Help me think of tattoos
January 24, 2012 11:52 AM   Subscribe

Help me find inspiration for my tattoos

First things first, I know it's a bad idea to get tattooed if I'm not committed to the design/image etc, and I know that others won't be able to *tell* me what to get. Let's assume for the purpose of this discussion that I am getting tattoos regardless of the pitfalls, and that all I'm looking for is some guidance in terms of where, from my own life, or art, or anything under the sun I can get inspiration for for something I would want to get. I'd be happy to hear stories about how others chose what they had done, see pictures of interesting work etc.

I'm planning on starting relatively small, getting one on my arm, and eventually working towards half-sleeves on both arms. I have a few ideas in mind but no specific images that really jump out at me. I'm not really interested in any religious symbols, nationality symbols, anything commercial, fantasy stuff (dragons, whatever) or people. I have no real interests or hobbies or defining aspects of my life that would qualify for something like this (or at least, nothing that comes to mind). I'm mostly hoping that by people talking about where they got their ideas from, something might hit me. I hope that isn't too chatfilter-y. Again, I know you're not going to be able to tell me specifically what to get done and I'm not really looking for that.

Short version: what are some non-obvious sources of inspiration for tattoos? Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (31 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The Science Tattoo Emporium (and the resulting book, previously on the blue) worked for me.
posted by supercres at 11:57 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Very simply put: my tattoos are my life.

What are your most outstanding memories? Not necessarily the good ones. What are your clearest memories? What are the events and influences that shaped you? How did you become who you are?

And who do you want to become?

That's the symbology you're looking for. Once you know the story you're telling, you'll be able to find the symbology to express it. That symbology may or may not be obvious to others, but it will be to you - and your sleeves will grow as your life progresses. (Which tends to be the inevitable progression of tattoos, no matter what your original plans might be. People who start getting tattooed have a strong tendency to keep getting tattooed, pretty much indefinitely. Just so you know.)
posted by mie at 11:59 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

My full sleeves are based on artwork from the series of books I loved as a child. I also have pictures from comic books tattooed.

I have a set of birds on my chest that I got because I really liked the the WWII era tattoos, and I don't love them, and then about 2 years after I got them, they became wildly popular.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 12:00 PM on January 24, 2012

...Okay, yeah, I see where you say you have no interests or defining aspects of your life. That's bullshit. You did not become the person you are now in a void. People and things and events have shaped you - and for your own benefit, if not the tattoos, it would be a beneficial thing for you (for anyone!) to examine and reflect on exactly what those things are.

It's there. You're just not looking. Or maybe you're saying, "oh, but that doesn't count, it's trivial, it's unimportant, that happens to everyone." Doesn't matter. This is about YOU. Go take another look.

Oh, yeah: and my standard advice to everyone is - once you decide what you want your first tattoo to be, you should wait for two years before you get it; if you still want it, then go ahead and get it. You won't take that advice - nobody does, including me - but I feel obliged to give it anyway. ;)
posted by mie at 12:03 PM on January 24, 2012

Why don't you get a bunch of classic tattoos or pointless oriental artwork? I am not saying this scornfully; giant lotus flowers or carp usually look really nice on a sleeve.

Maybe you would be well served finding an artist near you that you like, and letting him or her have free reign.
posted by shownomercy at 12:08 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

By "nationality symbols" are you just thinking of flags/crests, or would you consider artwork? For example, Celtic sleeve tattoos. A lot of Islamic geometric design is beautiful and does not look religious in nature.
posted by desjardins at 12:16 PM on January 24, 2012

I got my first tattoo by wandering into a shop in Providence, Rhode Island, because the friend I was visiting wasn't feeling well and wanted to nap. They had a whole shelf of books of reference art, and I spent an hour or so flipping through it, found an image that I liked, and got it. I still like it.

And then I got a whole bunch more, for much more concrete reasons and with a lot more planning, but that first one popped the seal, so to speak. Go to a couple of shops, look at flash and artist's portfolios - it'll give you a better idea what kind of linework and detail is possible, and show you some of the range of styles. Talk to people about pricing, minimums, guarantees (my main artist gave free lifetime touch-ups for her own work,) that sort of thing. Ask friends about their tattoos, and about the process. There's no particular reason to hurry, and you may just hit on the perfect bit of Celtic knotwork or cartoon character or whatever and go ahead with it.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:16 PM on January 24, 2012

Find a tattoo artist you like and let them be creative.
posted by wrok at 12:18 PM on January 24, 2012

Maybe take a look at some of the books listed here. My boyfriend has several tattoos and some of them he just found by flipping through books and getting ideas about what he thought might look good.
posted by jabes at 12:23 PM on January 24, 2012

Short version: what are some non-obvious sources of inspiration for tattoos?

