looks like what you're after,” says Rusty. “It also helps to look at artists who have experience with the scale of the work, but style is more important.”
Once you’ve found an artist whose work you like, both Rusty and Haertling recommend scheduling a consultation to make sure you’re both on the same page with how you want your tattoo to look. “I personally consult with all of my clients before setting up an appointment,” says Haertling. “I like my clients to be well-informed before making a permanent decision, and a consultation allows me to make sure that they are fully aware and educated on not only the process but also on how their choices may or may not impact their tattoo long term.”
Deciding on a Design
Because the back offers a lot of potential tattoo space, it can be a vehicle for almost any design you’re thinking of—from small to large and from minimal to multi-elemental. But that space also presents a unique challenge, as your options are only limited by your imagination. “This is the biggest single canvas on the body,” says Rusty. “I advise clients to think of [a] subject matter that lends itself to the scale of the canvas and to limit the number of elements to be included in the composition.”
One of the most important decisions in getting a back piece is whether you’re interested in a one-off design that can slowly be added to, or a full-back “bodysuit” that will incorporate one large-scale design. This may be dictated by the style you choose—traditional Japanese back pieces tend to be the full back of the body, for example—but be sure that you’re going by what you want rather than what tradition dictates, as it’s your tattoo in the long run.
Deciding on Size and Placement
Given how much space you have, deciding exactly where to put your new back piece can feel overwhelming. It makes sense to consider how the tattoo will move with your body and how each section of your back tends to be used on a daily basis. It’s also worth considering how the location of your design will factor in with any other tattoos you may already have. “Think about how the back piece ties in with existing tattoo work or potential future tattoo plans,” says Rusty. “The wearer will often want consistency if they are thinking of a bodysuit in the long term, and there are flower and season motifs that the wearer might want to keep consistent.”
Pain may also factor into your placement decision. While the back is a wide-open canvas, different areas tend to hurt more than others. Deciding how much pain you’re willing to endure will help you choose which areas are off-limits and narrow down placement options. “There are areas that are more and less tender,” says Rusty. “You are working over large muscles and areas of skin that aren’t desensitized like the skin on one’s arms. People are always surprised at how much the butt and hamstring hurt.”
Breaking Up Your Sessions
If you go for a large back piece, like the traditional Japanese-style full-back pieces that Rusty specializes in, you should expect multiple sessions. “A full back piece will take me roughly 60 hours, depending on size and level of detail,” says Rusty. “But this is broken up into sessions paid for at an hourly rate, which are spaced out by healing time.”
Because back pieces require a ton of time and effort from your artist, your design will most likely be split into more than one session to ensure that your tattoo doesn’t feel rushed and that the quality isn’t otherwise compromised. When you approach your artist about the back piece you want, it makes sense to anticipate multiple sessions and understand that stopping the process before it's done could leave you with a tattoo you don’t love. “Be prepared for multiple sessions and make sure that it [is] something you are fully ready to take on and finish,” says Haertling.
Of course, if the idea of multiple sessions makes getting a back piece less appealing, you can always opt for a smaller design or one with less detail. Designs without shading, blackwork, or tons of color can be done in a shorter amount of time and usually within one session. The best thing to do is to talk to your artist during the consultation stage to be sure of roughly how long the tattoo will take, and exactly how many sessions they anticipate.
The cost of a back piece will differ depending on a number of factors, including your artist, the design itself, and your region. Despite the range of price, however, don’t expect it to be a small cost: Due to the size of the area, and depending on the size of the design, back pieces tend to cost a lot. “Back pieces are a large investment,” says Haertling. “Many things play a factor in the cost such as style, detail, color, and overall size. It’s not unrealistic to spend thousands.”
Don’t let cost factor into your design or artist choice, though. If you’re interested in a specific back piece, understand that they take a lot of time and effort on the artist’s part, and the price reflects that. “A lot of surface area has to be covered,” says Haertling. “Go to an artist that you are willing to invest in, because otherwise, you may end up paying double or triple to fix something you are unhappy with.”
Aftercare for back pieces may seem daunting—they’re hard to reach, can range in size, and may have their healing process impacted by the natural movement of your body. If you have someone who can wash and moisturize the tattoo twice a day for you, it may be wise to ask for help. But for many tattoo getters, you have to rely on yourself for aftercare, which is the same as it is with any tattoo—wash with scent-free, hypoallergenic soap and follow with a scent-free, gentle moisturizer.
Though the design may be hard to reach, avoid using harsh shower accessories like loofahs that may cause trauma to your new tattoo. While they may be helpful in reaching the design, they may ultimately cause problems during the healing process. Use a mirror to ensure you’re reaching every part of your tattoo if necessary, and expect to have to stretch and twist your body a bit to be able to take care of your full tattoo. It may not be an easy aftercare process, but knowing what it will take before getting the tattoo will make it easier in the long run. You can also ask your artist for their aftercare recommendations during your consultation.