My first shoulder tattoo was a gorgeously detailed hand-drawn Michelle-Pfeiffer-esque rendering of Catwoman. Slumped over the chair for two hours, feeling the sharp lines and buzzing warmth of the tattoo, I knew I’d 100% do it again. Thanks to researching and getting it done, I learned about where and what looks best. After all, not all tattoos—and not all shoulders—are equal.
Different Types of Shoulder Tattoo Placements
When you think of a shoulder tattoo, you might automatically assume that it refers to your shoulder blade. That makes sense since there’s a large canvas space on you there. But that’s not your only option.
Your shoulder has three main parts: the shoulder blade (the scapula), the front of the shoulder (clavicle), and the shoulder cap, the top of the shoulder (acromion).
The Shoulder Blade
Includes everything from the spine to the top of the shoulder to the arm, and down to mid-back, forming a rectangular spot for you to use.
The Shoulder Front
Technically called the clavicle, this is our only long horizontal bone. Known as the "beauty bone," necklaces often fall to it, and sexy outfits focus on it.
The Shoulder Cap
Referred to as the top of the shoulder roof or the acromion. It’s the bony ridge on top of your shoulder that connects to the arm, chest, and shoulder blade.
How to Design the Perfect Shoulder Tattoo
There are three things to consider when you design your tattoo. They can be considered in any order, but you need to answer them all to make sure you get what you want.
- Where do you want it; which is the perfect placement for you?
- What does your shoulder tattoo mean or represent?
- What is your line, style, and color preference? How do you want it to look?
Each of these questions is explored below.
Choosing the Perfect Shoulder Placement
The shoulder blade is a popular spot if you’re looking to have a large piece or one with a lot of fine detail work. The blade gives plenty of space for being creative, and it’s flat so you don’t have to worry too much about changes over time. But if you want to look at it, you’ll need a mirror. It’s easy to show it off wearing a swimsuit or a tank top, or just by going topless. At the same time, it’s easy to cover up.
The clavicle’s breadth makes it a perfect spot for long, thin, detailed work, large popping colors, or a combination of the two. It’s easy to get a larger piece that covers more than just the clavicle. It can be harder to hide; since the clavicle is regularly uncovered with most clothing, you’ll need to wear a high collar.
Finally, there’s the shoulder cap. Like a tattoo on your shoulder blade, this spot can be easily hidden or shown off. The real estate is lacking compared to the other two spaces, so often if you’re thinking of doing the shoulder cap, you might want to let it bleed over into another part of your shoulder or even go down your back or chest. If you want to stick with just the cap, though, you have a great place to put a circular piece.
What Does Your Shoulder Tattoo Design Mean or Represent?
When you choose to get a tattoo on your shoulder, you’ve picked a place on your body that is thought to represent strength and power. If you’re athletic, you might find that the tattoo helps to draw attention to your musculature.
The shoulder blade can be seen as mysterious and sly. You can cover most of the tattoo, but allow only part of the tattoo to be visible and give a hint at what else you may be concealing. If you choose your shoulder top or front, you’re making the tattoo visible to the outside world.
Shoulder tattoos can be very meaningful. You’re memorializing a person (living or dead), an idea, a feeling, or a memory forever. You might choose the left shoulder for something that’s very meaningful to you as it’s closer to your heart.
How Do You Want It to Look?
One symbol that has multiple meanings is a rainbow. People may choose it for gay pride, having a miscarriage (rainbow baby), or, if it’s in an infinity symbol, it can be for autism. Form can be as important as function when it comes to a tattoo like that.
Once you’ve decided the most important aspect (placement or meaning), it’s time to design it.
Line and Color Options
Black and Grey
- Black and grey tattoos tend to last longer, “holding fast” for up to 10 years or more before needing any touch-up work.
- They are good for most tattoo designs, and when you’re looking at a shoulder piece, simple can be best.
- Line work and shading with grey can give a solid 3-D appearance.
- Using only black ink can make the tattoo go more quickly because the artist doesn’t have to swap through all the colors. The ink is thinner than color ink, which makes the tattoo go more quickly as well.
- It’s considered best for different skin tones; it shows up well if you’re pale or dark.
- Color can give you a classic look, especially if you like the old sailor tattoos and pin-up girls.
