Michelle is fascinated with tattoo symbolism and art. Her favorite designs include ancient symbols and religious themes.
Getting a sleeve tattoo is a huge commitment that requires more planning than a typical piece of body art. You cannot impulsively choose an image from a binder or the Internet and stick it on your arm. If you want a decent-looking design that doesn't suck or make you rethink your life choices, then you need to do ample research about the process, think about a theme and style, shop around for reputable artists, and then sit down with the artist of your choice to design the tattoo.
This article covers what you need to know before getting a sleeve tattoo, what the process is like while getting one (it cannot be done in a single session), and what you need to do afterwards to care for it.
4 Types of Sleeve Tattoos
- Quarter Sleeve: Covers the area from the top of the shoulder halfway to the elbow.
- Half Sleeve: This extends from the top of the shoulder to the elbow.
- Full Sleeve: This reaches from the top of the shoulder to the wrist.
- Hikae: This is a Japanese-style sleeve tattoo that covers part of the pectoral muscle on the chest and extends either to the elbow or the wrist.
How to Plan a Sleeve Tattoo
The most difficult part about getting a tattoo is planning the theme, the motif, and the design. Planning is even more important when it comes to sleeves because they are elaborate works of art that take a long time to draw. You don't want to go through hours of pain and then be unsatisfied with the final result. Work closely with your artist to customize the exact image and colors.
The most important thing to remember is that you MUST collaborate with your artist and allow him/her some freedom in the design process. Getting a sleeve is similar to commissioning a mural: Tell the artist your vision, and let him/her turn that concept into a professional piece of artwork.
8 Things to Do Before Getting Your Tattoo
- Shop around for artists. The biggest mistake people make is designing their own tattoo before picking out an artist. That design is going to change because no two artists will draw an object in the same way. Every artist has their own style and flair. Pick one you love based on their style, and work with them to visualize your ideas. If you want a shark tattoo, but the artist doesn't have a shark in his/her portfolio, it doesn't matter. Every artist can draw a shark. It's how they draw it that matters. Once you pick out an artist you like, do some research on what makes a good tattoo artist and see if they check off everything on the list. Aside from style, professionalism and personality are equally important factors.
- Look at different styles. Decide on the style you want (tribal, new school, traditional, watercolor, Japanese, Celtic, etc.) Some artists are specialized and will be better at one style than they are with others.
- Decide on the overall theme. Do you want it to be gothic? Maybe you like something that looks like a scene from a fairytale or a sci-fi movie. Perhaps, you want a religious-themed arm sleeve or one that displays your love for music.
- Pick a few motifs. Do you want your tattoo to represent love, death, dreams, or faith, etc.?
- Choose a few symbols. Once you have the style, the theme, and the message in mind, you should pick out some symbols to add meaning to the overall design. For example, if you love the ocean and wanted to get a tribal style tattoo that represented heartbreak, you might think about incorporating symbols such as hearts, wilting roses, a shipwrecked boat, a broken anchor, waves crashing into a heart-shaped rock, etc.
- Think about the color. Do you want black and white, greyscale, or color?
- Discuss placement. If you have low pain tolerance, you will want to avoid the armpits, the elbows, the inner elbows, and the wrists. Plan around this.
- Discuss and plan with your artist. Never go into this with a permanent vision. You should talk to your tattoo artist about your likes and dislikes and tell them exactly what you want to convey. They will sit down with you and plan out several designs that will incorporate your ideas. Allow them some freedom of artistry. In the end, you will have the final say in what gets permanently inked on your body, but, before then, let the artist do what they do best: design.
- Don't be afraid to be vague. You don't have to come in with a design drawn out and colored in. Show your artist some paintings that inspire you, songs you like, photos of tattoos that you think are cool, etc.
- Some people plan for years and then get the entire thing tatted on in one series of sessions. Others create a vague theme so that they can add different symbols and elements over time as they acquire memories or complete milestones. The decision is up to you.
- Never compare prices, only compare quality. Your tattoo is going to last forever, so make a worthy investment. Alternatively, you can spend more money to get it removed or live with regret for the rest of your life.
- Don't be cheap. Don't try to save money by asking for a smaller one. The proportions will look crappy!
- Don't try to cram a bunch of meanings and symbols into one design. This makes it look messy.
Building a Sleeve Tattoo: Tips and Process
How Long Does It Take to Get a Sleeve Tattoo?
The average time required for an arm sleeve is 10–15 hours, but some take 80 hours or more. A sleeve involves multiple sessions that may take weeks, months, or even years to complete. The time it takes will all depend on how elaborate the design is and how long it takes your body to heal between sessions.
How Long Does Each Session Take?
