Body Mapping Tattoos– Basic Version #1

Body Mapping – Artist Version

Hello artists! Today we are going to be looking into the allusive body mapping techniques used by the great artists worldwide. This isn’t a complete, in depth article but more of an introduction into the world of mapping. Sit tight and get ready to practice your hands off. This topic is crazy difficult to wrap your head around when designing tattoos but gets easier with practice.

Introduction to Body Mapping

Have you ever seen a tattoo on the web, social media or in real life, that just looks good? The subject matter may be simple and the work may be mediocre but there is something about that tattoo that just… well it works!

More than likely the tattoo you are seeing has been place well by a skilled and knowledgeable artist. Their understanding of simple skin mapping can take an ordinary design to new levels by having it work with the body.

Concepts to know before moving on

Focal Points:

A point in a design where you want the viewer to focus. It usually has a great amount of detail and has the job of explaining the design to the viewer. Are you tattooing a humming bird and flowers with a washed-out background? What part of that tattoo would you like people to focus on? The bird, the background or the flowers? Whatever the choice is, dump your details into that part of the design. By doing so the viewer will be directed to look at that part of the image first. The other aspects of the design will fill in the blanks and create a whole composition.


Aspects of the design that lead a viewer through the design. If you want to join multiple focal points, use these transitions to point and flow between every focal point. They can be subtle bits of soft shading or a foreground element that literally points to the focal point you want to be seen.


This is where, when the body is at rest, the focal point is viewable.

We now have that cleared up so, what is placement and why does it matter in tattooing?

Body Mapping Basics – Elements

The skin

The skin is an amazing organ. It covers our bodies, keeps us warm and makes sure we don’t get sick from all the pathogens that lurk in every crevice of our existence. It also carries those rad designs we cover our bodies with. While I won’t go into detail about the mechanics of the skin and how pigment interacts with it, I can tell you that your skin and how it interacts with your underlying tissues and bones influences how the tattoo will look once completed.

Look at my best friend’s forearm in all its glory!

A Forearm

To the untrained eye, it is just an arm. I want you, the studious tattoo artist, to look at bit deeper and compare it to your arm.

Ask Yourself

  • Is your arm and theirs the same?
  • Do you have the same skin?
  • Is it the same length?
  • No to all the above. That was a simple set of answers, right?!

Body Mapping – We are not the same

If this arm and yours are not the same, how can we accurately place the same tattoo on both of your forearms and have them produce the same effect?

The answer is you cannot. There would have to be some modifications done so that any and all designs are custom fit to each client. This is the true idea behind “custom tattooing”. It has little to do with artwork that is custom made (anyone can draw an anchor), the tattoo is supposed to be custom tailored to the individual. It is supposed to fit the contours and movement of the specific individual. In the case of a custom tattoo, it is one size fits one.

Things under the skin that influence tattoo designs.

The Muscles

What is underneath your skin? Yes, that is correct, muscles and bones. Muscles are responsible for your ability to move through the world. Your mass and strength can influence how your tattoo ages and how it is viewed by the world. Simply put, the muscles underneath your skin create hills and valleys that can distort an/or create movement in a design.

Do not let this deter you though; knowing how these will influence the movement of your tattoo can add to the aesthetic and decrease the awkward effects of aging.


What is everything stacked on inside your body. Bones. They add structure and support, so you don’t end up a gelatinous mass, quivering on the floor. The bones are connected to the muscles by tendons, and to each other with ligaments. All that gooey mess inside your badass self is covered by your skin and gives you structure so you can move through the world.

What’s on top


Some people are sasquatches. That dense blanket of fur can affect how you view the image. Want to use a bug pin single to line this crispy daisy tattoo on ol’ biker Tom? Think again. That hair acts as a buffer that distorts any image you put into a person’s skin.


Burns, scrapes, cuts and gunshots. These marks left over by your lazy ass body trying to fix some nasty wound can affect the results of your tattooing effort.

Knowing how the skin reacts to stress, as well as how it changes with age, will help you plan the perfect “custom” tattoo for your client, because we know “custom” means “custom fit!”