- Color allows more expression. For example, you can make things stand out far more than only shades of grey.
- Watercolor tattooing uses colors and has no outlines. The tattoo artist uses shading and shifts in color to create works of art. Unfortunately, while beautiful, they do fade more quickly than other color tattoos because of the minimal amount of color used to get the effect.
- They fade more quickly than black tattoos. The more sun and exposure they get, the quicker they will need to be touched up.
- Color inks, especially red, are more likely to cause an allergic reaction. Common symptoms are rashes, which can delay the healing process.
Spend some time looking at pictures of shoulder tattoos. Even if they aren’t exactly what you thought of, you can find inspiration in color choices or lines. Don’t limit yourself; explore all the options you can.
Shoulder Tattoo Design Ideas for Women
Women and men tend to go for different themes when it’s time to get ink. Nature themes are hugely all the rage for women, and they’re almost always in style.
Flowers and Plants
Flowers, including the ever-popular roses, can fit on all parts of the shoulder. Whether you go for a single bloom in bright colors, a floral piece in black, or even something simple and gentle like a branch with cherry blossoms, you can’t go wrong with a piece of nature’s beauty.
It’s not a stretch to go with plants or trees themselves. Both give you the ability to celebrate nature in a green and growing way. Learn more about the meaning of tree tattoos.
Rose shoulder tattoos are a popular choice. Roses are all about emotion. The color of the rose you put on your shoulder provides more meaning and can help others understand the message you’re conveying. As you probably know, red roses represent love and passion. Pink roses represent a more gentle love, focused on gratitude and affection. Finally, purple roses, while not as popular, represent enchantment or royalty.
Things That Fly
We may not be able to fly, but we can aspire to it. You can show your own urge to fly, or maybe show that you’re free, by getting a tattoo of flying. Your shoulder is the perfect place for a butterfly to land, or maybe even a lucky ladybug. Birds are also sweet visitors.
Space can mean many things to many people. Do you want others to know that you’re an independent thinker? Or maybe you just like to space out. Whatever it is that appeals to you about the final frontier, planets, moons, and stars are all very popular designs.
Dolphins, sharks, and octopi are great choices for shoulder tattoos. Dolphins have many meanings but are often used to show off playfulness or happiness. They can also represent success. Sharks are about strength and overcoming obstacles. An octopus is chaos, wildly reaching in all directions at once.
Angel wings are popular with all genders. Context matters when it comes to wings. You can use them to represent freedom, whether showing that you have it or need it. To you, it may be more about rising above difficulties. Whatever their meaning, they can be done in so many different styles and sizes that it’s hard to not find a good one.
Shoulder Tattoo Design Ideas for Men
When men choose their shoulder tattoos, they tend to choose things that are considered traditionally masculine.
Skulls symbolize death, but it doesn’t have to be in a negative way. Getting a tattoo of a skull can be used to show that you’ve overcome a difficulty and changed because of it—the death of the old you. It can also symbolize strength or power, offering protection to the person who has it.
The two main styles of dragon tattoos are Oriental and chivalric. The traditional Orient-style dragon is about knowledge and strength. It contains wisdom and hidden knowledge. However, in other traditions, dragons are about untamed nature, power, or chaos.
Shoulders can provide a lot of space for tattoos that hold meaning for you. Religious icons, including crosses, praying hands, and images of Jesus, can be inked with bold strokes to emphasize your beliefs.
Tribal or Maori
Tribal and Maori tattoos have their own meanings. Tribal tattoos peaked in their popularity in the 1990s, but they’re coming back into their own. Dark lines and space make for striking tattoos. Maori tattoos are more complex. Their lines aren’t as stark, and they have more bends and curves than traditional tribal designs. They may have more blank space than black ink.
How Much Will a Shoulder Tattoo Cost?
There’s no set cost for any tattoo, but there is very often a minimum charge. Artists I’ve been to and talked to have a “shop charge” where anything starts at $50. They need to use new materials (ink and ink-related materials, gloves, sterilizing tools, time for set-up, etc.). That process and those materials are a base cost for any tattoo.
Average tattoos will most often be $100 for a small, not-too-detailed one to $400 for a medium-sized tattoo, depending on where you are, who is doing the tattoo, and how much time it will take. The average tattoo of a few inches across by an experienced tattoo artist will be about $250.