Periodic Table of Elements
Latin conjugation of amo
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Königsberg bridge problem
All playmates of the year
posted by pracowity at 12:25 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

About 20 years ago my roommate at the time decided to get a tattoo. She spent a great deal of time researching designs and coming up with a plan. Her boyfriend at the time had a tattoo parlor he and his family used a lot in Laguna Beach, CA so she decided to make the trip there from LA (not too far) and asked me to come in support. I'd be thinking about getting a tattoo for some time, and decided, sort of last minute to get one, too. I pick a black cat textile design from the Met. museum that I'd always loved. So, we're in the store and my friend, who is getting a large, elaborate design on her back is led off to a back room. I get set up to have my design tattooed on my ankle. As I am sitting there getting tattoo'd with the outline already done, I sense someone standing behind my shoulder watching. It is my roommate! She had opted out of her tattoo! I went ahead and finished mine. I still love it.

So, the moral of that story is...I'm not sure. But I guess don't get too caught up in planning and pick an image you really like and can imagine living with for the rest of your life.
posted by agatha_magatha at 12:30 PM on January 24, 2012

I feel like there's a huge trend lately to come up with some deeply-infused meaning behind one's body art. I like art for art's sake.
posted by sugarbomb at 12:31 PM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I too am all about art for art's sake, especially for tattoos. That said, my tattoos are chiefly related to my hobbies/passions. I have my roller skates on my leg, some knitting across my chest, and a particular image of origami cranes that "speaks" to my life philosophy. The next one I'm planning will be mostly ornamental with a bit of a reference to my commitment to yoga.

So basically my point is, think about things you like, and don't sweat whether or not they are important enough to be tattoo material.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 12:42 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ignore all deeply personal things. A tattoo doesn't have to represent getting out of a bad relationship with flowers representing each sibling and a vine chronicling your journey through grad school with a portrait of deceased pet and thorns on the vine for hardships yet to come.... etc etc etc.

Pick something you like and get a tattoo of it. Find a good artist whose style you really like, get reference materials: photographs you like, paintings, motifs, various patterns, etc. and take it to the artist.

One piece of advice: if you want big pieces you might want to plan them out in advance as a cohesive whole rather than getting a bunch of small things gradually. Smaller pieces integrated into a larger whole can look good, especially if the art skews more traditional where those things are common, but big pieces take some planning no matter what. I have an entire limb I've dedicated to the small stuff so I can have big projects everywhere else.

Get things that reflect where you are in your life right now and you'll look back on them in the future with fondness regardless of whether it's something you'd choose to get tattooed on you 20 years from now.
posted by mikesch at 12:43 PM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

For my tattoo, I browsed Fuck Yeah Tattoos for days and days and weeks and weeks—not to find something to copy, but to find elements I liked and elements I didn't. Every once in a while I would hit upon a "yes!" moment—a style of drawing, a technique, a color, something—and would incorporate it into my own. I started out with no inspiration at all beyond "I like tattoos and I want one" and am now SO happy with what I have (and am planning on getting more as soon as I can afford to!).
posted by good day merlock at 12:44 PM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

(Note: there are a lot of horrible tattoos on that site, too. Which can be equally inspiring in its own way!)
posted by good day merlock at 12:45 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why not start with something decorative? You could look at traditional Japanese or Americana tattoo styles and see if anything leaps out at you.

I used to get tattooed by a guy who says if you want a tattoo but you don't know what you want, you should get Chinese characters or something tribal. I don't think that goes anymore. I say start with a ship. It's a fine traditional American tattoo image, has nice symbolism to it, and it won't be hard to work into a sleeve.

Another idea: Is there a book you liked when you were a kid? Get an illustration from it.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 12:48 PM on January 24, 2012

A polar bear rubbing vaseline on Henry Kissinger
posted by jjmoney at 12:55 PM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

People always ask me what my tattoos mean, as though there's supposed to be some deep artistic/intellectual/personal meaning to a tattoo.

