15 books that will change the way you tattoo (for the better)

owlbooksThere are a lot of great books on art out there, and I’m bound to miss a lot in my list. These are just books I have found incredibly helpful in my work, and which I refer to often.

These are not books of reference images (although I did come up in the time before google images took over, and every shop had its own reference library on site…I still can’t part with all those books!)

These are, instead, books about art in general, about art techniques, or about being an artist that I think apply very well to tattooing. If you have favorites that I do not list, please add a comment and link me to them! I read voraciously and love to find new sources of knowledge.

At least a few of these are free on kindle/ebooks, most are cheap, one or two are pricey, all are available and not rare.


An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.
To say to the painter that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player that he may sit on the piano.
~J. M. Whistler


  • The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, by James Whistler
    “Whistler not only refused to tolerate misunderstanding by critics and the so-called art-loving public — but launched vicious counterattacks as well.” Reading this will make you understand the necessity for critique, the reality of good critique, and the banality of bad critique. It will also make you want to fling pots of ink at people.
  • Modern Painters, by Ruskin
    THIS is what decent criticism sounds like. The fact that he expresses his own personal feelings as well as reasoned flaws in a work, makes this book well worth reading. This book will undo all the damage Whistler has done to you, and make you hungry for haters.
  • 50 secrets of magic craftsmanship, by Salvador Dali.
    This book will teach you to paint. Not like Dali paints- you’d have to grow his mustache and marry his wife to do that. But to paint as YOU ought to paint, to devise your own techniques and rites, your own methods. This is an invaluable book.
    “Dalí presents 50 “secrets” for mastering the art of painting: “the secret of sleeping while awake,” “the secret of the periods of carnal abstinence and indulgence to be observed by the painter,” “the secret of the painter’s pointed mustaches,” “the secret of learning to paint before knowing how to draw,” “the secret of the painter’s marriage,” “the secret of the reason why a great draughtsman should draw while completely naked,” and many other Daliesque prescriptions for artistic success.”
  • The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh.
    A book which will make you examine WHY you make things. WHY you do what you do and why you love it so much. It may make you think about the impermanence of our work, about how money can get in the way of your muses. It may also make you very glad you have patrons who buy your art.
  • Composition of Outdoor Painting, Edgar Payne
    I know it’s about landscape. But you can apply these compositional rules, which are broken down fully and well, to ANY subject. He even adresses ‘odd shapes in canvas’, which applies very well to our work. Plus, if you’d like your backgrounds to be more than just “black blob” or “some swirly shit” you’d better learn a bit about the topics he covers. This is the expensive book here, but it is well worth it.
  • Ruler and Compass
    t’s a small book, and a bit simple, but it gives all the information you need to work with geometric forms without doing actual math. I should probably repeat that sentence, but I won’t.
  • Cold Reading in Counselling and Psychotherapy
    This book is all about learning to read your client’s minds. Seriously.
  • Women Artists, an Illustrated History
    here will be dozens of artists in here whose works you love but who you have never heard of. It’s a good read for art history in general, and discusses how craft and art have merged recently, as well (THIS APPLIES TO TATTOOING, YO)
  • The Practice and Science of Drawing, by Speed
    This book is all technique. All the tricks you can’t figure out are in here. Just get it.
  • The Elements of Drawing In Three Letters to Beginners, Ruskin
    If you are new to drawing without reference, if you rely heavily on images/stillframes/reference photos, if you just started thinking about becoming a tattoo artist…this book will give you basic skills. If you are further along, it will help you develop a practical work ethic beyond showing up to the shop on time. It’s really excellent information and advice.

  • Art Fundamentals
    Has good color theory sections, and if you like that comic style stuff this will encourage you to be more brave.
  • The Mission of Art, by Alex Grey
    Goes deeper.
  • Dynamic Anatomy, Hogarth
    I know, everyone loves Loomis. And rightly so, he’s great too. But for tattooing? The ENTIRE Hogarth series is perfect, His book on light and shade absolutely will change the way you use your outlines, your edges. This book on anatomy will make your ability to follow the form of your skin canvas way better- simply understanding the engineering underneath the skin will change the way you place tattoos, the forms you use to draw them. He’s suited for us in a way Loomis, who was drawing fr flat panels in square boxes, could never be.
  • Designing Tessellations
    Yeah it says it’s for “quilters”, but that’s horseshit. It’s for us.
  • Notan
    A very simple book that will help re-set the light meter in your head, making you more interested in, and capable of using, differing contrast in your work. Really worth the read.


full (4)Merry Movember, folks.