A Tattoo Revolution

New ways to sketch and animate


Sketch, paint, create.


Countless business models have been changed by digital media, but it's difficult to think of one more profoundly affected than the tattoo industry.

What used to be a world of tracing paper and pencils is going digital—which means all those backpacks that used to be stuffed with sketch-filled notebooks are now holding iPads. That’s thanks to apps like Procreate, which lets artists overlay their designs on photos of their clients’ skin, showing them right then and there what the finished product will look like.

Holly Ellis owns the Idle Hand tattoo parlor in downtown San Francisco. Like many artists, Ellis was initially hesitant to adopt Procreate, but she was quickly won over by the app’s convenience (and eco-friendliness). “I used to do everything on paper,” she says. “If I was doing a sleeve or something big, I’d start with Photoshop but eventually still wind up with a pile of paper. It’s very cool how Procreate eliminates all that.”

Holly Ellis—like all the artists at her Idle Hand parlor in San Francisco—has become a Procreate convert.

Today every artist at the bustling gallery uses Procreate, and their work is on display on nearly every square inch of available wall space (which they’re pretty much out of). We sat down with Ellis at her makeshift office table (not the tattoo table) to find out how Procreate has changed the way she approaches her art.

How do you begin an initial meeting with a new client?

First I’ll bring out the iPad and show what I’ve got in mind. I don’t like to email drawings; I like to have people come into the shop. I think that’s pretty universal. 

If I need to see how a design’s going to fit, sometimes I’ll print it out so I can wrap the paper around their arm or wherever. But if I’m, say, squeezing something in between a lot of other tattoos, it’s helpful to just take a photo (of the body part) and put it on my iPad. Or if I’m doing a color study, I can take a picture of a client’s whole arm, then just color on top of that.

How else has Procreate made your job easier?

I can take pieces of different images and work with them together. In the past, I’d have to find a picture of the first thing, then a picture of the second thing, then tape everything together to trace it. If I had to blow up or shrink a picture, things could pretty easily get distorted. 

I can stretch images in Procreate too, which really helps. You can’t do that with paper.

This intricate tiger tattoo started in Procreate.

Does being able to see a mock-up on an iPad ever change a client’s mind?

Sometimes. And sometimes people will have more input after seeing something. And sometimes the drawing maybe won’t look great, but they’ll trust me and know where I’m going with it.

“I used to do everything on paper,” says Ellis. Not anymore.

How do you keep track of all the work you’ve done?

I have all my drawings stored on here, so I can reference them if I want to reuse something or need to be inspired. In traditional tattooing, a lot of the imagery is the same, so you can use the foundation of a design, like a girl head, to create something new. It’s better for my clients that way—they’re not waiting around for me as much!

    Procreate Pocket

    Sketch and Paint on iPhone.