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How to Curate a Custom Tattoo Sleeve on Your Arm

So, upper arm or forearm? In some cases, the answer is neither. “I like to ask someone what their plans for their elbow are early on,” says Becca Genné-Bacon, a tattoo artist at Kings Avenue in New York City. “If they want something circular or symmetrical, like a ship’s wheel, I recommend that we start with that.”

That said, if you’re planning on a patchwork sleeve — meaning a sleeve made up of separate tattoos rather than one big image with a background — those designs may very well determine the locations on your arm that get inked first. “I like to ask what three or four images are the largest, most important ones. I like to start with those, rather than filling up one particular spot on the arm first,” Genné-Bacon explains. “The spaces in-between the larger pieces can then dictate what the smaller images are that bring everything together.”

Filling in Smaller Spaces

If inking nearly every inch of skin is part of your sleeve goal, you face the challenge of figuring out how to fill the smaller and often oddly shaped spaces between the more prominent pieces. But it’s not impossible, and your options are a lot less limited than they may seem as long as you’re not expecting to get elaborately detailed art in a tiny area.

“Depending on the size of the areas you’re looking to tattoo, a little fun symbol or just little trinkets can go in between big designs,” Odea says, noting that flowers are a popular filler choice. “But they need to stay simple to fit in small spots.”

Genné-Bacon likes to get accurate tracings and draw for exactly the spot being filled. “Things with more organic edges can be manipulated more easily to fill the spot perfectly,” she says.

If you don’t have something specific in mind, you may want to consider a classic filler like stars and dots. “Doesn’t get better than those. They fit in any space, can be small or big, packed in tight, or spread out,” Odea says. “Works like a charm.”

Erin Odea

Style and Color

There’s a wide array of tattoo styles — traditional and neo-traditional, realism, and watercolor, to name just a few — not to mention that tattoos can be done in either colorful or black and gray ink. If you’re drawn to several different styles or you’re not sure you want to commit to full color from shoulder to wrist, you may be concerned that your sleeve will look like an erratic hodgepodge. But with the right artist (or artists) you can marry different looks to create something you love without compromising your tastes.

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