How To Design A Tattoo: Tips + Examples

Are you a tattoo artist looking for inspiration? Or perhaps on a hunt for ways to refine your style and design better tattoos and build a more aesthetic portfolio. Then you are in the right place. In this blog, we’ll be breaking down the basics of tattoo design. We’ll tell you how to design a tattoo that your customers will love and how to create your own unique style in the process.

Before we tell you how to design a tattoo, let’s quickly look at the history of how it all began. 

A 5000-year-old art form 

Tattoo is one of the oldest art forms. Though the exact year of origin is not clear, the oldest known set of tattoos is from Ötzi the Iceman. His mummified body was found in 1991 and one of the most intriguing aspects observed was the tattoo collection on his body. There were 19 clusters of tattoos all over his body, a total of 61. This not only shows how ancient this art form is but also establishes that good tattoo work truly is immortal! 

So much has changed ever since the introduction of the modern-day electric tattoo machine which was invented by Samuel F. O’Reilly in 1891. From there on, tattoos have evolved in many ways and in different cultures. The influence of mainstream media has been quite strong when it comes to the introduction of new styles in tattoo design. 

That brings us to the next topic – the most popular tattoo styles. Because to know how to design a tattoo, you should first narrow down the style you wish to create. 

Popular tattoo design styles 


Realism is one of the boldest and also one of the most common tattoo styles. It takes a lot of experience to learn how to design a tattoo in this style. 

Photorealistic designs are aesthetic and make a bold statement but these are not the easiest to create. Because a lot goes into creating the right contours in the form of highlights, shadows, and more to create depth and make your art look more realistic. 


Geometric style is one that uses clearly defined shapes and lines. There’s an inherent simplicity in these tattoos that makes them popular. When you learn how to design a tattoo incorporating geometric shapes, you are learning a style that stands the test of time. 

Kimp Tip: Geometric tattoos look great both in black and in color. But a lot depends on the shape you choose. To ensure that your design conveys the right emotions, understand shape psychology while designing a geometric tattoo. 


When traditional shapes and designs are not enough, your answer lies in surrealism. Surrealistic tattoos combine several ideas and bring them to life. These are statement makers that can be personalized in many ways.

The elements you combine and the way you combine them all help tell different stories and there can also be many ways to interpret these designs. That’s what makes them even more special. 


For beginners learning how to design a tattoo minimalistic styles are some of the easiest. There are not many details and layers in the tattoo. You do not have to worry about shadows and curves to create a three-dimensional design. Most minimalistic tattoos are flat style and consist of clear clutter-free designs consisting mostly of clean lines. 

As you can see in the image above, they look simple at first glance but can tell a beautiful story. 

Tribal styles 

Tribal tattoos are some of the most interesting styles in tattoo design. To learn how to design a tattoo in tribal style, you should also spend some time understanding the many tribal styles and techniques behind them.

Whang-od Oggay is an icon in the tribal tattoo segment, and also the greatest source of inspiration. She is the oldest and last mambabatok, a traditional tattooist pursuing the Kalinga tattoo style. 

In the tribal tattoo segment, you are likely to see several common styles and elements like: 

  • Samoan Animal Abstract Style
  • Eye of Horus
  • Celtic Cross and Knots

Double-check the cultural significance behind these styles and the elements used in order to create more meaningful tattoos for your clients. 

New school 

This is one of the most recent styles and is known for its signature vibrant designs. Exaggeration is one of the notable aspects of new school designs and they also contain a lot of eye-catching cartoon-like details. New school tattoos also have thick outlines meant to keep the chosen bright colors within boundaries. 


These are direct contrasts of new school styles since they only contain black lines and abstract shapes. There are detailed patterns and interesting shapes used but these do not use realistic elements and highly intricate designs. One of the noticeable traits of this style is the use of dark black outlines and black-filled shapes balanced by negative spaces that help create depth in the design. 

In addition to these 7 tattoo styles, there are many more to explore – like portraiture, Classic Americana, Japanese styles, and others. Once you know your options when it comes to the core style of your tattoo you are nearly there. Then comes the real question of how to design a tattoo. Let’s look at some best practices and tips to help simplify your job. 

How to design a tattoo in 5 easy steps 

As we discussed above, the first step is choosing your style. Once you have shortlisted your style, the following steps will get you to your ideal tattoo design. 

1. Know the position 

Yes, you can create some generic designs that can go in various parts of the body. But the best way to customize a tattoo and make it look naturally synchronized with the customer’s skin is to choose a design based on the position. 

When you know where the tattoo will be inked, you will get a clear idea about the area available. This lets you perceive the scale of your design. While large tattoos make a bold statement, placing them in the right place influences whether they look their part. The wrong spot can cause a large tattoo to look crammed up. 

Knowing the position also helps you understand the contours your tattoo will cover. Because the shape of your tattoo might not always look the same on all contours. The meaning that your tattoo design conveys as a whole might be lost when the design appears cropped or warped because of the place where it appears. 

