Sunday, November 2, 2014

Using Pig Skin to Practice Tattooing

 How does one get good at tattooing?  The answer is obviously that they practice.  How, though, do they practice?  When you are just starting out, it seems hard to imagine that people are lining-up so a new tattoo artist can TRY to give them a tattoo (the truth is that people do line-up for just such an opportunity because they are more concerned about getting it cheap then getting it done well).  Even if you do have a number of people willing to let you potentially scar them for life, what is the transition from drawing on paper to using a needle in skin?

 I cannot stress the following point enough:

 The best way to learn to tattoo is through an apprenticeship.

 No amount of watching YouTube videos and reading tattoo blogs can make up the difference that a hands-on tattoo apprenticeship offers.  You are more likely to learn a bunch of bad habits than good tattoo techniques going it alone, and what you can learn from an experienced mentor in a few months can take several years to discover through trial-and-error.  

 So, if you are going to even practice tattooing, you should do it with the guidance and supervision of an experienced mentor.  

The skin texture makes a clean stencil difficult.
 That said, if you insist on practicing, typically you do it on something other than people.  You will read about a number of options; the skins of fruit (bananas, oranges, grapefruit), styro-foam containers, chicken parts with skin on them, even fake "skin" sold by some tattoo supply companies.  The best thing to practice on, in my opinion, is pig skin.

 As an aside, don't waste your money on fake skin.  Most the stuff is basically the same material as a mouse-pad.  How much like skin does your mouse-pad feel?  Your needle doesn't really act the same way with fake skin, the stuff does not hold ink in the same manner (if at all), and it is hard to tell what you are doing because of the way it responds when you dab or wipe excess ink off it.  Usually you will stain the "skin" with the excess and discover none of the ink is in your mark.  If I run into a practice skin that is worth anything, I will definitely feature it here, and I welcome any manufacturers who think their fake skin is worth the buy to send me a sample.

 Pig skin, on the other hand, is about as close to human skin as you are going to get.  It is far tougher than most human skin, does not have much elasticity to it, and can smell awful (hopefully unlike most of your clients).  It does hold ink in much the same way, and responds to the needle in the same manner.  You can learn to manage needle depth, learn about speed, practice your line-work, shading, and coloring, basically everything that you might do when tattooing.

Excess ink does not wipe off as easily.
 You can get pig skin at a local butchers or meat section at a local grocery.  Most national food chains will not carry it, but groceries where they cut their own meat will often have the skin for sale for making pork rinds or as trimmings from other cuts of meat.  You want the pig skin as a sheet at least five or six inches wide.  Strips of skin will not do you any good.  I purchase mine from a nearby oriental market.

 Again, pig skin is different than human skin.  The texture of the skin and its tough quality makes getting a clean stencil on the skin difficult.  You are probably better off drawing a stencil by hand on the skin than you are using stencil paper (but it is also a good way to learn to use and apply a stencil with stencil paper).  Ink stains the skin much faster than human skin, though with some effort you can clean the skin off.  The skin also tends to dry out quickly, which means you will find yourself over-working the skin in a complete tattoo's late stages if you do a fair-sized piece.

 You should set-up to do the tattoo in the exact same manner as you would for a real client, observing all the protocols about being aseptic and avoiding cross-contamination.  Practice is the time to form good habits, not bad ones.  Do not cut corners.  When I practice, I place the pig skin on a prepared arm-bar, simulating a limb of a client.  The skin itself will need to be shaves and cleaned.  Definitely wear gloves (again, good habits).  

Skin is dry and not responding well to color.
 You have about an hour to work with your skin before it starts to dry out.  With this in mind, I would focus on one aspect of tattooing at a time or do small tattoos.  Have specific goals in mind when practicing.  If you are practicing lines, focus on consistency, whipping the lines out, and doing clean lines.  When practicing shading, work on getting a soft and smooth gradient.  With color, work on even and solid distribution without over-working the skin (and learning what over-worked skin looks like).

 While the skin will not be very elastic, you should still practice stretching the skin.  Learn how to use petroleum jelly on the skin while tattooing, and learn how to deal with excess ink.  Your mentor should be checking your work every step of the way, making suggestions as you go (without a mentor it is hard to say if your work is right or wrong).  Practice break-down and clean-up the same way you did set-up.  

 Pig skin is not easily saved, and typically is not worth the effort.  However, you should take photos of your work to study and to document your progress.  You cannot get enough practice, but if you can do clean lines, soft shading, and consistent color in pig-skin, then when you have the other basics of tattooing down working with human skin should be far simpler.
 Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this! I just bought my kit yesterday, excited to pass by the meat store, get some practice for the first time.