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What are Sleeve Tattoos?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 22, 2024
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Sleeve tattoos are tattoos or collections of tattoos which are designed to cover the arm. Depending on personal preference, a sleeve may be full, in which case it runs from shoulder the wrist, or it may be a shorter half or three quarter sleeve. Some people also use the term “sleeve” in reference to tattoos which cover the leg. As tattoos have become more socially accepted, sleeve tattoos have become more prominent, and a number of well known artists and entertainers sport sleeves, sometimes with a wide collection of artwork from different artists.

The design approach to sleeve tattoos varies. In some case, the tattooed person works with a single artist to create a unified look and theme for the sleeve. The artist works on the sleeve in stages, ultimately creating a very streamlined piece. In other cases, an artist may add to a sleeve in bits and pieces, working with the client to create a desired look. Some people also prefer to showcase work by a variety of artists on their sleeves.

As with other tattoos, the style and content of sleeve tattoos is incredibly diverse. Some people get sleeves to commemorate specific events or people in their lives, in which case the tattoo may feature a number of personally significant items. In other cases, the sleeve celebrates artwork from a specific culture, like Japan or Tahiti, with a unifying artistic style. Other people simply enjoy covering themselves in beautiful, colorful displays of artwork, adding to their sleeve tattoos when they see something they like or when they meet talented artists.

A sleeve tattoo represents a serious commitment. A full sleeve can require multiple sittings of several hours each, and it can get painful, especially on the tender skin of the underside of the arm. Sleeves are also difficult to conceal, and they can result in fewer job opportunities and social stigma. Good sleeve tattoos can also get extremely expensive, since they command a lot of an artist's time and skill. If you are considering a sleeve tattoo, you should think about all of these issues; most tattoo artists will tell you that if you have any reservations, you should wait, since a tattoo is a permanent choice.

Many artists enjoy working on sleeve tattoos, especially when they integrate themes or artistic styles that the artist likes. If you want a sleeve with a unified theme and look, shop your ideas around to multiple artists, and find someone who is as enthusiastic about the project as you are. With the right artist, a sleeve tattoo will be beautiful and sometimes even fun.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By chrisinbama — On Jan 09, 2011

@dega2010: Generally, most sleeve tattoos are pre-planned just because it helps the flow of the sleeve. However, this isn’t how it has to be.

You can start a tattoo on your arm with no intentions of making it a sleeve. Then, over time, you can add more tattoos. Eventually, it will turn into a collaboration of either random tattoos or a collection, whichever you choose. Sometimes,the clashing of different tattoos may not go as well, depending on the size of the tattoo and things such as that.

Both adding as you go and pre-planning are both common ideas used today.

By dega2010 — On Jan 08, 2011

Do sleeve tattoos have to be pre-planned or can you add as you go?

By dill1971 — On Jan 06, 2011

Sleeve tattoos generally come in different sizes and don't always necessarily have to cover your whole arm. For instance, half sleeves or quarter sleeves are tattoos that only cover half of your arm. They are usually above the elbow, but not always. Since the term “sleeve” refers to covering all the area with tattoos, half sleeves completely cover the entire area of either the top of bottom of your elbow in most cases.

A quarter sleeve tattoo will most likely cover the skin from your elbow to your midway shoulder with a collection of tattoos.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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