The tattooers guide to digital design.

by Russ Abbott February 18, 2016 6 Comments

The tattooers guide to digital design.

Are you thinking of going digital and don't know where to start? I'm going to break it all down for you and give you some links to the most-trusted hardware and software on the market. I will give you the information you need to make a wise purchase and I'll even show you how to save a bit of money. 

If you are going to design tattoos digitally, you will need a really good computer and a device known as a pen display. The top pen displays are made by a company called Wacom. (pronounced wah-come) and they are the industry standard for digital art. 

I'm going to start by pointing out the obvious concern on most tattooer's mind as they start thinking about going digital. This stuff is expensive! When I bought my first Wacom Cintiq a few years ago. It was definitely a scary purchase. There were a few things that helped push me past the sticker shock. 

  1. I tattoo for a living and these tools would help me do my job more effectively and efficiently.
  2. If I could get past the learning curve, I may be able to achieve a significant progression in my artwork.
  3. It's all tax deductible.

Now, that you see where my head was before I started out with my first Wacom Cintiq, I'd like to list the equipment that I currently own to give you an idea of how far I've come in just a few years. In order of when and why I purchased them:

  1. Wacom Cintiq 24HD Pen Display: (no longer available) This was my first Wacom purchase. I still use it today at my home art studio. I purchased this in 2012 and at the same time I bought a new Macbook Pro (Mid 2012) laptop computer so I could finally get away from the PC. At the time, this was the largest Cintiq model they made. It is pretty hefty and takes up a lot of space on my desk. It came with a weighted base that allows you to pull it towards the edge of your desk and then adjust the angle for a natural drawing position that extends over the edge of the table. 
  2. Wacom Cintiq 22HD Pen Display: ($1699) After about a year, I was really feeling the need to have a 2nd Cintiq for the shop. I went with the mid-sized model. I liked it but I really missed having the extra space on the screen, and I especially missed the ability to pull the display down below the surface of the table. (Note: this can be accomplished with an Ergotron arm that I'll mention later on.)
  3. Wacom Intuos Medium Pen Tablet: ($349) I went to a tattoo convention in 2013 and I missed having my Cintiq so much that I headed over to a Best Buy and picked up the mid-range  Wacom tablet called the Intuos. I suspected that I would absolutely hate drawing on the Intuos, because you have to draw on the tablet but look up at the computer's screen to see what you're drawing. Here's what I learned- drawing tattoo designs requires clean outlines. For me, the disconnect between the hand and eye was too much to overcome. I'm sure you can get used to it eventually, but I had already grown accustomed to the experience on a Cintiq model. My Intuos now lives next to my son's computer, he uses it occasionally. 
  4. Wacom Cintiq Companion Hybrid: I realized that I was now completely reliant on my computer for creating tattoo designs. I could no longer imagine the idea of traveling to a tattoo convention without a Cintiq. So even though I really can't stand the tiny screen size, I needed a 13" model. I only use this one for travel, but I do know plenty of tattooers who are more than happy with simply this size. I will say, the various models that are available in the 13" size range in price from $745 to $2500. I personally recommend the 13" HD (no touch) for $745. But you will need your own laptop computer to attach to it. (Note: Mine is the Companion Hybrid, which was an Android based tablet as well as a Cintiq. They are no longer offering this option and frankly I wouldn't recommend it if they did. I never got much use out of the Android tablet option because by itself, you could only really use drawing and painting apps, not software like Clip Studio Paint. More on that later.)
