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As tattoos grow ever more popular by the year, it’s become pretty common, even normal, for people to have a tattoo or two. If you live in a big city, it’s safe to assume that a majority of young people you meet will have at least one tattoo. But even as tattoos become more and more commonplace, large tattoos still remind the domain of the few – a smaller group of people who not only love tattoos but are willing to take on what is a pretty big undertaking. If you’re considering getting a large tattoo yourself, here is the absolute definitive guide to everything you need to know. If you have a question about committing to a big tattoo, we’re here to answer it.
When you find yourself scrolling Instagram late at night looking at all of the amazing, beautiful large tattoos out there, it can be pretty easy to convince yourself that you want one, too. But before you book that tattoo appointment, it’s a good idea to take a step back and make sure you really do want a large tattoo. If you can’t say yes to every single item in this checklist, it might be a sign that you need to think twice and reconsider your commitment to getting a large tattoo.
The larger a tattoo is and the more time it requires to be completed, the more expensive it’s going to be. If you go to a reputable studio and do a very large tattoo, it can cost you up to 500 or even one thousand dollars or more. If the idea of dropping a lot of money on a tattoo is a turn-off for you, large tattoos might not be what you’re looking for. After all, you’re paying for something that is going to be on your body for the rest of your life. This is not the place to cut costs or look for budget options.
If you have one or even a few smallish tattoos, even on body parts that are highly visible like your arms, there may be some people who notice and take issue with it but, for the most part, it’s not going to have a large effect on the way you look to the outside world. But once you’ve got large pieces, you become a “tattooed person” in the eyes of strangers, who will see your tattoos even just through a quick glance at you (unless they’re located someplace like your back). For some people, looking like a tattooed person will actually be a draw but, for others, it’s a dealbreaker, as it will limit your ability to work at certain places and may be an issue for your family or members of your community. Either way, it’s worth thinking about.
Often, when people think about the hard part of getting a tattoo, they think about the pain of the original tattoo appointment and leave it at that. But the reality is that a large tattoo is something that you’ll have to take care of for life. Not only will it hurt and require intensive care for the two to four weeks immediately after you get the tattoo, but you’ll also have to continue taking care of it for the rest of your life if you want it to look good and not fade too much. This means, among other things, being very careful in the sun. If you’re the type to reject the idea of sunscreen as a whole, you’re probably not ready for a big tattoo.
Okay, so you’ve said “yes” to all of the above questions. You’re all in for the large tattoo. You’re going to make that appointment. So here’s what you should know before you walk into the studio.
First – yes, you might be in for a lot of pain. According to architect and tattoo lover Reut Bitton, “Some areas are more painful than others (around the armpit, for example). If you have a very low pain threshold maybe you should consider avoiding having very large tattoos on these areas. Having that said, the pain of getting the tattoo is temporary and the payoff is forever, so it might be worth it!”
To help get you through the appointment, music student and tattoo enthusiast Kay Ruby recommends planning ahead to distract yourself. “You can bring something to do/read/watch, but also bring a friend to the appointment – there will come a point when your brain gets tired and you can no longer distract yourself. Bring some snacks and something to drink. This will help keep your blood sugar up, but it won’t prevent the massive adrenaline/sugar crash that comes after five hours on the table.”
Both tattoo enthusiasts mentioned above warn that getting a large tattoo will affect you more than just on the day you get it. Explains Bitton, “Getting a large tattoo can really strain your entire body. Make sure you rest well the night before. On the day of, have something to eat and plenty of fluids. Don’t make any plans for after you finish – allow your body to rest and heal.”
And, of course, there’s always the very real possibility that you’ll have to get your large tattoo done over multiple sessions, especially as it gets larger and more visually complicated. For example, it’s very common to begin with outlining before going in for color and shading in later sessions. If that is going to be the case, then the tattoo will be even more of a commitment.