I tell the truth: None of them mean anything. I got them because they're ridiculous, and make me laugh every time I see one. (I would tell them this even if they did mean something, though. Few things sound more pretentious than people explaining their tattoos.)

if you want a tattoo but you don't know what you want, you should get Chinese characters...

posted by coolguymichael at 1:05 PM on January 24, 2012

I have actually seen some really wonderful tattoos on Pinterest, of all places.
posted by oh really at 1:16 PM on January 24, 2012

I'll go against much of what folks have said here - as someone with a lifelong fascination with tats, and who got my first one at age 35, I tell folks that it's essential to think of tattoos as revealing what's already there, versus adding something external. Based on the history of body art, that seems to be somewhat consistent with how those who take them seriously, have thought about them over time. I would NEVER get something that wasn't deeply personal in some way, but not something transitory - core truths about myself are what I focus on, hence my tagline about them being "ingredients as marked". In the end, you'll do whatever you want, and get whatever strikes your fancy. Just make sure not to skimp, save and go with the lowest bidder, something you will eventually regret. This is one item where you should be open to paying more for quality.
posted by dbiedny at 1:21 PM on January 24, 2012

Book illustrations! Do you have, or can you remember, any books from your childhood that with illustrations? I was always a bit of an book magpie, but I started there.

Like you, I wanted a tattoo long before I knew what to get. All I knew is that I didn't want it to have incredible symbolism or meaning - just something I knew was going to make me more happy than sad when I saw it.

I ended up with a ladybird on my leg. Originally, I wanted more than one but after being diagnosed with psoriasis I got scared of the koebner effect.

Now my ladybird has a name (Moe), and he reminds me to love my skin.

Moral: tattoos will develop meaning after the fact.

On preview: I agree with oh really - Pinterest is good for this stuff.
posted by dumdidumdum at 1:22 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a nature-related tattoo (for no reason other than yay tattoo) and am about to get another. I think it's okay to release yourself from the pressure that tattoos have to have meaning, unless you specifically WANT yours to have meaning. As others have said, it can just be art for art's sake. When people ask why I got a tattoo of wisteria and butterflies, I tell them, "Because it's pretty." Some of my sources (leaning towards the natural illustration/vintage print aesthetic I like) include:

George Glazer Gallery
Philographikon Antique Prints and Rare Maps
John James Audubon illustrations
Antique Botanical Prints from Panteek

Find a really good artist that does the kind of work you like, and trust him/her. I was lucky to fall in with a fantastic artist for my tattoo. I begin my second piece with her in just under a month and I'm so excited. I gave her some source images of things I liked (not necessarily all the same thing or style) and we sat down for a consultation and worked out a shared vision. She's not afraid to say what won't work, or what she would be willing to do but doesn't recommend. I trust her completely. Now she's sending me sketches to get my feedback and tweaking the design from there. That's the kind of tattoo artist you want to work with, especially if you don't really have your own strong vision for what it should be.
posted by misskaz at 1:23 PM on January 24, 2012

yeah, people ask me what mine means, and I just shrug and say I like the patterns. I spent quite a while looking at other people's tattoos and getting a feel for what I liked and didn't like - if you don't know a lot of tattooed people, going to a tattoo convention is really useful for this and will also introduce you to artists who work in the style you like. I only figured this out a couple of weeks ago when I went to my first one for entirely different reasons and came back with three or four cards and a hankering for some hand-done Polynesian geometrics. Anyway. I learnt that I liked blackwork and grey shading, smooth curves, straight lines, abstract shapes and geometric patterns. I don't like colour or things that are things, if you see what I mean.

So I started out small with a bunch of fairly shitty line-art stars, and then I fell in love with the geometrics but the guy whose work I love has a huge waiting list (here, if you're interested), and eventually I got sick of feeling like someone had drawn on my arm with a biro and lucked on an artist who's awesome and really experienced, and now I'm currently healing a bunch of abstract smooth tentacles on a background of Japanese-style waves and patterns which takes up most of my upper arm and integrates my shitty old stars which is nice because I like how organic it feels and how it's grown with me. This arm is going to be organics and curves and my other arm is going to be geometrics when I can get in with Tomas, maybe with a few little tentacles or something thrown in to tie it together with the other arm's stars. Ooh, and I could get the stars filled in with geometrics. See? Off and running.

Warning: this shit is not cheap. If it's cheap, you're doing it wrong.

