the perfect tattoo design
Now, while you know what type of design you want to see on yourself, tattoo artists are experts about how tattoos look on yours or anyone else's body. That's why you are having them apply the tattoo and not yourself. There is a definite 'flow' or 'Feng Shui' to the body, and different designs work with various body parts differently. An expert tattoo artist knows best how to size and shape your tattoo, the best placement for it, what colors will work best, etc. It's always best to take the advice of your tattoo artist and really think about it. While you have one vision in your head, the goal is to match that with the idea the artist has in their head, and come out with a tattoo better than either of you thought. This means you need to trust your tattoo artist to bring your vision to life. There is usually a bit of compromise needed from both you and the artist to achieve a final result you are both happy with, so be prepared for a little give and take during the consultation process. State your goals, thoughts and concerns about the tattoo, and then let the artist take it from there.
One of the more common bones of contention between a tattoo artist and a client, especially a first timer, is the issue with size. Often people will make the decision to get a tattoo, but only a small one, because they're just testing the waters. Small tattoos usually can't hold much detail and stand a greater chance of deteriorating over time, because unlike any other surface out there, skin is a living, breathing--and unfortunately--constantly aging and deteriorating body organ. In short, skin is a very tricky medium to work with. If your artist tells you the tattoo should be bigger to fit your body part, or to capture the detail necessary to make the tattoo the best possible, it's probably worth trusting them. After all, you're taking the plunge to get a tattoo, so you should make it the best it can be so your end result will have been worth your while. And if you don't trust your artist to give you the best possible tattoo, then you should probably find an artist you do trust to make that happen.
REFERENCE, AND COPYING OTHER PEOPLE'S TATTOOS
Many people first learning about tattoos try to find other tattoos upon which to base their own design or idea. They may spend hours looking through tattoos hoping to find the perfect design when they should be looking at the quality of the artist's work rather than the designs themselves. Copying other people's tattoos is disrespectful to the wearer of the tattoo, and to the artist who drew it, provided it was a custom, one-of-a-kind piece to begin with. There are some types of tattoos based on popular photographs or famous artwork that are probably ok to copy, but for the most part you should not be asking a tattoo artist to copy images found on the web, in magazines/books, or on celebrities. You can use a variety of reference materials to give your artist the idea of what you want, but not for them to copy exactly. Tattoos are visual, and so you can use almost any visual reference you can find! Good reference sources definitely include tattoo 'flash' (pre-drawn designs free of copyright restrictions, which are meant to be copied), as well as photographs, original artwork, children's book artwork, movie stills, sculptures, your own sketches or written descriptions, etc. To get the best tattoo, it's worth finding a lot of reference material, and bringing the images and your ideas to the tattoo artist who will be doing the tattoo, for them to look at and then incorporate into their own style.
TYPES OF TATTOOS
While it's often difficult to classify artwork, most art, including tattoos, falls under certain general categories. There are many motivations to get various types of tattoos, and there are potentially as many types of tattoos as there are tattoo artists doing them. Therefore, we will only discuss the most basic and general distinctions between tattoo types here, for introductory purposes. Your own research will be best for finding the exact type or style of tattoo that you are after.
BLACK AND GRAY TATTOOS AND COLOR TATTOOS
Perhaps the two most broad and general classifications of tattoo types are black and grey, and color. Every single other type of tattoo that exists fits into either of these two categories. These two types of tattoos are naturally quite self explanatory, but some first timers might not know the very specific distinctions between the two that we are talking about.
Black and gray tattoos consist of pure black tattoo ink which is diluted with water in varying amounts to produce as broad a value scale as possible. This value scale ranges from blank, un-tattooed skin (being the lightest value, or shade) to solid black tattooed skin (being the darkest value, or shade). This type of tattooing compares very closely to graphite pencil shading on paper.
Color tattoos consist of pure black tattoo ink, white tattoo ink, and various colored pigments to form a full-spectrum color wheel of (in theory) every single possible color. Colored tattoo inks can be blended together in an infinite amount of ways to produce a theoretically infinite amount of unique hues, shades, and tints. This type of tattooing compares most closely to acrylic or oil painting.
Some black and grey tattoos may contain color as well, and some color tattoos may contain sections of black and grey--their classification will depend on which of the two types comprises the clear majority of the tattoo. If the ratio is nearly even, then they will probably be classified by their subject matter or artistic genre.
