A tattoo is a lifetime commitment, so getting it right the first time is crucial. One of the most reliable ways to do that and get the design you actually want is to create a stencil first and then transfer it accurately to the skin. Whether you draw your design on tattoo carbon paper or use machine-printed thermographic paper, the process of transferring it reliably to someone's skin is largely the same.
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Choice of Stencil for Tattoo Designs
There are two broad types of stencil used in the tattoo community. The simplest is hectograph paper, a fancy name for the same kind of carbon paper that's been used to make duplicate copies of typed or printed documents for about 200 years. It has a top layer where you draw or trace your design and a lower layer where the pressure of your drawing tool embeds carbon from the top layer to create your design. There's a layer of tissue in between that you remove before you start drawing.
Thermographic paper is similar to the kind used for creating T-shirt transfers and is printed using a thermographic or dot-matrix printer. Then, you'll peel away a protective layer, leaving behind the finished stencil. This requires a specialized printer, so DIY tattoo artists often favor the low-tech carbon paper option.
Whichever method you use to create your stencil, bear in mind that the design will be reversed once you apply it to the skin. You'll need to create your design as a mirror image so it will be the right way around after it's transferred. Trim around the finished design to remove excess paper from around the finished stencil, taking care not to touch the surface that will be applied to the skin. Hold the stencil up to the area where it will be transferred to make sure it works in the size and position you want.
Preparing the Skin for a Tattoo on Carbon Paper
The next step is to prepare the skin to receive the tattoo. It has to be hair-free for the stencil to work properly, so shave the area first with a disposable shaver. The area should also be washed with disinfecting soap, which sanitizes the area and removes oils from the skin. Amateurs and professionals alike use a concentrate called "green soap," available online and from specialty shops.
Dilute the green soap at a ratio of one part soap to three parts water and put the mixture in a spray bottle. Spray the area with the green soap solution and then wipe it clean with a paper towel. Now, you're ready to transfer your stencil.
Transferring the Tattoo
Now that the stencil is finalized and the skin is prepared, it's time to transfer your stencil. The ink from the carbon paper or thermographic paper needs a little help to adhere properly to the freshly scrubbed skin – something wet enough to loosen the carbon from its paper but thick enough that the lines won't run.
There's a commercial product for this purpose called Stencil Stuff, which is readily available online or from specialty shops. It's inexpensive and lasts for many tattoos, but you can make your own DIY version if you prefer. A quick internet search will turn up many, many options.
Spread the lotion thinly over the shaved area with a gloved hand and then carefully position your stencil over the area and pat it into place (don't rub it, which can blur the lines and distort your design). Leave the stencil in place for a few minutes and then gently peel away the backing paper. The design should be clear and properly positioned, and all of its lines should be intact, but if not, wipe it away with rubbing alcohol and make another copy of your stencil. Repeat the cleaning and transfer process until it transfers perfectly.