  5. Macbook Pro (Retina, 13", Early 2015) 3.1 GHz Intel Core i7- 16GB Intel Iris Graphics 6100 1536 MB: I bought this computer in 2015 because I was getting tired of the lag that would sometimes happen while drawing in Manga Studio on my old 2012 Macbook. I paid extra to upgrade to the most RAM they offered and a better graphics card. I don't know a lot about computers, so I asked a client who worked at the Apple store to take care of me. This is what I ended up with and it's worked well so far. I'm sure by now, they have something better available. 
  6. Wacom Cintiq 27 HQD Touch Pen Display: ($2799) This was my latest acquisition and I absolutely love it. If you are serious about designing your tattoos digitally, this is the model I would recommend. I have this at the tattoo shop and I use it constantly. There is one thing I will say, after working with this model for a while, I always keep the "touch" turned off. Wacom charges an extra $500 for the touch capability and I've found that I don't really like it. I have too many problems with the software misinterpreting my hands on the screen as gestures. It's no fun when your hand touches the screen the wrong way and everything disappears back the desktop. So I turn the touch off, it's easy to do, there's a button on the upper right corner of the display. But, when you can save $500, why not do so? Here's a link to the Wacom Cintiq 27HQD (no touch) $2299.
  7. Ergotron Arm: ($280) When I purchased that original Cintiq 24HD, It came with a heavy weighted base included. I loved the base because it allowed the Cintiq to be positioned over the edge of the table and made drawing very comfortable. Now, Wacom has separated the base into an additional cost over the price of the 27HQD model. I had heard that you could also get an adjustable arm mount from Ergotron that would work well and give more flexibility. I ordered the LX HD Sit-Stand Wall Mount LCD Arm and it has been really nice and sturdy. One advantage is that I can now move the Cintiq around into more positions very quickly. I can also rotate the entire display 90 degrees for portrait orientation. 
  8. Ipad Pro with Apple Pencil: I just picked up the new iPad Pro. Not that I needed it, because I already had a fairly new iPad Air that I wasn't using very often. But, I had heard that you could use this app called Astropad to mirror your Macbook Pro, essentially turning the iPad Pro into a lighter, more portable Cintiq alternative with no cumbersome cables.  I'd like to do an extensive review of the iPad Pro, and Astropad at some point in the future, once I've had more time to play around with it and all of the available drawing/ painting apps. For now, I'll just say that I feel very attached to my larger Wacom Cintiqs, and the iPad Pro is just too small for the kind of work I like to do. Astropad does work, but there are some seriously lag issues that make it frustrating for me to use for serious production work. However, the lightweight and portability make it an excellent choice for sitting on the couch and sketching, or even preliminary layout work. 
  9. Brother MFC 8910 Printer: This is the printer we have had at the shop for about a year. We've been through a few others trying to find a good wireless connection. This one has been working great and I can finally avoid unplugging my laptop to go into the room where the printer is. 
  10. Spirit Pocket Jet Thermal Printer: About a year ago, I got my hands on a thermal printer that can print directly to tattoo stencil paper. The printer is made by Brother, but Spirit, the company that makes the purple stencil paper, worked with Brother to create a driver that is needed to operate the thermal printer with their paper. I mostly use this printer when I'm traveling because it's so small and portable. It saves me from having to stand in line and wait for a broken thermofax at a convention. I never leave home without it. 

