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How stencils work – The Tattooed Way

How stencils work

Especially if you have never walked into a tattoo shop before, you will probably have no idea what a stencil is, yet this is one of the most important things in the tattoo process before delivering a good tattoo. Unless the artist free hands all his designs directly on the skin of his client, a print will first be transferred onto the skin, which will be the reference for the tattoo artist while he is tattooing. This print is usually blue or purple, but also exists in shades of green and even red, depending on the preferences of the artist.

Before a stencil can be made, it is of course necessary that a design was made in advance. Without a design it’s not possible to make a proper stencil, unless it’s freehanded, however there is no adjustment possible. Personally, I have made my stencils in three ways so far.

  • Hand stencils: This way you trace your designs using a pen where you put stencil paper under your normal paper. The carbon comes loose from the stencil paper and will print itself on the backside of your normal paper. This technique is easy if you want to quickly stencil small tattoos, but less accurate if you want to stencil more complex tattoos. It is also very time consuming.
  • Stencils by a thermal printer: With this technique you have to put the design between the layers of the stencil paper and let it go through a printer. You don’t need a computer for this. The printer automatically prints the carbon on a thin stencil paper that comes with it, which gives you a neat pre-printed stencil. Very practical, only the lamp is expensive and if it is used frequently, the lamp will no longer become warm enough, which results in the stencil being too light.
  • Stencils by a mobile printer: With these printers you scan your design on the computer or create it directly with a tablet or computer. You then print it directly from your computer or laptop and print your design directly on your stencil paper without the intervention of other paper. Because this technique is so accurate, very complex designs such as large mandalas will not always work and you will have to lower the contrast before it actually works.

I always use the mobile printer at the moment, even though my designs are often complex and sometimes I have to try again several times before getting a decent stencil. The stencil that I get in the end is always of top quality, accurate and has a good amount of carbon to keep the stencil as long as possible during the tattoo process.

Now that the stencil was made, it is not time yet to stick the stencil onto the skin. It is very important to prepare the skin in advance so that the stencil sticks as good as possible, and stays on the skin as long as possible. Each artist has his own methods and products, personally I work with rubbing alcohol and Dettol. Dettol has a soapy, greasy effect on the skin, making it easier to shave away the surface if the client hasn’t already done so. Shaving the hair not only serves to give the stencil space to stick on the skin, it also prevents infections caused by ingrown hairs during tattooing. When everything is neatly shaved, I treat the skin with rubbing alcohol to remove all remnants of creams, sweat, skin products or make-up from the skin. This will eventually also ensure that the stencil will remain longer. Finally, I go one last time with Dettol over the skin to create a sticky base layer for the stencil, I dry it off after which I use stencil product to finally stick the stencil on the skin.

At that moment, if everything goes well, you have a clean print of the outlines of your tattoo. Details such as color, shadow, depth and other details are of course not seen on the stencil yet and will only be added later by the artist.

Personally, I always leave my stencils to dry for about 20 minutes, again because I regularly tattoo complex designs and cannot afford it to disappear halfway through the tattoo. Yet I have noticed that not all artists wait that long, so in the end, the drying times is personal preference of the tattoo artist! So keep in mind that you will have to wait, your artist will not do this to bully you, but to let the stencil dry properly. Factors such as humidity, temperature and stress can cause the stencil to dry more slowly and therefore it may take longer for the tattoo to be started.

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