Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop tutorial: Create digital tattoo art

Even if a tattooist’s toolset is a little different from that of the digital illustrator, you can reproduce their techniques digitally – pain-free.

Crank up that thrash metal playlist, grab a pencil, warm up the scanner and learn to work like a tattoo artist.

In this tutorial you’ll get the skills needed to go from a simple sketch to an insanely detailed, tattoo-inspired, vector illustration. Also, you’ll see how the process of creating individual vector elements, then duplicating them and combining them with stock vectors, can save time and allow you to create more pieces for your clients.

We’ve included all the files you’ll need to follow the tutorial from beginning to end, including some bonus vectors from Illustrated Monthly. These resources are completely royalty-free, so you can incorporate them into your next design, whether it’s personal work, or a project for clients.


Adobe Illustrator CS3 or later
Adobe Photoshop CS3 or later

Time to complete

6-7 hours

Project Files

Please visit the desktop site to download the project files.


Before we pick up the mouse and start clicking, dig out that pencil and start sketching a simple line art drawing for our snake body. Just use a normal sheet of printer paper. As you can see, I haven’t put much time into making this sketch look good. It’s simply a reference for the next step. I’ve included my sketch files if you don’t feel like drawing.


Scan in your sketch and open it in Photoshop. Adjust the levels a bit to brighten it up then choose  Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation and click Colorize to change the pencil lines to a very light cyan. Print this image out at 100% on another piece of paper and pick up your pencil again.

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Draw back onto the paper print, using it as a basis for drawing details and refining the structure. This technique is similar to the lightbox tracing methods used by most tattoo artists. Refer to photos of snakes to create interesting skin patterns. Scan it back in. Open in Photoshop, adjust the levels, change the colour mode to grayscale and save your file.


Open Illustrator and create a new file measuring 14-x-16 inches. File > Place your saved sketch onto the art board and scale it to 130% and click a light cyan in the Swatches window to lighten up the image for tracing. Lock the layer, create a new layer and outline the sketch with the Pen tool using a 0.25-point stroke.


When the outline is complete, select it, change the fill to black (no stroke) and hit the Merge icon in the Pathfinder window to knock out the holes. Change it back to a black outline with a six-point stroke and click the Align Stroke to Outside icon in the Stroke window.

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Next, grab the Pen tool, set it to a three-point stroke and draw in all the basic line work except the snakeskin pattern areas. Try to make your lines as smooth and clean as possible.


For the skin patterns, create a new layer and outline the larger shapes with a 10-point stroke. Then outline the smaller shapes with a seven-point stroke. Select all the pattern shapes and click the Align Stroke to Outside icon in the Stroke panel.


With the Group Selection tool, delete the area that we copied and pasted, leaving the new smaller, interior black shapes. When you’re done it should look something like this. Click the interior black shapes and set them to a three-point stroke. This time, hit the Align Stroke to Inside icon in the Stroke window.

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Select all the pattern strokes we just created and go to Object > Expand Appearance, then Object > Flatten Transparency. Now we can grab the Eraser tool and simply erase the pattern areas that we don’t need.


Create a new layer and start adding and duplicating circles, using various sizes to add details to the snakeskin pattern. I also created a new layer behind the outline layer, and in the area near the belly, filled it with black using the Pen tool and added a bunch of white circles in various sizes.


Next, set the Pen tool to a 0.25-point stroke, zoom in so you have plenty of detail, and start adding shading and linework details. Add in and duplicate some more black circles for the skin pattern.

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To set this up for a black T-shirt, create a new layer behind all the other layers and draw in a black rectangle to fill the artboard. Then use the Selection tool to select the snake’s outline, then go Edit > Copy and Edit > Paste in Back, fill it with white, give it a 12-point outline and hit the Align Stroke to Outside icon.


Next add in some of the other tattoo-inspired vectors provided. I created these for using this same method. You can also group and duplicate the new snake coils to add more detail to the piece.


Choose a set of four or five swatches and colour it up. If you use the Pathfinder window to merge your black line work and have CS4, experiment with the new Live Paint Bucket, which makes this quick.

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