Many people who receive tattoos do so with the idea that they can cover them up with long sleeves if need be. But what do you do if your tattoo is the sleeve? Sleeve tattoos have made their way into the ubiquity of popular youth culture today in the West. While they may seem odd to some, the history of the practice – not to mention the motivation some have for getting them done in this day and age – can be quite interesting.

What is a sleeve tattoo?
Sleeve tattoos are unique in that the term refers to the location of a tattoo rather than its design. As Sleeve Tattoo Designs pointed out, a sleeve tattoo – also known as a tattoo sleeve, for symmetry's sake – is a large piece comprised of smaller designs that may or may not be thematically or aesthetically related. The key defining factor is that these types of tatts cover a person's arm or leg, just like the article of clothing from which they derive their name.

While bound by a common definition, sleeve tattoos can vary wildly, and unlike butterflies or Asian-inspired characters, no two are identical. They can vary in placement – arms or legs – as well as size. A full sleeve runs from shoulder to wrist, while a half sleeve begins at one end and terminates at the elbow. Sleeves can even come in the bite-sized servings, with quarter sleeves tending to run from the shoulder to the bicep.

Cultural roots
As with most tattoo conventions, sleeves in Western society trace their roots back to Asian and Polynesian cultural practices. According to a report from the Annual Review of Anthropology, Western tattooing in previous centuries had much of its design rooted in iconography and symbolism. In other words, it was very common for people to receive tattoos of single images. Think, for example, of the classic idea of the sailor's anchor tattoo or the aforementioned butterflies. 

However, just like tattooing made its way to the West by way of Polynesia, so too did the practice trace this route in its evolution. As the source noted, sleeve tattoos have extensive roots in southeast Asian and Japanese culture. Rather than a single image, they tend to comprise whole scenes or larger illustrative backdrops. Unlike single-piece tattoos, often known in the industry as "flash," sleeves are highly individualized in nature and are widely regarded as art pieces.

Variations on a theme
Many tattoo trends work their way up from their original cultural foundations through outlier and fringe elements of Western society before finally making their way into the mainstream middle-class consciousness, and sleeves are no different. It has only been a couple decades that tattoo sleeves have been pursued by those not strictly embedded within tattoo counterculture. In fact, the idea has become so widely accepted that it's taken root in completely separate circles.

Fast Company reported on how women who have been treated for breast cancer have put their own spin on the practice. According to the source, post-surgical arm swelling often leads to the need to wear a compression sleeve akin to a cast as part of recovery. Recently, some designers have taken ownership of the idea, infusing a purely medical apparatus with a bit of pop-cultural style. Sleeves can be purchased by cancer survivors designed to resemble the style of the popular arm-length tattoos.

Of course, a tattoo project as extensive as a sleeve is a significant time and money investment, and those interested should take care to protect themselves from a huge dose of tattoo regret. Placement is just as important as design, as a poorly thought out sleeve can monopolize some primary real estate, making future tattoos much trickier unless tattoo removal is considered.