Monday, May 27, 2013

What Makes a Good Tattoo Design



 It took me some time to wrap my head around the idea that there was a difference between art and tattoo-art... the kind of art that makes for a good tattoo design.  Especially with the equipment and the talent that is now the norm in the industry, a tattoo artist can tattoo practically anything.  For a while there was even a trend were people were getting replicas of classical paintings tattooed at a size smaller than a $.25 piece.

 It is impressive, but not a very good tattoo design.

 When you are selecting a tattoo design or are designing a tattoo, the first thing you need to understand is that a tattoo is meant to go in skin; not on paper or canvass.  Notice also that I said "in skin", not "on skin".  The tattoo process uses a needle to insert ink carried (not injected) into a space several layers deep in the skin; just below the current living layers of skin while being close enough to the surface to be seen through those most external layers. 

 The ink is a foreign body in your skin.  Your skin does not want it there, and just like it does with any foreign matter in your body, your immune system will take steps to remove it.  White blood cells attack the ink, carrying it out of your skin via the blood-stream, eventually converting it to waste.  What the body cannot carry away or bleed-out it surrounds with a layer of protective cells meant to keep the foreign body (ink) from spreading to other areas.

 This is how tattoos achieve there permanence.  It is also one of the principals used in laser-tattoo removal; the laser helps break up the ink and these cell-barriers, making it easier for the body's immune system to continue to carry it away.  Natural sunlight, given enough time, will achieve the same result... it is just that most people will not live that long as the process is extremely slow.  It is ongoing throughout your lifetime, which is why tattoos fade.

 Because tattoos fade, it is best to have a design that features bright colors, usually defined by a solid black line.  Muted colors or colors closest to your skin-tone will fade the fastest, at least visibly.  Artist shy away from tattoos that are white for this reason.  That white-tiger tattoo might sound like a bad-ass idea, but after a few years you may have a skin-colored tiger requiring a touch-up to make it vibrant again. When white is used in a design, it is generally surrounded by a much darker color.  This helps to highlight the fact that the white spot is white (contrasted against a black background) and helps the spot continue to appear white even as the tattoo fades.

 The skin is also alive.  It changes in time.  It shrinks and stretches, wrinkles and folds, gets thinner and thicker, and the cells are in a constant state of cycling out old skin for new.  This constant transition forces the tattoo to also change in time.  Along with fading, this process causes tattoos to blur.

 To help keep a tattoo looking sharp even years after its application, a good tattoo design avoids fine detail.  The closer two lines are in a tattoo, the greater the likelihood in time that they will merge into one thick line.  This is part of the reason why old-school tattoos involve relatively simple designs (that, and back in the day most work was done free-hand with equipment that didn't run nearly as smooth as modern machines... artists literally drew a design that they had drawn thousands of times before from memory right into the skin).  The loss of fine detail can be a boon down the road, especially with portrait tattoos, but for most other tattoos the details will be lost in time.

 A good tattoo design, when accounting for fading and blurring, uses contrast to help define the design.  The most effective means of contrast is the black-line.  Black ink fades and blurs just like any other ink (usually to blue or green... a true black pigment is almost non-existent in nature), but over the years, when contrasted with the lighter color within its borders, a black line creates the illusion of a defined shape.  This, again, is why old-school tattoos used black-line as the primary means of definition.  Old-school tattoos were meant to last the ages and withstand the ravages of time and the changes in skin.

 Those little classical paintings replicas fade and blur into a glob of meaningless color quickly by comparison.

 Finally, a good tattoo design is designed to the "canvass" it is being applied to; the area of skin it is on.  Ideally, a tattoo design should fill the space it is in.  Budget constraints aside, a shoulder tattoo that fills the space looks much better than one that floats in the center of the shoulder.  Most of the typical areas of the body that are tattooed are oval, or rounded in some way, such as the shoulder, the pecs, and the calves.  Forearm or shin tattoos tend to be elongated.  The design should compliment and cater to the shape of the body and its natural motion.  As the body changes, this will also help keep the tattoos appealing appearance. 

 So, to re-cap, a good tattoo design: 

 -Uses bright colors to resist the effects of fading.
 -Avoids fine details to account for eventual blurring.
 -Makes use of contrast, in particular a black-line, to define shape.
 -Is designed to the area of the body that the tattoo is to be applied.

  Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him an email at tattoonerdz@gmail.com

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