Don’t forget to speak to your tattoo artist at length before you get your tattoo to make sure you know exactly what you’re in for and don’t get any unexpected surprises. If you’re not ready to walk around with a half-finished tattoo for a number of months, you might have to limit yourself in terms of size and complexity.
Taking care of a large tattoo is definitely an undertaking and might be a bit more intensive than it’s been before if you’ve previously gotten small tattoos. In fact, it may require you to plan ahead by months to get your tattoos in the right seasons.
As vegan kitchen manager and tattoo collector Amy Gilat explains, “I recommend getting tattoos in the fall or in the spring, because that’s the best time for healing. After getting a tattoo you’re going to avoid exposing it to sun for at least one month. You’re going to have to spread ointment on your new piece of art twice a day and let it dry. Therefore, I think the winter isn’t ideal for it; you can’t cover the moist skin and that’s not much fun when it’s cold.”
Like with all tattoos, the best way to heal them is to follow your artist’s instructions. Washing them with soap and lukewarm water twice a day, using a thin layer of tattoo cream, and letting your tattoo breathe as much as possible is incredibly important. Because a new tattoo is an open wound, avoiding touching or scratching it is critical.
And that might be hard because the bigger the tattoo, the itchier it’ll probably be and the harder you might find it not to scratch. Ruby offers a tip from an experienced tattoo lover: “Keep wet towels in the fridge and lay one over the tattoo if the itching becomes too much.” Other people swear by patting the area around the tattoo and moisturizing it as ways to help relieve the itchiness. The most important thing, however, is to never, ever scratch it, as it can damage the tattoo and make it look ruined.
Don’t worry, though, even a super itchy tattoo is normal during the healing process. Skin itches when it heals so you can actually take it as a good sign. As long as you don’t have a rash, weeping, heat, or excessive swelling, you can be pretty sure that your itching is normal and doesn’t indicate an infection. However, up to six percent of people do get an infection in the two weeks after getting a new tattoo, so if you’re not sure, it is a good idea to speak to your doctor.
When it comes to large tattoo placement, there are different considerations that you may not have had to think about for smaller tattoos. Because once you start getting big tattoos, you have to start thinking holistically, considering the entirety of the skin on your body as tattoo real estate.
Explains Ruby, “If you want to get other tattoos around the same area [later on], make sure you consider the exact placement of the large one because it’ll be hard to work around, and it’ll steal a lot of focus.” So if you know you want to get a large tattoo on your arm, try to imagine how it might look next to other tattoos. Getting something big smack dab in the middle of your back might be a bad idea because it’ll make it harder for you to fit more tattoos on your back later on – if that’s something you want to do.
After all, there are only certain parts of your body with enough space to fit very large tattoos. For example, the back, torso, and thighs are great for large pieces. The arms are good if you want to get a sleeve. But if you want a large tattoo on your neck or hand, let’s say, you’ll have to be prepared for it to take up more room, continuing down onto your shoulders or up onto your arm.
So if you know that you want to get some really large pieces, back tattoos, chest tattoos, and sleeves are probably going to be your best bet.
When planning for and designing a large tattoo, there’s one big question to begin with: will it be a single cohesive piece or a collection of smaller tattoos? For example, if you’re getting a sleeve or a back piece, you can just get one large scene or even just a super big, very detailed single design like an animal. But it’s just as legitimate an option to have multiple design elements that are somehow thematically and/or visually related. In fact, you can begin with just one part of the tattoo, knowing that you’ll come back later and add to it to expand upon the original work. Whatever the case, Ruby cautions: “Think carefully about your design for a large tattoo – it’ll be a lot more difficult to cover up [or remove] than a smaller one.”
