Top five rules for planning a sleeve
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A sleeve is one of the biggest time commitments that can also propel your career to new heights. There's unlimited ways to plan out a sleeve and execute, but there are universal truths. I am going to share my experiences with sleeves over the years. Try to learn from my mistakes!
Rule 1: Manage expectations.
Both yours and your client's
Consult with your client to ensure that they are capable of sitting for the tattoo. You also need to explain it will be expensive and the tattoo will take some time. As long as you are on the same page, you are ready to take your deposit and book out your appointments. Consider the style of the piece and size of the arm you are working on. Make sure that you are not only thrilled with the project, but capable of executing. It will be time consuming, huge and a permanent billboard of your skill.
Bring your best skills, you will be building a relationship with this person. You may even become friendly when you have a great positive attitude from the start. Neither of you should take the project on if you are incapable of handling long term commitments. There is more to a sleeve tattoo than being a great tattoo artist, you need to be able to decipher a person's vision. Without listening and communication skills, your sleeves will fall flat with your client. They will photograph well and look great, but they won't complete your client's vision. With only two arms, committing to a sleeve means you are responsible for a lot of skin real estate.
Rule 2. Get References
Your client is relying on you to decipher their dreams
I use the iPad to photograph the entire bare arm. I take several pictures from three angles. The front, back and inside of the arm straight out, at 90° and at full bend. I edit these images together so I can get a seamless spread of arm. I then have a personalized layout for the client that I can draw/design on top of. This acts as my presentation. I can show my clients how their arm will look so we can collaborate and make changes. I want to ensure their complete satisfaction before we start laying down ink. I do make changes along the way, but I want to get the layout as perfect as possible so they know what to expect in the future. The photos also allow me to work into their existing tattoos and/or cover them. I also take small notes from the client to remind myself of their specifics to incorporate.
Using the internet and my own photo collection, I compile pictures that relate to the client’s vision. Then, I compose those photos into the shape of the arm so that my focal points flow. I like to select a handful of main pieces and allow room for gap fillers so my main subjects stand out. I like to break down the arm into sections. The consultation process explains the difference of the inner arm and outer arm. The more intimate subjects stay on the inside, because they’ll be looking at it most of the time. The larger higher impact imagery goes on the exterior of the arm.
Once the client approves the digital mock up of the tattoo I stencil and print out all my references. I size each of the print outs with my copy machine to fit each of the areas on the client’s arm. I like to use little pieces of scotch tape to hold the paper to the arm and assemble my sleeve with the stencils in place . Once I confirm the sleeve functions with the print outs, I set up for the first session.
Rule 3: Be professional and personable.
This is a huge time and money investment for your client
Make the experience as personal as possible. Showcase your artistic tattooing talents while being sensitive to the client’s vision. At the end of the day, this is a walking billboard that can talk that lasts forever. You have the responsibility to make the client happy beyond their expectations. A sleeve changes their life, but can also change yours. A sleeve client can be the best or worst advertising you ever create. This tattoo is going to be walking around on a person for the rest of their lives and may be one of the biggest investments of time in your career.
Rule 4: Manage Your Time.
Maximize your efficiency for sleeve clients
Block out enough time for a good percentage of the piece to be completed for the client each session. The first appointment is critical as it sets the mood of how the rest of the experience will go. Give your clients a little extra than normal here as incentive to stay committed to the project. If it’s a realism sleeve finish out a section of subject matter. If it’s more traditional, outline the entire piece in one shot to avoid aligning stencils each time.
Try to either book out full days (6-8 hours) or small sessions (2-3 hours) and plan ahead for each appointment. Be ready to tattoo as soon as your client sits down and manage your ink time to maximize what you can do in each session.
Rule 5: Appreciate Your Clients.
They are what gives you this amazing career
An average sleeve is a 75-100 hour investment for both you and your client. If your rate is an industry average $150 per hour you are talking about a $10.000 – $15,000 investment. That is not a small amount of money for them nor time for you, so give it the respect it deserves. Your sleeve clients will book days of your time and will be the best salespeople you have. Treat them with respect, and let them know that you appreciate them trusting you. If you do this with every sleeve you create, your reputation alone will keep you booked for years.