Freehand tattoo over a scar


No tattoo should ever be done without some form of guideline on the skin. Any good tattoo artist who does freehand work will always lay out the design in pen or marker on the skin prior to starting. This keeps the design in perspective as the artist works on the tattoo. The skin is just too pliable to blindly tattoo without these guidelines. If a tattooist tells you he is going to tattoo you freehand and doesn’t take a pen or marker to your skin first, then run, don’t walk, out of the shop.

Wayne, a customer looking for a freehanded tattoo, came in wanting a New School piece on his arm to cover an old scar. His only request is that he be able to see what the design will look like before we started. For his tattoo, Wayne is looking for an Old School styled dagger with an entwined rose done in a New School style treatment. After a brief consultation I determine what he is looking for and begin sketching a rough draft on paper. I do a quick blue-line rough draft and tighten it up with a pencil outline as seen on the right. The sketch is done in front of Wayne, allowing him to comment on and modify the design as I draw it. This draft allows Wayne to get an impression of what the tattoo design will look like and it gives me a visual guideline to work with.

While a good artist is able to work directly on skin without the use of sketches, there are often times when the customer needs that visual reference prior to starting the work. This also allows for modification of the design without having to rub out the marks from the customer’s skin. After a few rub outs with alcohol, the skin can get a bit raw. It is also easier to work from visual references, either rough sketches or other drawings and clippings.

Once the sketch is finished, I set up and get ready to do the tattoo.


As you can see from this photo, Wayne has a rather large and highly visible scar across his arm. My plan is to cover the scar up with the lower section of the dagger’s cross guard. I know I will be putting in some heavy shading in that area and it can be useful to camouflage the scar. I also know that there is enough going on in the image to distract the eye from the scar. This is one of the benefits of doing a tattoo freehand. It allows the artist to carefully position design elements to help conceal problem areas. This method is also used with cover ups as well.

Once the skin is prepped and the equipment set out it is time to go to the next step.


When I do a sketch on paper, I use a non-reproducing blue pencil for my rough sketch. This allows me to clean up the drawing in pencil then put the whole thing on a copier. The copier can’t see the blue lines, allowing only my pencil sketch to be copied. This saves a great deal of time in the long run. Unfortunately I can’t do the same thing with a client’s skin. I therefore use a variety of marker colors for a similar purpose.

As you can see in the photo at left, I use a red marker to lay out my foundation. This is the same first step I did with my initial rough in blue. The red marker allows me to block out the main elements (dagger blade and pommel, rose, stem, leaf, etc.) without using dark lines that would otherwise be overbearing. I can be a little carefree at this stage since I am looking at position, composition and balance. I can worry about the details in the next step.

Once the rough sketch is done to my satisfaction in red marker, I tighten up the sketch and ‘pull out’ the lines I want to use for the tattoo. For this I use a blue marker. This gives me a very dark line to follow as my ‘stencil’ without it being the same color as the ink I am outlining with. Keep in mind that during all this drawing I have the paper sketch in front of me to refer to. If you scroll up and compare the blue marker sketch at right with my initial paper sketch you will notice some slight variations. I curved the blade a bit more and exposed more of its base by moving the leaf slightly. I also lengthened the handle and enlarged the heart-shaped pomel. The rest are just minor adjustments.


Once the marker sketch is complete, I ask Wayne to check out the design in the mirror. I have him move and flex his arm to see how the design conforms to and flows with his arm.

It is now time to commit the design to skin. Since we are going for a New School look I choose a large round needle group for my outline. I put in all the lines I had drawn in blue, being careful not to destroy the drawing as I worked my way up. Once that is done, I clean off the arm of all remaining marker lines.

With the work area cleaned off, I go back and bolden and shape the lines of the tattoo, sculpting the lines to give it that fabulous bold New School look. The simple design and the large size allows for this type of treatment and makes the image visually more powerful. To see what I’m talking about just look at the differences between the photo on the left, with the simple outline, and the photo on the right, with the sculpted lines.


Once the outline is completed to my satisfaction, the next step is to lay in all the gray shading. This gives the tattoo depth and dimension. Unfortunately I did not remember to take a picture at this stage to illustrate it here. If you look at the finished tattoo at right, you can see where the shading is used to deepen the colors in the recesses and shadow areas of the image. In particular, you can best see the results in the leaf, the blade and the heart-shaped pommel. Once healed, the effect will tone down and become a little more subtle.

The final stage consists of laying in the color. Unlike the Old School method of coloring with flat tones, New School tattoos use gradual blends and bold contrasts in the use of color. As you can see in the photo, I make a liberal use of yellow as a highlight color. It gives the image a source of light and an overall visual interest to the viewer.

As for the scar… It is still there. While the tattoo makes a good effort at camouflaging the scar, it cannot hide the texture of the skin. In this picture, you can see the scar only because of the play of light on the surface of the tattoo.