5 Tips for Illustrators Taking on Custom Tattoo Commissions

Published Feb. 28th 2013


Let’s say one of your long-time clients has just asked about an unusual commission: he wants to have one of your drawings inked on his skin. What do you do?

Tattoo commissions aren’t the most common type of art commission, but they do occur. It’s an honor as an artist to know someone will be walking around with your work on their skin, but that also means you have the responsibility to creating a beautiful and highly personal work of art.

So how do you get started on a tattoo commission?

1. Price each tattoo commission accordingly

On of the first things you might be wondering is how much to charge for a tattoo commission.

Most tattoo parlors charge by the hour for their time spent creating the artwork. A client coming directly to you will expect to pay about the same hourly rate to have the artwork designed.

Remember that a tattoo commission is a one-of-a-kind artwork, designed especially for that client. You can’t use the artwork anywhere else or sell it to other clients. So price your work with that in mind.

For a custom commission, I would suggest beginning around $100, and charging $100-200 for a small or medium-sized piece. And of course, your price should go up for larger, or more detailed work.

2. Get the details

In order to do justice to a tattoo design, you need to know as many details as possible, including the approximate size of the finished design, the placement on the body, and whether the client wants color (along with what colors the clients wants).

Your client may have a few specific ideas, or simply a general idea of what they want, preferring to leave the creative details up to you. Get your client to show you examples of tattoos they like, so you have an idea of how your finished piece should look.

Draw a few preliminary sketches and work on a basic composition. Many artists also draw on baking paper, and wrap the paper around the area of the body to see how the tattoo looks on the skin.

3. Research before drawing

Although practically anything can be tattooed these days, the key to a successful tattoo is to keep it bold and simple. Too much detail will not only blend together when it’s inked, it will make the tattoo artist in charge of doing the tattoo really, really angry!

If the client has a particular tattoo artist in mind, perhaps ask them to email you a link to their portfolio. Once you get a feel for their style you’ll have a better idea of how your line thicknesses and graphic elements will work for that tattoo artist.

Try to simplify your shape and line work. Think about the focal point of the tattoo—for example, faces, writing and other elements that will need to stand out. Use color wisely to make these areas bold. Extra detail in certain area will also create visual interest.

It can also help to work in a similar medium to the tattooist—by using ink, felt pens and other straight colors to create the piece, rather than paints or digital programs.

Once you’ve finished a basic design, show it to a tattoo artist and get their opinion. They will be able to tell you immediately if the design can be tattooed or not.

4. Take your tattoo skills further

If you’re interested in the world of tattooing and creating tattoo designs, you could talk to a local tattoo parlor about starting an apprenticeship. Even if you don’t plan on being a tattoo artist, learning about the art of inking on skin will increase your knowledge of how to design the best tattoos.

Some illustrators draw tattoo designs for shops to display, both to give ideas to customers, and to use in the actual tattoo. In the tattoo world, these designs are called “flash” and may be sold or exchanged between tattoo artists and fans. In some areas it’s in bad taste to draw “flash” to sell unless you’re a tattoo artist yourself, but this varies by area and shop. Talk to local tattoo artists about the potential for selling flash in their shops.

5. Always remember, tattoos are forever

Keep in mind that whatever your personal thoughts about tattoos or a particular tattoo design, that a tattoo is highly personal and important to the person who chooses it. This is an artform that deserves respect, and you should feel nothing but honored that a client would want your art permanently on their skin.

If you don’t feel confident in your ability to produce a beautiful tattoo, then turn down the commission and perhaps recommend another artist friend. Your client will thank you in years to come—after all, it’s much better to have no tattoo than a bad tattoo!

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