The prices go up quickly for large pieces. Depending on the size, you may be looking at four or more hours and multiple trips. It’s normal for large tattoos to run $500 and even $1,000.
Where you are matters. I live near a popular beach, and tattoo shops on the “island” cost more than if I was to get one closer to me. Because of the demand from people who go on vacation and get a tattoo on a whim, the shops are busier and can charge more.
When you look at the who and how much time, you should figure that most tattoo artists will be charging anywhere from $125 to $150 per hour. Some charge even more. Their skill and their experience help you get the best tattoo you can get, and it’s not worth it to look for a “cheap” tattoo.
Keep in mind you’ll also need to tip. Personally, I tip 20%, which is a good rule of thumb. Show that you appreciate them.
How Much Does It Hurt?
Everyone experiences pain differently. When I got my shoulder tattoo it didn’t hurt that much, but it felt hot where the needle was and I found myself tensed up. The tattoo artist was great about it, taking breaks and giving me—and him—time to relax since it was a big job. You and your friend might get the exact same tattoo by the exact same artist, and your experiences will not match.
A shoulder tattoo can go on any part of your shoulder, and that placement is going to affect the pain you feel.
Shoulder Cap Pain: 3 out of 10
Getting the shoulder cap tattooed is the least painful of the options. It has a lot of fat and muscle, which blocks a lot of the pain you’d feel at a bone. It’s a great place for a first tattoo.
Shoulder Blade Pain: 4 out of 10
Getting your shoulder blade tattooed hurts more than your shoulder cap. The shoulder blade is closer to the bone than the shoulder cap. My experience with my shoulder blade is fairly typical. You’ll notice it, but it will be more of a dull pain. The only spot to watch out for with your shoulder blade is if it gets too close to your armpit. Then you might notice a sharp pain that almost feels like a tickle.
Clavicle Pain: 7 out of 10
The clavicle, however, has almost no cushion between skin and bone. Remember that you’re working near the longest horizontal bone in your body. There is very little fat or muscle there, so you’ll notice the pain more than other shoulder tattoos. You may find it is a very sharp, pinching pain. You also may find that you feel the vibrations of the tattoo gun. For me, it has a fingers-on-the-chalkboard feel.
Wherever you choose, avoid drinking or taking recreational drugs before you do it. They won’t help dull the pain, and they might interfere with your ability to sit still when the pain hits.
Natural Ways to Reduce Pain
Two of the best ways to help deal with your pain are using a stress ball or breathing through it. Being able to squeeze something can help distract you. Don’t bring any sort of fidget though—you need to keep as still as possible. You can also focus on your breath. If you meditate or practice any sort of breathing exercise, now is the time to pull that out.
Tips for Healing a Shoulder Tattoo
- Treat it with kindness. No matter which part of your shoulder you’ve chosen to tattoo, it’s going to rub against clothing. If you carry a purse or backpack, try to keep it on the shoulder that didn’t get the tattoo. For women, choosing a racerback bra might keep the straps away from the tattoo. You want to be careful not to itch it or rub it, but you probably will at some point. The biggest danger is pulling off the scab before it’s healed, which will delay the healing time.
- Avoid covering it with a bandage or gauze pad. You want to give it as much air as possible. If you need to cover it during work, try to wear a light, airy fabric.
- As with any tattoo, keep it clean and moist. A shoulder blade tattoo can be hard to reach by yourself, so getting friends and family members to help out is an option. A&D ointments are a common go-to. Don’t stop moisturizing once it’s healed. To keep the colors fresh, moisturize several times a week.
- Keep it covered with sunscreen. It’s going to fade, all tattoos do, but keeping the sun’s harmful rays away from it will slow the process noticeably. Don’t skimp. Go for 30 SPF or higher. (SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays.)
- Give it time before you go into the water. It’s okay to shower, but try to avoid a bath if the tattoo would be submerged. If it’s on the top of your shoulder or even on your clavicle, you should be safe. However, do not go into the ocean or a pool for at least two weeks. Bacteria and chemicals don’t get along with a fresh tattoo. You can be in for infections and damage to the tattoo that may not be able to be fixed.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2021 Katherine Sanger