Regarding the theme of thinking ahead, you’ll also want to consider the tattoos you already have and the ones you’re planning to get in the future when designing your large tattoos. Not only is it a matter of leaving room for more tattoos, but also how they’ll look next to one another. Think about it: if you already have a bunch of American traditional tattoos, how will a geometric sleeve look next to them? If you get a realistic chest piece now, will you still want to get that neorealism tattoo on your shoulder later on? Any choice you make is legitimate, but it’s important to be thoughtful and deliberate about it when it comes to large tattoos.
In terms of color, large tattoos can look fantastic both in black and grey and in full color. The one consideration that is worth thinking about is that a large tattoo becomes a much more central part of your style and your look than a smaller one does. So if you get a sleeve, that sleeve essentially becomes an accessory for every outfit you wear from that point forward. So would you prefer to have a permanent accessory that is every color of the rainbow? One that is black and grey? One that sticks to a particular color palette that you know you love? Again, it’s a perfectly legitimate choice to decide that you love color and you want an all-blue sleeve even if it doesn’t necessarily match with every outfit you’ll wear with it. But if you want to go for something more neutral because it’s a safer bet to look good no matter what you wear, that’s a pretty logical choice, too.
As far as tattoo styles go, nearly all of them can look fantastic on a larger scale. From old school to neotraditional to realism to tribal to Japanese, all of these tattoos look perfectly natural and correct even on the scale of a large back piece. Watercolor, geometric, and biochemical styles also work great for a big tattoo. However, there are some styles that aren’t as great of a fit for large tattoos as others. Fine line single needle tattoos, for example, don’t really make sense with a large size. And dot work and line work tattoos can be a bit borderline. Using nothing but dots for shading is a cool stylistic choice for small tattoos but for large ones, it can make the process more daunting. That being said, you may still absolutely love how the result turns out, so it’s up to you to decide if that’s still worth it.
We’ve already alluded to it above, but when it comes to tattoos – especially large ones – it’s important to be knowledgeable about and prepared for the issue of tattoo aging. The more of your skin that is covered with ink, the more invested you’ll likely be in making sure that that ink doesn’t bleed or fade too much over time. In fact, you may even be at an advantage by getting larger tattoos. As Gilat says, “Bigger tattoos actually age better than small ones that become blurry faster.”
That being said, a certain amount of tattoo aging is inevitable, and even some amount of bleeding and blowout are out of your control. The location of your tattoos can also have an impact. If it’s located on a place that sees a lot of wear and tear, like the hands, or contact with clothing that rubs against the skin, your tattoo will necessarily fade faster. Tattoos in more protected areas like the back will look crisper for longer.
However, you do have the ability to minimize the damage that is done to your tattoos by taking one key step: protecting your skin from the sun. The sun speeds up your skin’s aging regardless of whether or not it is tattooed. While this effect may appear in the form of wrinkles in certain parts of your body, over tattooed skin, it will manifest itself as fading. So to avoid exacerbating the natural fading process that comes with time, sun protection is key.
Says Bitton, “Make sure you always put sunscreen on your tattoo when going in the sun (even if you’re in the shade), and if you can avoid having direct sunlight on it it’s even better.” Many people who are serious about protecting the longevity of their tattoos will take it much farther than just putting on sunscreen and will avoid going out into the sun entirely or buy specialty UV-blocking clothing for when they can’t help it. It’s not necessary to go this far, but it will help.
It’s also worth mentioning that certain tattoo styles are just going to age better than others. As the saying goes, “bold will hold.” This means that bolder tattoos with brighter colors and thick black outlines are going to last much longer than light colors, thin lines, and patches of color without outlines. So a tattoo style like American traditional and tribal will look much better over time than something like a watercolor tattoo.
Because, as we said, certain amounts of tattoo aging are impossible to prevent as our skin naturally sheds and regenerates over time, it is very common for people with large tattoos to get touch-ups to help keep their tattoos looking fresh and clean even years after they get them. Tattoo touch-ups will typically involve your artist cleaning up lines, adding details, and going over patches of color or shading that have gone dull or blurry.