TL;DR - it doesn't have to be deep and meaningful, just get a feel for the kind of art or motifs you like, find a good artist and go for it.
posted by corvine at 2:01 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Illuminated manuscripts provide good inspiration for this sort of thing. Many of them have excellent swirly flowers and vines and things in the margins, like this one for example.
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:02 PM on January 24, 2012

*Grin* Audubon ftw!
I also looked at Pinterest, watercolor paintings, and an extremely heavy Naturalists' World type book in Barnes & Noble with beautiful art that seemed halfway between science and children's book illustrations.

I brought with me 3 or 4 printed examples of what I wanted and awkwardly described a couple elements that stood out to me. Don't underestimate that your artist will probably realize the idea of what you're going for even if it's not fully fleshed out in your mind yet.

Now I have a beautiful octopus with purple and blue tentacles, tons of little detailed pink suckers, and a bright yellow eye. It covers my shoulder and writhes somewhat down my arm, reaches out a little past my shoulder blade, and brushes delicately an inch or so along my collar bone, a little curlicue reaching past most shirt and dress necklines that seems to wave and say, "hey, how's it goin'?"
posted by DisreputableDog at 2:44 PM on January 24, 2012

If you're truly a blank slate you can retroengineer it a bit and research artists first. Most good artists in your area will have portfolios online, and oftentimes looking through them can give you ideas of what they do well, which can give you inspiration and inform your design.

Make note of elements you like and talk about them with the artist. Any artist worth his/her ink will work with you to put together a sketch and fill out your vision, and you probably should be able to have a consultation beforehand, especially if it's a big or intricate piece.

You specifically asked for anecdata, so: my mom and I wanted similar tattoos, but we weren't sure specifically what to get. We paged through portfolios and both fell in love with one guy who did beautiful floral work. So now I have a big old flower on my hip and she has a slightly smaller one on her calf in a different color. Is it a formulaic thing to get a tattoo of? Sure, but we've both been told independently that our tattoos look like Impressionist pastels, and I love seeing mine every morning when I get dressed. I wouldn't change a thing. Don't get hung up on the meaning. It's fine to want a beautiful tattoo for its own sake.
posted by superfluousm at 2:59 PM on January 24, 2012

My tattoo is a pretty complicated symbolic tribute to my childhood and "heritage" (though the word makes me choke a little). The way I usually explain it is that irises grow wild on the bayous of South Louisiana, just like me.

A longer story is that for a long time I thought about getting the fleur de lis symbol as a tattoo, and then Katrina happened and everyone from New Orleans started getting them. So I decided to go literal.

In general, I like the idea of a tattoo symbolizing life events and the places we've been. Right now I'm trying to come up with a second tattoo to commemorate my twelve years in New York. I'm pretty sure I want this one to be typography or words of some kind, which means I'm scouring just about everything in literature that reminds me of New York, is personally significant, and which I think would make good body art.

So I guess my advice to you is think about where you've been in life and what makes you who you are. The best tattoos are personal and specific.
posted by Sara C. at 3:36 PM on January 24, 2012

After years of wanting a tattoo and not knowing what I wanted a tattoo of, it occurred to me that I'd like an albatross on my forearm, partly for self-deprecating reasons (which I'm still OK with, because that was Who I Was, but feel that another tattoo of some sort to balance it out might be in order by now) and partly as a reminder to myself to not shoot my albatross. Also, the albatross can fall asleep in the air while it is flying across the Pacific Ocean, which is important. Having multiple meanings or "meanings" is not a bad idea, in case one of them should cease to appeal to you. Are there any animals you identify with? Animals can look good. Elliott Smith had a nice Ferdinand the Bull tattoo. I google image searched "albatross" and found a Japanese painting I liked the looks of, printed it, and took it to an artist whose book I'd looked through at the studio my friends liked. She made a sketch that was slightly more tattoo-suitable, I gave it the OK, she made herself a sort of seram wrap stick-on with ink on it to use as a guide, scratch scratch scratch, and hooray I have been very fond of this bird on my arm for five years now.
posted by Adventurer at 5:24 PM on January 24, 2012

This skin intentionally left blank.
posted by pracowity at 1:34 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I regret my tattoos. I am 35, if I could go back and remove my sleeves I would. I have never admitted that to anyone, but I do. If you are under 30, I would wait until you are 30, and then decide :)
posted by thelastgirl at 9:24 PM on February 13, 2012

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