How to choose a tattoo design when you're completely clueless

10403044_10152164843797712_1077486435763939552_nIt can be hard to commit to one image that will be permanent. Some people just have too many ideas! Here are some ways you can decide what to get tattooed…Subject, style, and placement.

  • Find an image or subject that you like. If you don’t have any very specific ideas or you can’t find something you want to commit to permanently, abstract art is always an option. Simple, flowing shapes work very well on the human form, hence the popularity of “tribal” tattoos. You can even be as vague as wanting a shape, or a curve tattooed on you. “Abstract” means just that- there is no subject matter, and the meaning is obscured. This is a good choice if you’re indecisive or change your opinions from time to time.
  • Placement is important. Do you want to be able to see your tattoo? Then get it on the front half of your body. Would you like to be able to easily hide it? Get it on the thigh, or back, or calf (if you can wear knee socks). Do you want it to be a teaser? Get it so that part of it extends beyond the sleeve of your t-shirt from your upper arm. The easiest paces to get work done, and the best for long-term wear and tear, are the outside of the calf and thigh, the inside of the forearm, the outside of the upper arm, and the upper back. The most important thing though? Is where YOU want to see the tattoo. The pain only lasts a short time, but you will  be looking at the tattoo itself forever.
  • Abstract art works well too because you can invent new meaning or significance for the tattoo as you get older. Getting something that is pure decoration can save you the trouble of trying to commit to one point of view or meaning. Most tattoo artists enjoy doing some abstract work; just be sure the artist you choose works in the style you enjoy seeing. (more on this below!)
  • When seeking subject matter, keep an open mind. Look at tattoo magazines and imagine yourself as the people in the pictures. What would feel right for you? What can you relate to? Look at photographs and paintings that aren’t tattoo-related and imagine them on your skin, instead of on paper or canvas. Would it look right to you? If you have hobbies, think about whether there are objects or images that express them. If you have inside jokes with friends or loved ones, think of ways to express them with images. Getting matching images is usually not a jinx on a relationship the way getting a tattoo of someone’s name can be. Does your child have a favorite toy, or a nickname? Does your wife have a favorite flower? You can get her a bouquet, or memorialize this time in your child’s life, by tattooing it on you.
  • If it’s a tattoo for a relative, “Mom” or “Pop”, think about what kind of images they enjoy, and what their personality is like. Memorial tattoos and relationship tattoos, just like gifts, mean more if they are personal to the receiver.
  • Don’t feel hedged in to what you have already seen as a tattoo. The tattoo industry has expanded in technique and equipment rapidly in the last ten years or so, and besides being safer (with disposable equipment and such) the artistic possibilities are close to endless.  While not every design can be applied as-is, usually a few modifications can make it possible to do just about anything on skin. Look to all forms of art and photography for ideas and styles to apply to your tattoo.
  • Try to find your inspiration in your own taste and interests. If you like art nouveau vases, use them as reference. If you like wild animals, find some photographs of animals you find meaningful. Or simply look for shapes, motifs, and colors that you like.

wpid-img_20140526_181217.jpgFinding an overall “look” for your tattoo is just as important as finding a certain subject-not all art is deeply meaningful. Some is purely visual in its appeal. Deciding if your tattoo has to speak a symbolic meaning, or if it’s decorative, can take you a long way toward a subject matter (or lack of one).

  • Find an artist. The first artist you should think of, of course, is the one who you will be paying for the tattoo. Find a tattoo artist whose artwork you like, and allow them freedom to design something for you.
  • You can’t walk in and just offer them your skin, usually, but most tattoo artists enjoy creating fine art. A great number of tattoo artists went to art school and tattoo to express their artistic sensibility. Many of them will even charge a bit less if they are creating their own work, rather than being used as a copy machine for the skin.
  • By looking online at different artists’ portfolios and websites, and visiting shops and studios to see their art in person, you may find someone whose work you enjoy enough to simply give them free rein with or without limits. You should always get tattooed by someone you trust, whose other tattoos look good to you (whether or not you would wear them).
  • If you are anxious about buying their artwork and wearing it, perhaps you should continue your search for an artist and find someone whose aesthetic sensibilities you trust. Asking a tattoo artist what their artistic influences are can be very helpful in this. If you both like a lot of the same artwork, you may have similar taste and similar ideas of what looks right.

phil getting two tattoos at onceYou should always get something that fits the flow and form of the body part it’s being applied to, and a good artist will explain this to you in your choice of design. Harsh geometric designs don’t work in most areas of the body, because they are distorted by movement. With straight lines and perfectly round designs this becomes highly noticeable and makes the tattoo look bad. Symmetrical art only works well on the center line of the body; along the spine or on the center of the torso, where it won’t be distorted by underlying structures.

  • Designs with lots of tiny lines that are close together also don’t usually work unless they are enlarged a great deal-celtic knotwork, for example, can get intricate, and usually has to be done so that there is much space between EVERY small line. Be sure to discuss these kinds of designs with an experienced artist.
  • Your skin is not like paper. Many things which work on a small scale on paper will smudge over time when applied to skin. Over time, cells in the skin migrate and shift position, taking ink along with them. Be very careful about the intricacy level you’re seeking.
  • A good source for tattoo ideas is the art section at your local library. Looking through books of stained glass, photography, abstract painting, and design can help you narrow down your quest to a subject or style you like. Look for things that speak to you or attract your eye, things that you find beautiful.
  • Your opinions and even spirituality may change as you age, but your aesthetic taste probably will not. If you like van Gogh today, you will probably like him in twenty years. You may, however, change political ideals or religion.
  • If you have children or loved ones, getting them to make sketches (or with small children, finished crayon drawings) to bring to a tattoo artist can be a great idea. Be aware that designs drawn by anyone but a professional tattoo artist may have to be modified before they will work on the skin.

blackwork sleeves tattoosChoose an artist that specializes in the style of work you want, and ask them for suggestions. A good portrait artist will want the best quality photograph you have-a high-contrast, well-lit image that’s big enough to understand. They may also suggest alterations that will enhance the look of your tattoo over the years. Taking the time to find an artist whose aesthetic choices you admire can help a great deal.

It’s not a good idea to copy someone’s tattoo that you have found on the internet, or in a magazine. Bringing these images along as examples of what you like, however, is brilliant. A tattoo artist may not understand what you are trying to describe in words, but showing them examples works wonders. Even having photocopies of paintings or a list of famous painters whose work you admire can give your tattoo artist some insight into what your taste is. If you also tell them what in their portfolio you enjoyed the most, this can explain to them what style it is you are seeking.

Tattoos are now in a small renaissance. There are thousands of artists involved in the field and many new possibilities and techniques. The limitless choices available can make it very hard to choose artwork for a tattoo, but with some careful thought, some opinionated taste, some brainstorming, and by keeping an open mind, you can find something that you’ll enjoy wearing and be proud to own later in life.