Light details about what’s underneath

The muscles:

The muscles are a variable that changes constantly in all people. If you start working out, stop working out, get hurt or, as is the inevitability of all humans, age, your muscles will change in size and affect the skin above it. If that is so, how do we include this ever-changing variable into the design concept and placement?

First, look at the muscles in the area you are placing a tattoo. The muscle groupings have a stacked effect and create a crisscross pattern over most body parts. Where the lines following the muscle groups meet, a grid of offset perpendicular lines is formed.

Those perpendicular lines that form by tracing the edges of the muscles, gives you what I call distortion areas. These points are prone to movement whenever a person flexes or extends this part of their body.

Movement and body mapping

If you rotate your arm, pull or push your hand or grasp something with your fingers, those muscles are going to move. These lines can be placed anywhere the client may want to be tattooed as they all are boundaries as to where a muscle will affect the skin above it.

Putting a focal point or a static part of the image you are working with on top of these lines will create distortion whenever the person moves, so avoid that. These areas are best left for organic shapes and transitional elements of the tattoo that would benefit from distortion.

Work with the body

If you must place part or all of a focal point on top of a distortion area, do your best to place whatever curve or organic shape in line with what is going to move. It will cause a distortion but placing an aspect of the tattoo which is contrasting to the natural curves and movements of the body will make the final tattoo look out of place and age it prematurely.

The appendages

Keep in mind that any point between 2 joints creates stress to the skin with muscles contraction. Your hands and feet are the greatest example of this as they are highly mobile, have many bones and a ton of muscles.

Moving in closer to the heart, the forearms and lower legs have a higher incidence of torsion stress (twisting). You can see the torsion stress decreases as you move further in. Look at the gastrocnemius in the legs or the brachioradialis, flexors and extensors of the arm. The lines that they draw across those areas of the body show a distinct increase of torsion the further you move past them however, they are easily dealt with if approached correctly.

Connecting to the core

The upper thigh (quadriceps on the front and hamstrings in the back) and upper arm (biceps on the front and triceps on the back) create a great amount of compression stress. Images placed here will crush and stretch to a higher degree than the other parts of the extremities.

The buttocks and Iliac muscles, The shoulders and chest

You can apply the same tracing aspects when mapping the buttocks or shoulder. The leg areas are broad, flat and have torsion and compression stress. The shoulders work in tandem with the back and chest to rotate the upper arm so you get a good amount of torsion stress when those are engaged. You also get a ton of compression on an image when someone lifts their arm in the air.

Remember to pay attention to the amount of compressions and movement each of the places on the body exert.

The chest and back, midsection and neck

This shit stretches and twists a lot. These parts of the body are hypermobile, like the fingers, when compared to the upper and lower extremities.

We will go into greater depth later in this article about how those movements affect your design, so read on!

“For those that want an in depth look at muscles and how they interact with our body, follow this link”


For more information.

The Bones

While the bones are relatively static throughout our adult lives, they grow and change constantly during our childhood and early adult years. The bones behind an image being placed onto the skin create stresses that modify the image. Look at how the bones connect at different pivot points, and with your new knowledge of how muscles work, see how the bones and their attachments affect the movement of muscles.

We attach a straight line to any bone when mapping that follows its course and a circle for any junction point that they attach to (joints).

For an in depth look at how the bones age follow this link

<link> <>

To an article about bones and aging.

Onto Body Mapping

This may seem like a large order, asking an artist to take the initiative in understanding what is going on with the placement of the tattoo, but there is a reason for such a task to be undertaken by you, dear reader. If you gain a working knowledge of this practice your tattoos will be better fit to the body, legible from a distance and age better than others place incorrectly.

Let’s look at my besties arm again:

A forearm with no markings.

Imagine how the muscles contract and where things twist or bend. Where do the muscles underneath the skin cause distortions that could affect a tattoo. Do you notice something unique? How do you feel it is best to approach this aspect of mapping?

Let’s go into the paint program on my phone and start detailing a few aspects of this arm.

Body Mapping- What to look for.

As stated before, the joints on the body are usually denoted with a circle when mapping designs on the body.