 Okay now that we've covered all the best hardware available, I'd like to talk a bit about the software side of things. First, a little about my background. I have been tattooing since 1997 and I first used Adobe Photoshop around 1999. I would occasionally scan drawings and color them digitally. But mostly, I used Photoshop for arranging and manipulating photo references. I've also found Photoshop to be an essential tool for portfolio editing and arrangement. 

So when I got my first Wacom Cintiq, I wanted to try out some new software that was created exclusively for digital art creation. I knew that Photoshop was the industry standard, but I also suspected that it had just been around so long that people had adapted over the years to make Photoshop work for artists. So with that in mind, I set out to see what else was out there. 

  1. Corel Painter: This was the first software I tried when I got my first Cintiq. If you want to make digital paintings with brushes that do an incredible job of replicating the textures and strokes of authentic natural media, Painter is the best software I know of. The downside for me was the complexity of the interface. There are so many brush options in Painter that I had a hard time getting comfortable at first. This was also the first time I encountered a symmetry tool that would allow me to create mandalas instantly. I liked playing around with Painter a lot, but the lag I would experience with many of the more complex brushes made me seek out a more simple software. Now that it's been a few years, I might go back (with my upgraded Macbook Pro) and try out the latest version of Painter. 
  2. Manga Studio 5/ Clip Studio Paint: I have a friend who draws comics for Marvel and he turned me on to Manga Studio 5. I found MS5 to be the perfect software for designing tattoos because it has most of what I love about Photoshop, but with a ton of useful tools that Photoshop doesn't have. Check out this FREE Manga Studio webinar to see more about why I love this software. This is the software that I use daily and it's only $50! (Note: Manga Studio is going through a name change and is now being sold as Clip Studio Paint). 
  3. Adobe Photoshop: I personally use Photoshop for image editing, combining and adjusting references, portfolio work, and for it's 3D tools. I pay monthly for the Adobe Creative Cloud which includes a bunch of other software that I use from time to time for a monthly fee of $50. If you only want to get Photoshop, and you  don't care about the other software such as Illustrator or Premier Pro, you can get a Photoshop only subscription for $10 a month. 
  4. Adobe Illustrator: If you are going to be doing type design for your business cards, logo, etc. then Illustrator is the best choice. Whereas the other software I've mentioned is Raster- based (images are made up of tiny pixels), Illustrator is Vector based, which means that your computer is encoding the lines, shapes, and fills of your artwork in a different way. Essentially, you can can enlarge vectors infinitely and they retain a clean edge. Whereas, raster images would become pixelated after enlarging to a certain point. My good friend Cassady Bell is an illustrator wiz and he uses it for his incredibly complex geometric tattoo designs. I'm personally a bit handicapped by the alien interface of the software. 

Well that's all I've got for you for now. I hope this has given you enough information to make the right choice for your situation. When you're ready, we're always adding new content to help you along on your artistic journey. Please check out all of the great products, digital palettes, brushes, and tutorials on Tattoo Smart


Russ Abbott
Russ Abbott


Tattooer specializing in ornamental and illustrative styles.

6 Responses


March 21, 2017

This is great information. I used to have a bamboo fun tablet by WACOM when they first came out, I paid like $180…which now they are so much cheaper, but I def saw the advantages of using this from a tattoo artists perspective. I use corel paintshop pro to put together references, but I see now it can be used to do so much more. This article has def opened my eyes to what can be done and I appreciate all the work and experience you are sharing with the world. Going to be saving up for some new equipment soon! Thanks again

Robert Blackadar
Robert Blackadar

January 20, 2017

Affinity Photo is a photoshop alternative as well as Affinity Designer being an alternative to Illustrator. Affinity is a one time price instead of monthly Adobe payments, which is nice. Affinity Photo just released an update to now do batch editing, which is a plus for me, as I love photography. Affinity Designer at the time of writing this doesn’t have an ‘image trace’ feature or ‘live trace’ like illustrator does which is rather annoying but I’m pretty confident Affinity will release an update for that in the future. For now if I want to turn any of my designs into vector images I use a free program called Inkscape. I was using Painter Essentials 5 from Corel for the symmetry ruler for a while. Painter Essentials 5 is a very basic version of Corel Painter, but to be honest I mostly use Clip Studio Paint for symmetry mandala designs now instead. A new program I recently downloaded but haven’t really messed around with is Krita, which is another free program. Although I was brought up on Adobe products, and I do like them, I also enjoy trying what other developers come up with and how they can help me with my tattooing needs, as well as photography and videography.

Much Love
-Robert Blackadar

juliana navarrete
juliana navarrete

January 10, 2017

what kind of printer do you use? do you print regularly and then trace onto transfer paper? do you use a special printer?

Justin Klink
Justin Klink

October 02, 2016

I was wondering about the Wacom Cintiq companion 2. Is this something you would recommend? Looking for something that I don’t have to rely on another device/computer in order to do my work. Thanks for all the information!


June 15, 2016

I’m super considering buying a Cintiq because of being able to draw directly on screen. I currently have a super basic version from Wacom called “Bamboo Create” it’s ok for beginners but iv out grown it. Also, it’d be awesome if you could even touch base on the way you have to pay taxes being an Independent Contractor. I found it difficult in my state to find any tattooed that actually keeps to the books. I could go on and on about what I do but I remember how confused I was when it came to taxes and being able to write our monthly supply bills off. Thanks in advance

Courtney Landrus
Courtney Landrus

June 08, 2016

Great info Russ, thanks for taking the time to give your review of all this stuff. I’m still feeling intimidated to jump into the digital world with my art, but I’m really excited to see everything that you and Tattoo Smart are doing in the way of education and information about going digital. Thank you!!

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