'ENTRY LEVEL' AND 'COMMON' TATTOOS
These types of tattoos are generally small and/or simple in nature, requiring little time to apply, and may also be taken directly from 'flash' (pre-drawn templates meant for mass replication). Unfortunately, these tattoos often require little forethought from the client or talent and skill from the tattoo artist. People usually get this type of tattoo to test the waters, and some do it merely to 'fit in' with their friends or a particular image. In any event, 'common' tattoos do have their positive qualities, but if you are getting a tattoo that you want to be unique, then you should realize that these designs generally are not very unique. The most common tattoos are things like names, hearts, small simple flowers, Chinese/Japanese letters, tribal armbands, lower back tribals, anything combined with tribal, etc. These tattoos are fine if you have researched and thought about it (as described in the previous section of this article), and know for sure that you are getting what you really want for the right reasons, but just keep in mind that they are common and often reconsidered (or downright regretted) later.
Any tattoos that have been drawn and created for you only, by the tattoo artist doing them, can be considered 'custom' tattoos. Some 'entry level' and 'common' tattoos may fit into this category, but generally speaking, most do not.
Most first timers don't realize that the best person, by far, to draw the tattoo design they have in their head is going to be the tattoo artist that will be doing the tattoo. Finding an artist to draw a design, and then another to do the tattoo is not the best way to approach custom tattoo designs. You will be doing yourself and the tattoo artists a big favor by having the artist doing the tattoo also draw the design. Tattoo artists have drastically different abilities and styles, and when an artist is drawing up a design they do it to their own abilities in their own style. In addition, an artist needs to feel engaged and connected to the art they are executing in order to feel most inspired, and thus do the best job possible. With few exceptions, quality tattoo artists are way too busy drawing for paying clients to draw a design that someone else will tattoo. Custom tattoos don't have to be huge, intricate, and super expensive; they only require a talented custom tattoo artist and the right attitude from the client.
COVER-UP AND REWORK TATTOOS
The covering up and reworking of older tattoos is a large aspect of the tattooing art-form, encompassing nearly all styles and genres of the craft. A full examination of this type of tattooing deserves its own lengthy article so we will only touch upon the basics here, but we felt it deserved a brief introduction as a type of tattoo in and of itself due to its frequent occurrence.
As you may have guessed, cover-ups and reworks have a very specific set of challenges and guidelines that come with trying to hide or improve pre-existing pigment--as opposed to putting pigment into blank skin for the first time. Because of these challenges, it is of utmost importance to find a tattoo artist who is highly skilled and educated about covering old pigment with new, so you don't end up with a dark, muddy, indistinguishable blob on your skin, as two layers of tattoos blend together ineffectively. Both you and your chosen tattoo artist must understand that new pigment will not eradicate older unwanted pigment, but rather mix with it inside your skin cells as it heals. Therefore, it is very common for an older tattoo to still be visible 'underneath' a new one, depending on how dark or light each layer of tattooing is. It is also just as common for the artist and/or client to be afraid of this and assume the new tattoo has to be way darker than necessary. A knowledgeable and skilled tattoo artist will be able to avoid either of these scenarios by using a variety of artistic tricks and tattooing techniques to masterfully disguise the old tattoo, or similarly, make it look better than the first time it was done. These tricks and techniques will vary depending on the particular project at hand, but they all require the ability to expertly envision a solution to the cover-up or rework problem presented.
So keep all of this in mind when researching a tattoo artist for a cover-up or rework project. Be prepared to give whomever you choose a great deal of trust and artistic freedom so they can put all of their knowledge and talent to use--because this type of tattooing usually requires a great deal of each! (For additional cover-up and rework advice, see the 'Artist Loyalty Vs. Collection' section.)
There are tattoo artists out there that are capable of creating tattoos that look like photographs on your skin. As the equipment, pigments, and techniques of the tattoo art-form have advanced in recent years, it has become possible for skilled artists to create tattoos that are more realistic than ever. Photorealistic tattoos really open the options of what is possible to put into the skin. However, artists and collectors alike need to keep in mind that the medium of skin, like previously stated, is pretty 'fluid.' That is, tattoo pigments under the skin migrate, fade, and change over time, so a hyperrealistic tattoo with tiny details that looks truly amazing upon completion may not look so good years later. That said, an experienced realistic tattoo artist that truly understands the skin and its limitations can create works of photorealism on skin that last a long time. Photorealistic tattoos are almost always done with photographs as reference, and researching the proper artist to do the task is very necessary as these tattoos require highly specialized techniques. Anything can be made to look very realistic in a tattoo--even 'imaginary' things. It's just a matter of the tattoo artist's skill and artistic vision.
If you want to memorialize any type of person or pet through a tattoo, skilled portrait artists can tattoo an exact likeness into your skin. Most if not all of the previous paragraph applies here, since portraits are realistic tattoos by their very nature. It should be stressed that finding a highly skilled tattoo artist to do your portrait tattoo is of utmost importance. After all, a portrait tattoo that fails to capture the likeness and essence of its subject defeats the entire purpose of getting it in the first place.
