Tattoo filter
October 28, 2014 12:36 PM   Subscribe

I want to get a tattoo! I know almost nothing about tattoos. I need some help picking out a design based on some very specific parameters.

I'm probably going to get it on my right upper arm. As far as symbolism, I want some representation of death, temporality, the transitive nature of life, etc., in a positive way that isn't a terrible cliché. Example clichés: the Ouroboros, yin-yang. An obvious and appealing choice is some variation on a skull, but that can fall into cliché territory as well.

I will admit to an extreme fondness for China Miéville's tattoo. I don't want something quite this large, but the design is unique, colorful, and has a personal meaning, and I like the anatomical realism of it. Skull tattoos can veer into cartoonish, hillbilly biker gang territory, and I definitely don't want that. Are there some skull designs I should look into?

Or... maybe something completely different that I hadn't considered. Could I take this idea to a local tattoo artist and ask them to come up with some designs? If so, what kind of cost range should I expect?

Also, it needs to be said that the point of choosing a death symbol isn't to be morose. I've just been through a period of personal struggle with health issues and I want this to be a way of symbolically reclaiming my body. I have always had an interest in mythological representations of death and I think this will help me remember to make the most of life. That said, I don't really care if the design comes across as morose to most people, it's more about the meaning I place in it.

Note: I am a dude.
posted by deathpanels to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: How about some variant of the winged skull found on many early American gravestones?
posted by Rock Steady at 12:44 PM on October 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

First, spend some time researching tattoo artists in your area. A lot of them will have online galleries of their work, so you can find one whose style appeals to you. Depending on the size of the thing you pick, a tattoo covering your upper arm might be in the $300 - $500 range... but this varies between artists. DO NOT GO CHEAP - you get what you pay for, and it's going to last a lifetime. Also, the tattoo artist is just that - an artist. I strongly recommend you work with the artist to come up with a custom design, rather than picking out a picture for them to replicate. The most beautiful tattoos I've ever seen are ones where the artist was given pretty much free rein to design after some criteria were discussed.

If you want to look up some neat tattoos to get a feel for what you're interested in, sign up for Pinterest - there's a whole sub-category on there dedicated to tattoos. Best search engine there is, IMO.
posted by lizbunny at 12:44 PM on October 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Could I take this idea to a local tattoo artist and ask them to come up with some designs?


Start out by researching tattoo artists in your area. Anyone worth your money has an online portfolio; look at ALL of them, and save examples you like, noting the artist's name and the name of their shop. (Pinterest is actually great for this- here's my tattoo board for NYC area.) Once you've IDd a few artists whose stuff you like, go in and tell them what you want. Generally (if the person is drawing new art for you, which is what you want), you'll come in, tell them what you want (giving examples), and then come back later to approve the design and then get tattooed.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:44 PM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

An hourglass? Or a candle?
posted by Laura_J at 12:47 PM on October 28, 2014

A phoenix, perhaps rising from ashes?

Also, yes, visit every place nearby and talk to the artist whose portfolio is either best to you or most like what you are going for (you will find that artists typically self-identify in to "schools" or specific styles). You want the place to be clean and the people to be nice.

Then, I would try to bring as much visual inspiration as you can. Things like Pinterest, google image search and "flash"( that all of these places will have books of) are great for this. The final bit is to have an artist of your choosing put something custom together and go after it!

Good luck (and post, or at least MeFi mail me, the results)!
posted by milqman at 12:56 PM on October 28, 2014

Best answer: Can I give you some advice? DON'T start from "symbolism". Start from imagery you actually like.

It's fine if it's symbolic to you. Both of my tattoos are meaningful to me in specific ways, and the new tattoo I'm planning will be important to me as well. However, I'll definitely say that the symbolism of my tattoos has faded over time, and in a certain sense they have taken on new meanings as new things happen in my life. I would be pretty unhappy with my tattoos if I'd just picked some random placeholder design because everybody knows swallows represent travel or whatever.

If you decide to go symbolic at all, be specific. I got my iris tattoo because irises grow wild along the bayous in my hometown (and the artwork is reminiscent of that), as opposed to getting a fleur de lis or an outline of the state of Louisiana, or some more esoteric symbol of "home".

Find something that speaks to your ideas about death and temporality, not a list of correspondences from some book. That's what makes skulls and ouroboros and Asian imagery such a cliche -- people pick them because they supposedly represent something, not because they actually represent a specific idea that the person with the tattoo actually has about real life.

