From Sketch to Skin: How a tattoo comes alive

Tattoo by Giulia Davis at Blackstone Tattoo Co.

Some things in life look better on screen or on paper — from job descriptions to clothing on Shein to that one person’s profile on Tinder.

That experience is also a common one when it comes to getting a tattoo — what looked amazing on paper and sounded great in theory has somehow changed on its journey to flesh. Which raises the question: What goes into making a design look just as dazzling, as a finished tattoo, as what was first drawn on the page?

I had the opportunity to speak to two of the talented tattoo artists and winners of Motif’s 2024 Tattoo Awards about their expertise in taking a client’s idea and inking it into reality.

Emily Bonney (IG: of Beautiful Ink Tattoos and Permanent Makeup identified the first step in the process as bridging the client’s desires with the tattoo artist’s vision. “Honestly, the hardest part is creating the design that both you and the client love,” she acknowledged. “When I create a design to later be tattooed, I usually create an idea board that combines client inspiration and my own style.”

But what if I know exactly what I want, you may ask — a sketch you’ve made yourself, a tattoo from Instagram that called out to you the minute you saw it, or say, a cherished symbol that you want to be a permanent part of you?

“The tattoos that are my best are when someone brings me a concept and tells me to take it from there. I would recommend picking an artist whose work you like instead of trying to use someone else’s voice or hand,” advised Giulia Davis (IG: @giuliadavistattooer) of Blackstone Tattoo Co. “A tattoo artist will always be more confident with their own style.”

Bonney agreed, adding that doing research and knowing your artist’s work and style is key. “For example, someone who does traditional tattoos might not be that experienced in fine line designs.”

Beyond the design and style, both artists highlighted that considering the placement of a new tattoo is crucial in ensuring that you end up with a tattoo you love. “What makes a good tattoo is knowing the anatomy of your client and the human body,” said Bonney. “The tattoo design might look great on a flat surface, but once it’s on an arm, the proportions might suddenly be off.”

The size of the intended design plays a role in this, too. “Size matters and some people hate hearing it.” The same goes for the sketches customers bring in themselves. “You will want to make sure the design is drawn to fit comfortably on the area you want tattooed.”

One solution both artists presented was not to leave the translation of the design from paper to skin up to the imagination. As part of Davis’s process, she will take a Sharpie and draw the design on a client to make sure it doesn’t warp or look odd. Bonney described a similar process, using either a stencil or a paint brush to get a glimpse of what the tattoo will look like on skin.

Then comes the moment of truth — getting inked and bringing the new tattoo to life. Davis notes that an important part of this step is being able to identify where to add detail and color. “I love creating striking and bold looks, things that will catch the eye. When looking at a design I think, how can this be as bold and bright as possible?”

And like that, the tattoo artist breathes life into what was once an idea, now bloomed into reality for the world to see.