So, if you are wondering how to design a tattoo that your client would fall in love with, narrow down the position where the tattoo appears before you freeze the design. 

2. It’s okay to look for inspiration 

Sometimes you have it all in your mind but you do not know how to put the design down on paper and then in ink. Or sometimes you find yourself staring at a blank screen not knowing what to design. Even the most experienced tattoo artists go through these phases. 

To overcome these situations and to find direction in your tattoo design process, it is a good idea to look for inspiration. Scroll through the Instagram pages or website portfolios of your favorite artists. Celebrity tattoo artists like Bang Bang, Kat Von D, and Mark Mahoney all have brilliant online portfolios that can be pretty inspirational for budding tattoo artists. 

The below image shows a snapshot of the Instagram page of Mark Mahoney. 

Pinterest is another great source of inspiration. You can even create boards for different tattoo styles so that when your next tattoo project comes up, you can save the time spent hunting for the right inspiration. A quick search for the term “tribal tattoos” yields the following result on Pinterest, for example. You can further narrow down your options based on whether you are looking for Filipino tribal styles or Polynesian and so on. 

While it’s okay to look for inspiration, remember that there’s a thin line between getting inspired and copying a design. You would want to create a unique portfolio that showcases your authenticity. Customers love working with authentic tattoo artists because that way they know that they are getting a unique design inked. 

3. Every masterpiece begins as a sketch 

When you are figuring out how to design a tattoo do not choose complicated designs. Most important do not attempt to create all the details right away. Separate your design into sections and tackle them one at a time. 

Sketch your idea on paper or use a digital drawing tablet or even your iPad. Remember to separate the details in your design into different layers so that you can make changes without having to revisit the whole design.

From drawing the basic shapes to sketching over them roughly and then adding the outline, filling colors, and adding details and highlights every single step can be separated into layers when you draw your tattoo digitally. For pencil sketches use different sheets of tracing paper to place your layers one on top of the other. 

4. Carefully compose your design 

Once your design is ready, the final composition determines whether you achieve the intended effect or not. Tattoo designs are often combinations of various shapes, portions of text, borders, accents, and other details. So, the way all these elements are combined can make or break the effect. 

The composition of your design includes everything from the proportion of the elements combined to their alignment and positions. In the case of digital sketches, you can always use a mockup to see how the tattoo looks on the actual surface. This helps you understand whether the alignment or position of specific parts of the design needs to be adjusted. 

Another critical aspect of the composition of your tattoo design will be the contrast. Even the most stunning design will not have the intended impact if the contrast is bad. The below example shows how poor contrast ruins a great design. 

Finally, the most evident parameter in your tattoo design – the colors. Once you decide that it would be a colored tattoo and not an all-black design, choosing your color palette is a critical step. The colors influence the contrast and therefore the legibility of the design. In case you are working with monochrome palettes remember to adjust the colors based on the customer’s skin tone so that the details are intact. 

Kimp Tip: Colors also have different moods and therefore the overall vibe of the tattoo changes depending on the colors used. Understand color psychology and the relevance of specific color combinations and color palettes to specific tattoo styles to achieve the best results. For example, the specialty in the below tattoo design is the use of the right touch of colors. 

5. Stay informed of what’s happening in the world of tattoos 

Knowing how to design a tattoo is not enough. You should also know how to deliver your designs in the most efficient manner. From hygienic practices to the use of the latest inks and technology, a lot of differentiators set you apart in a competitive world. 

If there are some recent tattoo techniques that people are raving about, your customers will expect you to be able to deliver them. Having the best designs won’t suffice if you are not prepared. 

For example, Bang Bang, a popular celebrity tattoo artist recently developed light-sensitive inks. Lights of different wavelengths help turn on and turn off different colors in these tattoos. These are heights in personalization and such trends are hard to ignore. But your design should also be tweaked in such a way that playing with different color variations and with different colors being turned off will not let the message of the tattoo go astray. 

Spend time updating yourself with all the latest information in this industry so that your designs keep evolving. That’s one way to stay ahead in the game. 

Other ways to come up with unique tattoo designs 

Even if you know how to design a tattoo, a fresh perspective always helps. Moreover, you sometimes simply do not have the time to come up with fresh designs when your business keeps you busy. So, what are your options for creating these unique tattoo designs for your studio? 

Work with a freelance designer, an illustrator to be specific. Because you would want someone who can come up with cool concepts and characters and drawings from scratch. Ensure that your design contract clearly talks about licensing and commercial use of the created designs. 

Another option is to work with an unlimited design service like Kimp. The fact that you get unlimited designs every month makes it easier to build a strong portfolio in a short time. Moreover, there are diverse kinds of designs covered in your subscription. So, in addition to the custom tattoo designs for your business, you can also request marketing designs to promote your tattoo studio without having to pay extra for the same. 

It’s okay if you do not anticipate regular design work. Unlimited design subscriptions come without contracts. So, you can stop your subscription anytime. 

Want to see how design subscriptions help in elevating your tattoo design studio? Sign up for a free trial.