(OTOH I would totally get something related to the classical concept of the Memento Mori, if I wanted to get a tattoo about this.)
posted by Sara C. at 1:03 PM on October 28, 2014 [10 favorites]

Response by poster:
If you decide to go symbolic at all, be specific. I got my iris tattoo because irises grow wild along the bayous in my hometown (and the artwork is reminiscent of that), as opposed to getting a fleur de lis or an outline of the state of Louisiana, or some more esoteric symbol of "home".
If there were a single image that was a visual representation of "Don't get precancerous skin growths and die" I would just go with that, but it doesn't translate so easily.
posted by deathpanels at 1:25 PM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

dan bones does crazy mandalas.
posted by entropone at 1:29 PM on October 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: But I get what you are saying, Sara C. You don't want to end up with a clumsy metaphor on your forearm for the rest of your life. I actually hate most tattoos that I see which makes me cautious when picking out a design for myself.
posted by deathpanels at 1:35 PM on October 28, 2014

Try searching for "Memento mori" images. In terms of the tattoo artist, the advice I've heard is to look at the artist's work and pick the worst tattoo they have - would you be happy with that tattoo? Do your research on tattoo schools of design and don't cheap out. If you're looking for hyper-realism, you probably don't want an artist who mainly does traditional, and so on.
posted by ghost dance beat at 1:46 PM on October 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

For a piece like Mieville's, you're going to come with elements or ideas of elements and have the artist work them into a full piece, not least of all because something like that needs to flow with the body.

So yeah, look at artists' portfolios and pick the one that jumps out at you (there will almost certainly be at least one). Schedule a consult but don't feel locked in just because you got the consult. A personality match is just as important-- your artist should be able to give you elaborations or reworkings that really tell you that you're on the same wavelength. Plus, you have to sit in incredibly close quarters with him or her for, I'm guessing, at least 4 hours.

And I would ballpark it in the range of 100-200/hour if you're in a city. Possibly less in the winter.
posted by supercres at 2:23 PM on October 28, 2014

Cherry blossoms are a traditional symbol of the fleeting nature of life, and they can look great as a tattoo.

I'll also concur with the others who suggest consulting with the artists in your area. Near me, in SF - I'd recommend Seventh Son.
posted by bashos_frog at 2:25 PM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Memento Mori" and "danse macabre" are things to look up if you're considering skulls/skeletons — there's so much wonderful and surprisingly joyful art out there (much of it from the middle ages, but also tons of more recent stuff). Consider this or this or this. I personally think woodblock-print-inspired tattoos are absolutely gorgeous.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:08 PM on October 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

While it's worth traveling to get a great tattoo, keep in mind that if it's larger, it may take more than one session. So flying across the country may be out, unless your heart is absolutely set on someone.

Asking strangers about their tattoos can be fraught sometimes, but if you have inked friends, they could be a good place to start. Or they may know of someone. While looking through portfolios online can help, I have found the best success by asking people who they'd recommend. People with tattoos seem to know other people with tattoos, so even if they didn't go to someone for theirs, they have a friend who did.

And yes, bring concrete images to your artist, but also discuss what you want it to represent ("Here are some skull images, and also some rebirth images. It doesn't need to be any of these specifically, but I want a tattoo that incorporates both these ideas"). You may have to have a consultation/design discussion one day and do some back and forth and come back later for the actual tattoo.

The chemistry you have with your artist is important. If s/he isn't someone you want to spend a few hours in the presence of, probably not a good fit, regardless of how great they are. Same with the shop itself. It's worth it to be relaxed and comfortable.

Good luck!
posted by darksong at 3:13 PM on October 28, 2014

Best answer: According to your profile, you're in Chicago. I HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend Caroline Moody at Family Tattoo on Belmont - she's done 2 of my tattoos, and I'd travel back to Chicago to see her for future ones. She is that good. She does amazing colorwork and has a light hand.

I have no thoughts on the subject of your tattoo, though, because it's yours and mine just kind of ... slam me in the face when it's time.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 3:44 PM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's something different you may not have considered: pointillism

I love the way it looks.
posted by gentian at 5:40 PM on October 28, 2014

Cherry blossoms are a lovely idea. Your tattoo might feature not only a branch, but also petals scattered across another object (perhaps that skull you like), or in puffs of wind.

You can try mining haikus for transient images, and ways to mix them into a tiny scene. E.g.:

Dry cheerful cricket
chirping, keeps
the autumn gay . . .
Contemptuous of frost

If you find a haiku that catches your fancy, you could even take the haiku to the tattoo artist, and ask them to sketch ways to put it on your arm (e.g.: a cricket silhouette against a frosted red leaf, crowned with a musical note?), which may help show how and whether their talents can gel with your style.
posted by feral_goldfish at 6:51 PM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

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