We’re sure countless designers have spent countless hours meticulously removing tattoos from models in Photoshop. But what if you want to go the other way around and digitally add some ink to bare skin? With Photoshop’s robust Displacement Map feature, you can easily do just that.

For this demonstration, we imagined what kind of tattoo scheme would be most appropriate for all design nerds among us. Feel free to let us know what you think of our “ink” choices in the comments.

Step 1

Prepare your skin: Get your image of a person or isolated body parts arranged the way you want it. (I chose this image by Shutterstock contributor InnervisionArt.)

Once you finalize the general layout, make a copy of your PSD, flatten it, and convert the color to grayscale by either desaturating it or selecting Image > Mode > Grayscale. Pump up the contrast, then apply a slight blur to smooth out the contours.

Photoshop will analyze these areas of light and dark to plot the relief of the skin surface. This is your displacement map. Save it somewhere you can easily find it again.

Step 2

Back in your main file, move the tattoo artwork you want to use into position over the skin. Change the tattoo’s layer blending mode to Multiply. This will allow the skin texture to show through a bit. I also skewed the arm tattoo a little bit here.

For our fictional design geek, I created a broken-image tattoo for the arm, and an “undo-keystroke” combination for the poor guy’s broken heart. (I’ve often wished there were such a keystroke combo for real life.)

For the ink art, I cobbled together bits of “Flaming Heart Tattoo Illustration” by Tairy Greene and “Computer Keyboard Vector” by Alhovik.

Step 3

Apply the Displacement Map: Go to Filter > Distort > Displace. By default, the horizontal and vertical scaling are each set to 10. Enter a lower number, and you get less distortion — higher, and you get more. Hit “OK.”

You’ll be asked to choose a Displacement Map. This is where that grayscale image comes in. Navigate to the document, select it, and Photoshop will use the lights and darks of the image to map the contour of the skin. In our example, we wrapped the tattoo around the contours of the chest and arm. (This step will require some trial and error; you’ll probably want to back up and adjust the horizontal and vertical scaling a few times to get the level of distortion right.)

Step 4

Alpha Channel Magic: Tattoo ink lies under the skin, while the texture and sheen of the skin itself lies on top. To achieve this effect, we are going to first create a grayscale version of the underlying skin texture.

Copy the skin layer and desaturate it. Go to the Channels pallette, add a New Channel, and paste the grayscale skin image into it. Then make a selection based on this alpha channel by Command + clicking (Mac) or CTRL + clicking (PC).

Step 5

Turn the alpha channel off, select your tattoo-ink layer, and click the “Add a Vector Mask” button at the bottom of the layers palette. You now have a mask based on the darks and lights of the skin, but it’s backwards. We want to bring the reflectivity of the skin and surface detail forward, so invert the mask (Image > Adjustments > Invert).

Step 6

Now the highlights obscure the ink, as is the case with real skin. Adjust the levels of the mask, pulling the black end of the spectrum into the histogram a little, and the white end a whole lot.

And that’s it. Your model is now officially inked!

Extra Credit:

I applied a slight bluish-green tint to the tattoos to give them a more realistic look.

I also added a pair of glasses and applied a little spherical distortion to the eyes to mimic the effect of the lens curvature (and give the model a nerdier appearance). For additional realism, I wanted the glasses to cast shadows on the face. I made a selection based on the frames, filled it with a dark color, and ran another Displacement Map distortion to make the shadow conform to the contours of the face.

As you can see, these Displacement Maps have myriad uses. If you want to put text on a wrinkled shirt, a symbol on a waving flag, or graffiti on a textured brick wall, the Displacement Map is the tool for you.

Detail View:

Tutorial by Byron Hudson

Images Used in this tutorial: