People come to tattooing knowing that they want an image to be placed onto their skin, permanently and for the world to see. Sometimes they walk into a shop knowing what they want that image to be in great detail, other times they need the guidance of an artist to bring their inspiration into fruition. Either way, the image isn’t on their skin just yet – there need to be a medium for the message. That medium is tattoo stencil paper. (For the vast majority of tattoos this is true, of course there are those rare freehand inking jobs that come along once in a blue moon.)
Stencil paper transfers the image out of the world of the abstract and onto human skin. The image might be printed off of a digital media format, it could be hand drawn or even a copy. Since this process is permanent, it’s critical that the image be transferred efficiently and in as much detail as possible. It’s also critical that the image on the skin allows the tattoo ink to be visible to the artist, that they can see the tattoo ink going into the skin at the same time that you see the stencil’s guiding lines. Having those two things happen at the same time is no small feat and it’s the central challenge of tattoo stencil paper.
To meet the challenges of stencil needs, several different kinds of tattoo transfer paper have been developed over the last century:
- Hectograph/Freehand tattoo transfer paper
This kind of transfer paper actually originates from those old school typewriters. To get the transfer to happen, hectograph / freehand paper uses pressure to create the duplicate image. If you think about the way that those throwback typewriters work, with keys physically hitting the page in the desired shape, that makes a lot of sense. This is no longer used in the printing industry, obviously since we don’t use manual typewriters anymore, so it’s now manufactured for the tattoo industry specifically.
Hectograph/freehand tattoo stencil paper typically has three layers:
- Top layer to draw/print on.
- Center tissue layer (remove before using – this layer keeps the transfer paper from prematurely getting stuck).
- Bottom layer onto which the stencil is transferred.
You can use this type of paper with several methods – tracing by hand, doing your stencil freehand or using a dot matrix printer, if you still happen to have one left over from the 1990s!
This kind of stencil paper can be more cost effective than thermal transfer paper and there are several colors available for use with different skin tones. However, if you are doing the designs by hand, it’s important to use a hectograph pencil to ensure quality artwork.
- Thermal Paper
Just as the name implies, thermal stencil paper uses heat to transfer the image from one surface to another. Again we see that this was originally used for something else, in this case being used for printing with electronic typewriters. Like hectograph paper, this kind of transfer paper is no longer used by the printing industry and is now created specifically for tattoo artists.
Thermal stencil paper typically has four layers
- White layer onto which the image is transferred.
- Milky, thin layer (usually thrown away).
- The ink layer (usually purple, but red if you use S8’s revolutionary red stencil paper).
- The bottom yellow layer that holds the piece in place if you’re using a stencil copy machine.
Thermal paper is best used in conjunction with a thermal printer, which provides sharp, crisp images that look great on the skin and that preserve all of the rich detail of your design.
Because of the ability to produce a clear image with thermal transfer paper, it’s become the standard in the industry for tattoo stencil paper. Until S8’s revolutionary red thermal stencil paper, it was only possible to design in dark purple if using thermal paper, which isn’t as visible on all skin types and which is challenging to see with dark outlines.
You can also trace by hand or free hand with thermal transfer paper. Just as with the hectograph paper, you’ll want to be sure to get a transfer pencil if you’re planning to do it by hand so that you’ll get as great a result as possible.
Just as is the case with tattooing in general, you need the right tools for the job when it comes to using tattoo stencil paper. If you’re printing from your computer, you’ll need either a dot matrix printer or a thermal printer – those things that you use to print out your grocery list won’t work! Inkjet and laser printers aren’t going to do anything to either thermal paper or hectograph paper, other than potentially muck up the printer.
Whichever kind of stencil paper you use, the key to the process is to have the highest quality stencil paper on hand. This will allow tattoo artists to create quality work so the design looks just as good on the skin as it does on paper or in the mind of your customer!