Planning a Sleeve Tattoo

  • Written By Dan Hunter on March 19, 2020
    Last Updated: November 27, 2020

Sleeve art is elaborate, and the inking time-consuming. Your arms will be subjected to a lot of pricks increasing the likelihood of infection. You’ll want to be sure of the artist’s expertise. Be sure to plan extensively before you embark on this journey. 

Get tips on how to plan and start a tattoo sleeve, and what you should keep in mind when committing to this bold body art statement. Pay a lot of attention to the planning because if anything should go south with the design, removal will be costly.

Planning Your Tattoo Sleeve

Before you start your sleeve, you need to have a plan. Here’s what to consider before you get inked:

  • Career decisions
  • Venue and artists
  • Design
  • Refine
  • Transitions
  • Coloring
  • Artist consultation
  • Starting the sleeve

Consider Your Career

Previously, some employers would have refused to give you a job if you had tattoos showing. If your current job has a no-visible-tattoos policy, you should take that into account and plan accordingly. That might mean long sleeves for the rest of your time there.

If you’re between jobs, you shouldn’t be too concerned. The only reason an employer may not offer you a job because of tattoos is if they’re offensive. This includes racist, vulgar, discriminatory themes, and foul language.

Venue and Artist 

When preparing for a tattoo, regardless of size, you need to pick the right place to get it. That starts with choosing a tattoo artist and parlor. 

Choosing a novice isn’t an option for such a big piece of work. Make sure you attend a reputable, professional tattoo parlor with qualified, insured artists. Ideally, you should select an artist who’s worked on tattoo sleeves before, in the style of your choosing.

The idea is to minimize the risk that your ink won’t turn out as expected due to the inexperience of the tattooist.


The next step is to research some ideas to put together a design. Remember, a sleeve is a comprehensive piece. You want to make sure the end result is cohesive.

Think about the images, colors and overall theme for your tattoo to ensure it all flows. It should look like a great piece of artwork, not a mix and match of doodles. 

You should also put thought into how you want your tattoo to look. Do you want a full sleeve or half sleeve? What theme do you want? 

Have you been inked countless times, or is this your very first piece? If the latter, then we suggest trying a smaller, more inconspicuous tattoo first to test your pain threshold.

You should also plan what you want the design to be like. Do you want larger images with small details in-between or a more intricate detailed piece throughout?


Once you’ve selected a general theme or idea, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty. Do you have an exact image you’d like to have in your tattoo sleeve? If you do, then search for complementing and contrasting ideas to see which best suits your style. 

Once you begin researching tattoo ideas based on a specific image or theme you’ll be inundated with some great, and some not so great, designs. Be very specific when doing your research to try and filter out those tattoos which aren’t as relevant to your final goal. 

For example, if you want to look through angelic wing designs, instead of searching for angle tattoos, which is a very broad term, you could search for angel wings. The latter is more concise and would reduce your waiting and browsing time. 

Choose Your Transitions

With your base idea in your head and a possible image or two that you definitely want to be included, you can start to look at various transition options for the ink. Common transitions or links between larger images are clouds, vines, leaves and tribal type patterns. 

Transitions are basically space fillers and patterns between the bigger images in the piece. They’re ideal for sleeves as they can be more of a freehand drawing to fill in any open gaps or spaces. Ask the artist for their sleeve portfolio and look at the different types of transitions and how well they work with different tattoo styles.

If you already have tattoos on your arms, adding transitions between them is a great way of connecting and transforming them into a full sleeve.

What Colors?

Choosing your coloring is critical if you’re to get the feel you’re looking for. You can have a vibrant colorful tattoo with lots of different shades and hues or a black and white piece. 

No matter what you pick, you’ll need to decide whether you’d like your tattoo as solid blocked colors or shading. 

In blocked color tattoos, the colors are usually vibrant with solid sections and styles. In shaded tattoos, they’re usually black or green and use rendering and shading techniques to give the tattoo more depth and levels.

Consult Your Artist

Once you’ve decided on all of the above, take these ideas to your tattoo artist. Ask if they can sketch some ideas out for you to browse through and choose from. This will give you a better vision of what your tattoo will look like as a final piece. 

Your tattoo artist may use the drawings as a template to transfer onto your skin in pen or trace over the design with the needle. 

Some tattooists still do freehand, so they may transfer some of the main images via a template and then draw the rest with the needle. This technique is fine, but make sure you really trust your tattoo artist’s skill and accuracy. 

Starting Your Tattoo Sleeve

You’ll also need to plan out how many sessions it’ll take. It isn’t feasible for the entire sleeve to be done in a day for most people. You’ll need to determine with your artist how long each session will be and how much time you need in between them.

Enjoy Your Sleeve 

Getting a tattoo is a very exciting time for anyone. If done right, the ink should be something to enjoy and be proud of for years to come. That said, getting a tattoo sleeve requires careful consideration and planning. The design is big and it may prove challenging to conceal should the art turn out wrong.

Whether you opt for a half-sleeve or a full one, it’s a serious commitment. Cover all your bases before getting inked. Get a venue with an extensive portfolio and use it to refine your ideas. It’ll be a painful experience, but well worth it in the long run.

When you eventually go ahead with getting your dream tattoo, it’s imperative that you always follow your tattoo artist’s aftercare advice closely, and be sure to invest in a high-quality tattoo healing lotion to aid recovery.

The best tattoo lotion I’ve ever personally used is a vegan-friendly aftercare product called After Inked Tattoo Aftercare Lotion. This stuff works amazingly well during the healing process; not only by keeping your tattoo really well hydrated, but also by soothing any annoying itching and irritation. When using it from the very start of the healing process, this lotion will help to decrease tattoo healing times, and work towards eliminating any lingering dryness and scabbing.​

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