As an artist this is such an infuriating question! It’s like asking how many steps does it take to walk across the state of New York. There’s a lot of factors there which will determine how much does a sleeve cost.
Not all Artists are Created Equal
The first thing is your artist. Not all artists are created equal. I know shops with $3,000 minimums. That’s right, even if you get a tiny tattoo that is 5 minutes it’s a minimum charge of $3,000. Granted this was a high-end celebrity shop and that price included things like limo service to be picked up and real gold fixtures. I personally have traded work for a sleeve, I’ve had someone pay me less than $100 for materials because they were trading the hours for labor on my car. Your artist has an hourly rate. While they may or may not be lenient with it, they will be able to give you a rough estimate based on their rate, as long as they know what the subject is.
It Depends on the Design!
The shortest sleeve I have ever done was 4 hours from shoulder to wrist. It was a very open, very empty, lined out and not filled in tribal. That was all they wanted, no shading, no fill in, just simple lines down their arm. Would I call that a finished sleeve? No, I expect he probably filled it in down the line. The more complicated a design is the more work that is needed to finish it and the longer it will take. A portrait, for example, may be the size of your hand and may take three hours while a piece of tribal the same size takes 30 minutes. This means that on an hourly rate alone it’s not just a question of filling in space.
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Annnd is it a Difficult Style to Tattoo?
The same goes with the difficulty, any apprentice can do tribal but a portrait requires experience and skill. The rate for your sleeve will be based off what you’re getting. A full sleeve of portraits and realism costs a lot more than a sleeve of tribal, and with good reason. You are paying for their ability and the higher the rate the better their ability and worth. Simply choosing an artist because they are cheaper on their quote doesn’t guarantee that their work is as good.
How Big is the Area? Think An Athlete’s Arm Versus a Teenage Girls!
You also determine the size of your sleeve. While it’s a bit of a joke that a bad attitude means a higher price the size of the area getting tattooed actually does. Think about a celebrity athlete like Brock Lesnar, Shaquille O’Neille, or any other “big” guy. How big are their arms and legs? Now think of a teeny 18 year old girl that’s 5’2 and 100lb soaking wet. There is no way that the same sleeve would cost the same because of size alone. To cover the athlete’s arm would take much longer because it’s a much larger space which is why it will cost more.
If you have decided to get a sleeve then you are making a commitment. This is no different than buying a house – you want something nice that’s going to last and you’ll need to find the right balance between price and what you want. Choose an artist who can create the quality of tattoo you want, and be prepared to save up to do it in stages. Sleeve work is expensive, there’s no doubt there, but no more than if you got the same amount of hours tattooed in different places on your body.