This will depend entirely on the artist and you. Each session usually lasts three to six hours. If you cannot sit still for that long, the artist should be flexible and space the inking out to include more sessions. One of the longest sessions that tattoo artist Bret Baumgart ever did was 16 hours! Crazy!
How Often Are the Sessions?
It normally takes two weeks between sessions, but if you are someone whose body takes time to heal, the shop might schedule you for every three weeks.
Sleeve Tattoo Ideas for Women and Men
Is the Pain Tolerable?
That all depends on your pain tolerance level, but, in general, sleeves hurt because you have to be under the needle for hours per session, and you have to come back for several sessions over the course of a few weeks. Your arm will feel numb for awhile!
Most people report feeling the most pain around the elbow, inner elbow, wrist, and armpit area. Before committing to a tattoo, learn where on your body will hurt the most and learn how to minimize the pain.
How Much Do Sleeve Tattoos Cost?
Of course, the total cost will depend on how long it takes the tattooist and whether or not it is a partial or full sleeve. Tattooists average $100 per hour, and the average price of a full sleeve ranges from $1,500 to $2,500 since the process takes from 10 to 15 hours of work on average, broken up into several sessions. It is definitely not an impulse purchase!
This will take 10 to 15 hours minimum. At an average of $100 per hour, that comes out to about $1,500. Of course, if the design requires a lot of color or intricate detail, then it is normal to pay as much as $4,000. That's 40 hours of work!
Half Sleeve and Quarter Sleeve
This takes about five to eight hours minimum. Average cost is $500 to $2000.
Why Is It So Expensive?
The arm is not a flat canvas. When artists think of a sleeve tattoo design, they must think in 3-D because the image will cover four parts of the arm: the upper outer shoulder, the inner upper arm, the inner forearm, and the outer forearm. This makes the process very time consuming and complex, and the price reflects that.
The average cost per hour for any tattoo ranges from $70 to $220 (or more). You will need to consider several factors to accurately estimate the price.
Don't Be Cheap
Although sleeves take a long time and cost a lot of money, the investment will be worth it. Just remember that the price and pain of tattoo removal will be twice as much, so choose a quality artist and a reputable studio!
What Is the Process Like?
- After deciding on a design, the artist will measure your arm so they can scale it to proportion.
- During the first session, the outline will be inked.
- The second or third sessions will involve shading or drawing in details.
- The last sessions will be dedicated to coloring and adding finishing touches.
This process can take several months, with sessions occurring every two to three weeks. Each session is an average of three to five hours, but this will depend on how long you and your tattoo artist can sit still and focus.
Remember to plan around your work schedule and your vacations, as there will be limited mobility between sessions and during the six months that it takes to fully heal.
It is very important that you take care of the tattooed area afterwards to avoid infection. This is especially critical when getting a sleeve because you are required to return for several sessions, and ruining your tattoo before it is complete will make it more difficult to finish drawing the design, which means it will take longer and cost more.
- Keep the bandage on for several hours after your session.
- Wash with antibacterial soap. Gently pat dry.
- Let it air for 10 minutes. Then, apply a thin layer of lotion.
- Continue washing and moisturizing the area two to three times a day until the skin finishes peeling (about two to three weeks). It is normal to see some traces of ink fall off when your skin is peeling.
If you tattoo fails to heal before the next session, the process will get delayed. Follow these instructions to help the tattoo heal faster and prevent scabbing.
8 Things to Avoid After Getting a Sleeve Tattoo
- Don't pick at your scabs or peeling skin. Let it fall off naturally; otherwise, you run the risk of infection and ruining your tattoo.
- Don't lather on thick layers of lotion. You want your skin to breathe in order to minimize infection.
- Don't take baths or go swimming. Prolonged exposure to water is highly detrimental.
- Don't overdo it in the shower. Even if your arm is not directly in the firing line of the shower head, exposure to the hot steam and moisture can damage your tattoo, so take quick, lukewarm showers.
- Don't sleep on your arm. When your tattoo is new, sleeping on it will not only hurt, but it also starves the area of oxygen (which leads to infection) and damages the ink because the tattoo may stick to the sheets.
- Don't wear tight-fitting shirts. Again, you want your arm to breathe so that you don't give bacteria a chance to grow.
- Don't expose the area to sunlight. Sun exposure leads to scarring, lightening, and uneven healing.
- Don't go tanning, either.
- "Top Tips To Reduce Tattoo Healing Times," Authority Tattoo. Accessed November 11, 2017.
- ROC, "8 Things You Must Know For The Tattoo Healing Process," Tattoo Healing Pro. September 5, 2017. Accessed November 11, 2017.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.