Draw. Tattoo. Draw.

The first years of tattooing are tricky.  Your focus should be on technical ability.  Can you make the machines do what you want them to do?  The first few years are just a challenge to figure out why what worked on Monday will not work on Wednesday.

Consider the novice tattooist.  There is an urgency to be original.  They do their best to outdraw themselves, then they are left clueless when it comes to executing the design with a tattoo machine.  The wise ones will dumb down their drawing and put more focus on becoming a competent practitioner.

I spend half of my year working on becoming a more polished tattooist.  I investigate different set-ups, try different hand motions, I even borrow other artists equipment to find out what I might be missing.  Then, the second half of the year I spend trying to outdraw myself.  For about one month all the stars line up and my tattooing and drawing feel balanced.  What I tattoo will look exactly as I drew it.


When is your tattooing flat?  When are your drawings too predictable? Like with all good twelve step programs, admitting there is a problem is the first step.

My drawings need to challenge me.

When I spend a good chunk of my week zoning out,  I am not giving myself an honest push.  A friend of mine once described that he always felt like he was tattooing  “…under the gun!”  He described the stress of trying to come up with the most clever and solid tattoo he was capable of.

The days of zoning out to tribal are over.  My drawings involve a fair amount of critical thinking.  The simpler the drawing, the more clever I need to be…using balance, keeping the drawing fresh, and making sure it looks good on the body is tricky.

Sometimes a drawing gets out of control.  I look at it and ask myself, “How the hell am I going to tattoo this!”  I tattooed a space scene a few years ago.  It was really layered with different depths of atmosphere.  The challenge was how to make something that is normally viewed on a large four sided canvas onto a vertical, skinny, round arm.  There were many limitations.


Photo Jan 29, 11 49 49 AM space tattoo

This space tattoo pushed my drawing ability, but it also pushed my approach to tattooing.  I changed the way I approached sleeves.  It changed the way I planned large tattoos.  But the biggest thing it changed was my confidence.

I encourage you to explore your potential.  Learn to be honest with yourself. Ask yourself these three questions:

1.  Am I proud of this drawing?

2. If Bob Roberts came in right now, would I be proud to show Bob Roberts this tattoo?

3. Is this design TIMELESS?

If the answer is YES, YES, YES, then you can stop right there and get started on your tattoo.  If the answer is no to any of those questions, STOP.  Be honest.  Reassess.  Start over.

Oh, and you can pretty much apply these principles to the rest of your life as well.

 -Matt Hodel


Leave a Comment