How to design a half-sleeve tattoo

Updated February 21, 2017

Half-sleeve tattoos typically refer to a tattoo that wraps completely around the upper arm from shoulder to elbow or half the arm. However, some people will also refer to a tattoo that wraps around the arm from elbow to wrist as a half-sleeve tattoo, but others call tattoos in this area a quarter sleeve tattoo because the lower arm is smaller than the upper arm. Half-sleeve tattoos can be pre-planned or can be designed by utilizing existing pieces and connecting them together with more pieces or a background.

Decide placement for your half-sleeve tattoo. Determine if you want to go with the typical upper arm placement, which gives you more space to work with and will be easier to cover if need be than a sleeve on the lower arm. You will also need to decide if you want it on the right or left arm. Since the arm of a person's dominant hand is generally larger than the non-dominant arm, some people will choose to go with the larger space. On the flipside, some will choose to put a half-sleeve on the smaller arm, because sometimes it helps make the arm appear bigger.

Determine a theme for your half-sleeve tattoo. Like full sleeve tattoos that cover the entire arm from shoulder to wrist, a half-sleeve tattoo will flow better if a common theme is used throughout the design. There are many common themes you can look at to get ideas for your design, but it's best to build upon these themes by adding your own unique style to make the piece more original and add special meaning to you.

Choose individual tattoos to use within your half-sleeve. If you have existing pieces, you will need to spend time finding pieces that will flow with these or consider covering up any that simply don't fit the theme you're shooting for. If the place you're putting the half-sleeve is already mostly filled up, then you simply need to find a background to use to connect all the individual pieces into one flowing tattoo. A pre-planned half-sleeve is much easier to design because you're starting with a clean slate and can draw out the whole design on paper first to make sure it's going to look right before you start to ink.

Discuss your ideas with a tattoo artist. If you already have a regular tattoo artist, then it will be easy to get with him and decide the best way to design your half-sleeve based on the theme and individual pieces you've chosen. He can also take a tracing of the area to be tattooed and design the entire tattoo before ever putting any ink on you. This may or may not work if you're dealing with pre-existing tattoos that need to be covered up. Your tattoo artist may want to cover these first, before adding anything new to the area. If you don't have a regular tattoo artist take your ideas to several artists to judge who'd do the best job or ask someone who's already heavily tattooed for a referral.

Prepare for more than one session to complete your half-sleeve. Although some half-sleeves have been completed in one long session, a majority of them are split up into separate sessions. How many sessions your half-sleeve takes depends on many factors including the intricacy of your design, the amount of time the tattoo artist can work in one sitting, your own individual pain tolerance and how much the area is swelling and/or taking ink. If the piece is being split up into separate sessions, your artist may break the piece into sections or do the entire outline the first sitting, then start on the shading and then in the later sittings work on the color.


For some, designing a half-sleeve tattoo may be as simple as choosing a large koi, dragon, fairy or other large creature and adding a background, while others will want several smaller designs tied together into one piece. If the area is already fairly heavily tattooed, you may want to consider just finding a background to tie everything together. Some common backgrounds include flames, water, wind, swirls and smoke. You can find design ideas in magazines, on the Internet and by visiting tattoo shops and looking through their flash, or you can ask a tattoo artist to custom draw your half-sleeve. Although custom work tends to cost more, it will help guarantee your half-sleeve is more original. If you're worried about your tattoo showing while wearing a short sleeved shirt, then you may want to consider a quarter sleeve tattoo instead of a half-sleeve, which ends at the elbow and the very lowest edge will probably be visible in standard short sleeves.


Whether you're getting a small or large tattoo, always make sure the tattoo studio is a clean, sterile environment and that the tattoo artist practices safe and sterile procedures throughout the tattooing process. Don't forget, tattoos are forever. When designing your half-sleeve, be sure the overall design not only flows well but also either has special meaning to you or is something you know you will never regret. Good tattoos aren't cheap and cheap tattoos aren't good. Never solely base your choice of tattoo artists on price. This isn't to say you should always go with the most expensive quote, but make your decision based on the artist's previous work, their ability to do the type of work you want and their enthusiasm for the project, and not on the price tag. Many people find tattoos addictive and may start with half-sleeve that suddenly turns into a full sleeve and beyond.

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