The good news is that tattoo touch-ups will hurt less, take less time, and cost less than your original tattoo did. That being said, it will still cost you some money and healing time, so do be prepared for the fact that maintaining your large tattoos can involve more than just putting sunscreen on and may require a touch-up or two as the years go on, especially if the design you chose isn’t one that follows the “bold will hold” rule.
Of course, if you don’t mind how your tattoo ages, you are by no means required to get a touch-up. After all, tattoos are very personal and it’s up to nobody but you to decide whether or not you’re satisfied with how your tattoo has healed and aged. Without comparing a photo of your tattoo now to one from the day you got it, you may not even notice that it has aged.
Something that will increase the likelihood of you being happy with your large tattoos in the long run is if you get it done by an artist you trust. It’s even better if you can find an artist who specializes in big tattoos and knows how to make a client comfortable over hours-long tattoo sessions, how to break up tattoos into multiple sessions, how to draw and design a large piece, and so on. If you find the right artist, the process of putting together your tattoo can become a very exciting artistic collaboration that is satisfying for the both of you.
As Gilat puts it, “When I get a tattoo I know what I want, but I listen to what my tattoo artist has to say about it. I always let him change my plan to make the tattoo still look good in the next years.” At the end of the day, the tattoo artist probably knows much better than you do about tattoos and has had years of experience tattooing hundreds if not thousands of them. And if they are a legitimate artist, he or she is likely just as invested in the work turning out well as you are, so don’t hesitate to trust their opinion.
So here we are: we’ve gotten to what is potentially the most exciting part of the article. What follows are inspiration photos to kick off your brainstorming for the large tattoo you want to get.
This realistic grey and black chest piece is an absolutely stunning depiction of two cupid-like angels holding an ornate slab with text on it. While it represents one, large design as opposed to multiple ones put together, you can see that the artist and the wearer put careful thought into incorporating this chest tattoo into the sleeve next to it in a way that looks natural and fits well together.
This tattoo is a huge piece that covers up the person’s entire back from top to bottom. It represents an entire nature scene that does contain multiple elements but is still one whole image rather than multiple designs put together. While this realism tattoo is not the exact same style as the sleeve next to it that appears to be in a more new school style, they do both still go nicely together because they are both black and grey with shading.
Here, we have an example of a large tattoo sleeve that is comprised of multiple color American traditional designs combined together into one larger tattoo. Here, you can’t actually tell if the tattoos were all chosen and designed together or separately but because of the consistent style and the placement of each tattoo, as well as the filler tattoos to take up what otherwise would have been blank space, it all comes together to look like one cohesive piece. This style is a great example of the kind of tattoo that is likely to heal well over time because of its bold lines.
Here’s an example of a more feminine version of a large tattoo that takes up this person’s whole side. If you’ve been paying attention during this article, you’ll probably notice that the watercolor style doesn’t have the thick outlines that are generally necessary for a tattoo to age well over time. So while this is stunning now, the wearer may have to come in for touch-ups much sooner than somebody with one of the other tattoos on this list. That being said, getting a large tattoo like this is a personal choice that is no less respectable than any other.
One of the trendier locations for large tattoos right now, especially for women, is this hip placement that goes down onto the upper thigh and up into the stomach area. This tattoo is done in a black and grey that, again, while being very different in style from the other tattoos on the thighs, still matches in terms of the color palette. Because the lines in this tattoo are on the thinner side and the shading on the lighter side, the wearer will probably want to be careful to take good care of it with good sun protection.
It goes without saying that getting a large tattoo is a big decision, one to be taken seriously and only after research and careful thought. The fact that you’ve read through this article is already a good sign that you’re headed in the right direction in terms of being prepared to commit to getting a large tattoo. Now all that’s left is to think carefully about what you want, why you want it, and if you’re truly ready to commit to it and everything that comes with getting a large tattoo. Once you do that, the rest of the process is full of fun and excitement and we hope you enjoy every moment of it!
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