These tattoos, sometimes referred to as 'old school,' are bold, simple, and very graphically-oriented designs consisting of heavy black outlines and a liberal use of black shading with minimal color. In addition, they are rendered in such a uniform and stylized way that everything within them appears as two-dimensional shapes, without the illusion of three-dimensional depth. This is on purpose, of course, as this style became widespread back in the early 1900s as a way to reproduce simple graphic symbols on skin quickly and cheaply, and with far less precise and refined equipment as is available today. Most traditional tattoo subject matter is derived from nautical and military themes, as army and navy men were the primary recipients of these tattoos. This style has remained so popular throughout the years due to its very readable simplicity, historical significance, and traditional Americana roots. A few of the most well known and respected pioneers of this modern American art-form, whom nearly all traditional designs trace their roots back to, are Don Ed Hardy, Sailor Jerry Collins, and Lyle Tuttle.
Practitioners of this style of tattooing today must, in order for their work to be considered true traditional, adhere to a very specific and distinct set of visual 'rules' and ways that subject matter can or can't be drawn and colored in. They use as their basis the very work of the people just mentioned, among others. Therefore, a large portion of traditional tattoo designs are interpreted or taken directly from 'flash' (sheets of pre-drawn tattoo designs meant for mass replication). Collectors interested in getting a truly 'traditional' and custom tattoo must be aware of these strict stylistic guidelines, and make sure the artist they choose follows them well, yet still retains a bit of their own stylistic influence. If this isn't taken into consideration, the collector may end up with an 'untrue' traditional tattoo, or a 'knock off,' which could be discerned by those 'in the know' about such things. This may or may not matter to the collector, of course.
The last, and newest aspect about 'traditional' tattoos, is the 'neo-traditional' genre which has developed in recent years. Just like its name suggests, this offshoot of traditional tattooing combines much of the 'rules' and sensibilities of the true traditional style with a plethora of modern influences to form an interesting and and much more varied hybrid. For example, a neo-traditional styled design might still have the bold black outlines and simplified shapes of a traditional piece, but also incorporate a broad color palette and very modern or unusual subject matter, like a snake with a woman's head wrapping around a television. This style of tattooing can be a great compromise for the collector who is torn between the traditional and modern styles and themes, because she/he likes aspects of both equally.
Another widely popular type of tattoos with deep historical roots is the Asian style. Like the traditional American style, traditional Asian tattoos follow a very specific and distinct set of visual 'rules' and ways that subject matter can or can't be drawn and colored in. All of the classic Asian tattoo subject matter (such as dragons, geisha, koi fish, waves, heavy black and gray 'windbars,' etc.) contains rich cultural meanings and symbolism. It takes a certain level of dedication and commitment for both the collector and the tattoo artist to learn the extensive amount of history, meaning, and strict stylization involved. Therefore, the old mantra 'pick the right artist for the job' applies very much to this type of tattoo. In addition, the concern of getting an Asian tattoo that is 'true' to the style also applies, just as was explained in the previous section.
Other slightly less popular non-western or ethnic tattoo types, all steeped in rich historical backgrounds, are Polynesian style tattoos, Tibetan style, Celtic, South American, Indian, Native American styles, and tattoos originating from any specific religion. All come with their own stylization and meanings. Because of the unique and special qualities of all cultures and styles of art from around the world, it is imperative that the tattoo collector and artist cultivate a real respect for and basic knowledge of the cultures that they borrow imagery from. As a general rule of ethics, you shouldn't get a cultural tattoo you don't know a lot about. Conversely, our own Western and modern American tattoo styles come with our own set of traditions and meanings, so the same advice should apply to people of other cultures who seek out our version of the tattoo art-form.
Since this article is written by Americans and is intended primarily for American or western audiences, we wanted to point out some of the more common issues of cultural tattoo etiquette that we know of. Perhaps the most widespread one is the recent trend of getting words or phrases tattooed in Asian writing (one form of which is called Kanji). The majority of these tattoos fall under the 'entry level/common' category, as they are quick, simple, and unfortunately, usually don't involve much forethought, planning, or deep respect and appreciation for the culture whose written language they are borrowing. As such, it can be argued that these tattoos are exploitative and/or disrespectful of their particular culture. While this is not necessarily our own stance on the matter, we felt it wise to bring up all sides of the cultural/ethnic tattoo issue since we are dealing here with making highly informed decisions about your tattoos.
OTHER IMPORTANT CONSIDERATIONS
We have answered many questions about the pain, patience, the money, and tons of important questions.