How to design a sleeve tattoo

How to design a sleeve tattoo

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Are you constantly staring at your bare arms and wishing they were filled? Do you lust after every sleeve tattoo you see? Then it might be time to start designing your very own sleeve tattoo.

Full arm sleeve or half sleeve?

Before you start designing your arm tattoo you’ll need to decide if you want a full arm sleeve or half sleeve. As you’d expect, a full arm sleeve covers your whole arm. Depending on your design and chosen style there may still be bare skin showing but the majority of your arm is covered in tattoos.

Chest and sleeve tattoosFull sleeve and chest tattoos by Lucy O'Connell 

A half sleeve refers to two different sleeves. You can either have a:

  • Lower arm half sleeve - this covers everything below your elbow, including your forearm. This could also include your hand.
  • Upper arm half sleeve - this starts at your shoulder and stops at your elbow. This could also incorporate some of your chest.

If you’re not sure which type of sleeve to choose, speak to your tattoo artist during the consultation process. They’ll be able to help you plan your sleeve in more detail.

sleeve tattooUpper arm half sleeve tattoo by Mike Boyd

How to make a tattoo sleeve flow

The flow or structure of your sleeve is an important thing to think about when designing your sleeve. But how can you make sure a tattoo sleeve flows?

Lucy O'Connell (@lucylucyhorsehead) is a Leeds-based tattoo artist. "I'm still working and learning on how I structure sleeves so it changes year by year," Lucy says. "Tattoo artists have to consider someone's anatomy to get flow, and then consider the viewer and how they'll take it in.

"I'd usually structure top down so making the imperative piece at the outside bicep and flowing down to the inner forearm. But this is all design subjective. I usually think a sleeve has three focal points: the top bicep, then lower forearm and back of the forearm. I am working on trying to push a different structure to challenge the classic way."

How to choose a sleeve tattoo theme

"I think most people pick a theme then pick an artist," adds Lucy. "With my work a theme is imperative, but if someone is just getting pieces that work together rather than one flowing picture it doesn't have to be so obvious. A theme just helps the ideas click together. If you have a tropical fish with a blue tit and roses, it'll just jar in my opinion - if you are wanting items to fit in. But some people just want to get what they get and not dive too deep.

"Clients may ask for just one piece then ask me to expand on what else they could get. Which is a really fun way of working. A theme can emerge through the tiniest ideas."

Bird sleeve tattooTattoo by Lucy O'Connell 

Sleeve tattoo design ideas

If you’ve got a theme in mind for your tattoo, that’s awesome, we say get your tattoo appointment booked. But picking a theme for your sleeve can be tricky, so we’ve got tattoo sleeve ideas to inspire you.

Japanese sleeve tattoo

Japanese tattoos filled with florals and waves, dragons and smoke make for beautiful sleeves. Packed with symbolism and often vivid colours they’re a great choice if you want a sleeve that tells a story.


Traditional tattoo sleeve

With traditional tattoo sleeves you don’t always need a theme. Although centering the designs around a couple of ideas creates incredible results.


Patchwork sleeve tattoo

We love the composition of this patchwork theme. All the elements mesh together with a nature inspired theme.


Viking tattoo sleeve

Got a particular piece of history you love? Then dedicate an arm to it like this viking inspired sleeve.


Animal sleeve tattoo

Animals are always a great theme for a tattoo. Whether you opt for a lion, wolf or dragon, sleeves filled with powerful animal figures look amazing in colour or black and grey.


Flower sleeve tattoo

From roses to peonies, fill your arms with beautiful flowers. Whether you choose blackwork or colour, flower sleeve tattoos always look beautiful.


Disney sleeve tattoo

Include all your favourite Disney characters and stories in a sleeve tattoo. The iconic cartoons look awesome in full colour or black and grey.


Marvel sleeve tattoo

Sleeve tattoos are a great way to let everyone know your favourite comics, characters and movies. So if you’re a Marvel fan, why not design a sleeve around your favourite heroes.


Should I get my sleeve done by the same tattoo artist?

This is completely up to you. You might want to stick to one artist for one sleeve tattoo for a more consistent look. Or you might use your arm to collect from different artists. There’s no right or wrong way to do it when it comes to sleeves. You might even choose to have one arm as a themed sleeve and one as a patchwork style collection of tattoos.

butterfly sleeve tattooTattoo by Lucy O'Connell 

Will a tattoo artist help me design and plan a sleeve?

Yes, many tattoo artists can help plan your sleeve with you as part of their booking process. You might want to give your tattooist a lot of details or give them more free reign.

"Working with clients is different every time as some need a lot of back and forth and some give a basic brief and leave you to it," says Lucy. "Some people are really specific about how they want it to flow, and some just give a bunch of focal points and leave me to it."

Her top tip for tattoo collectors is not to get a "taster piece in a space where you're wanting a larger connected design, as designing a piece to stand on its own is different from designing for a sleeve."

That’s why it’s always worth talking through the structure of potential sleeves with a tattoo artist or planning out what you might get in the future.

How much does a sleeve tattoo cost?

The price of a full sleeve will vary depending on the tattoo artist you choose, where you are and the designs you choose. The cost of a sleeve tattoo may be calculated per hour or per piece, your tattoo artist will let you know when you book in.

For a full sleeve you could be looking at anywhere from £1,000 to £5,000. This will depend on the time your sleeve takes and the detail involved. It can take artists up to three days to do a full sleeve tattoo, which is usually spread across multiple sessions and dates.

With so much skin to cover they’re an investment, not just financially; sleeves can take a lot of time, especially if you’re travelling to your tattoo artist.

How can I design a sleeve cover up tattoo?

If you have an old tattoo you want to cover up, talk to your tattoo artist. They may be able to create a design that covers the tattoo. Or you could choose a black out style sleeve if there are quite a few tattoos you want covered.

How to help your sleeve heal

To help your new sleeve tattoo heal you can:

  • Follow the aftercare advice given to you by your tattoo artist
  • Avoid soaking your new tattoo, especially in the bath
  • Use an aftercare cream
  • Avoid scratching or picking your new tattoo
  • Keep an eye on it for signs of infection

Lucy’s biggest tip for healing your tattoo sleeve is to "have time off". She says, "drinking water and rest are the best way of healing anything. Your body knows what it needs, often too much intervention can be less helpful. Also avoid spraying deodorant on inner bicep work until it heals."

Soothe calm and repair your new sleeve tattoo with Stories & Ink Aftercare Cream. Shop now.

Read more

For more skin stories, aftercare advice and tattoo artist interviews, check out the Stories & Ink Journal.