A forearm with basic mapping done.

The muscles create perpendicular lines that traverse the section of body you are working with and move in opposite directions

The bones create the limitations in movement and structure that effects the muscles under the skin.

Creating a mess

If we put all of these together, you end up with a bit of a mess. It kind of looks like a demonic symbol, eh?

A forearm with all aspects that cause distortion mapped onto the skin.

I know, I may have lost you there but stick with me as you already know about the muscles, how they move and what stresses the exert on the body. We can utilize our knowledge to create a complex image that will age well.

Mapping with foreground and background elements

We use something that approximates a distorted figure 8, a loose “s” curve or infinity symbol, when mapping out a design that is custom fit for the body

Finding Muscle Lines

By utilizing the muscles, and their contraction lengths, we can map and place foreground and background elements. Trace the flow of each muscle grouping you are working with and find the points that the muscles crisscross to create perpendicular lines.

A forearm with a basic mapping done by the elbow.

The perpendicular lines create the crossover you see above. Those lines and where they cross over each other can be made into directional foreground or background elements in a tattoo design. These secondary elements can be utilized to create movement through and around an image by placing them on top of the muscle contraction lines you had mapped out (the dotted lines with arrows above).

Creating Flow

These flow lines indicate movement through the design and are able to move with the muscles as they contract or extend, giving the applied tattoo the ability to breathe and move with the person as the interact with their world and age. The flow lines also create a way of bypassing the joints that move through the appendages, so the designs can continue past the normal boundaries applied by the mobile joints.

A koi fish tattoo with foreground and background elements.

Finding Focal Points

Back to the arm again. I drew directly onto my friends skin to show you how i would approach finding the focal point areas and mapping where we can place those focal points to create multiple viewpoints.

A forearm mapped with marker.

I start mapping the body with finding the joints and drawing on an organic line that follows the contraction points along a muscle grouping.

One thing to notice is that the focal points aren’t aligned. This is important because the points where you want to put detail inside a tattoo aren’t competing for space.

To explain image focal point competition:

When you have a design placed that has a ton of detail occupying the same linear space as another design that is detail packed, your eyes will be forced to pick one.

A problem with competition

Our brains draw an imaginary line through the image that will bisect it as it tries to rectify what it should focus on. If you have multiple detailed designs that are competing for space, the brain (which is lazy) will try to look at both simultaneously.

By doing this the brain takes the competing images in and levels them out on the same plane of space. This makes an image look flat. Contrasting that idea, when you have multiple aspects of the tattoo that are working together with foreground and background elements, you end up with an organic piece that is mapped to the body and moves well with it. It gives depth and dimension to a piece and will work well as the tattoo ages.

(Focal point competition is an advanced concept, so I will leave it at that and explain it further in another article dedicated to design and mapping later.)

Body Mapping and Distortion

Every part of the body you want to tattoo has different muscles that overlay different bones. This technique isn’t relegated to the arms or legs though, all sections of the body can be approached and mapped in the same fashion. Practice mapping out different areas and see how you can manipulate the more static parts located near the transitional areas where muscles contract and extend.

You can take your time and experiment with where each one of the different parts of your tattoo interact with the skin by placing different stencils of the same image onto people’s skin and have them move around with them. Try moving foreground elements higher or lower, change the focal point locations you have worked into the tattoo and see how the design moves when placed onto different parts of the body.

Body Mapping – Conclusion

Taking in all of this information might give you a migraine , so work towards understanding the application slowly. Take a few minutes before and after each design you do and check to see if you can better map it to a body part. Is there anyway you can increase the depth of the image or create better transitions between elements? Is there any competition between your focal points? Does you image look good from a distance as well as up close?

If you are lucky enough to have a tablet for producing artwork, take some pictures of legs and arms and back etc. and start drawing design directly mapped to body parts.

In conclusion

This is the end of the introduction article. We are working on a complete guide to body mapping right now and will post it once we get it finished.

Let us know how we are doing.

Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Or, send us an email with a critique or recommendation for an article.



Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus



Start typing and press Enter to search

Shopping Cart