Tattooing for maximum longevity and minimum blob--tell me about yours.
January 14, 2015 2:10 PM   Subscribe

YANMTA (You Are Not My Tattoo Artist): I'm getting a tattoo. I absolutely know what I want, where I'm going (though I haven't been to the parlor yet since it's out of town) and this is definitely happening. What I want to know is how your (or your friends') fineline or scrimshaw-style and/or tattoo with lettering looks 5, 10, 20 years down the line, with regards to thinking ahead with design.

Tattoo will be on the left flank, willing to go as large as the artist thinks necessary, within reason (5"x7" is probably my max). Looking for a black and white scrimshaw or woodcut style. Artist will design image based on the elements I'm asking for and samples. Questions for you:

1) I'm not sure how much fine line/detail to ask for or sign off on, due to concerns I'll be left with an indeterminate blob instead of at least a decipherable blur after 10, 15, or 20 years (I don't care much beyond that). Is it a bad idea to get something this detailed, instead of a more "open" scrimshaw style--both of which appeal? Is pointillism a good or bad thing?

2) I'd like to incorporate text very much (4 word caption at bottom), have read prior threads here debating font size necessary, but if you have text in your older tattoo, I'd like to know how it's holding up with the inevitable ink spread. How small is too small, if I want it to be legible for at least the next 15-20 years? (Yes, I've read this too.)

Yep, I'm paying for a very good artist with a great portfolio and reputation who will be my primary advisor, but I'd like to know going in what your ink looks like after those first super sharp years.
posted by anonymous to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have no tattoos myself, but I'm an extreme minority in my group of mostly-very-heavily-tattooed friends (age range early 30s to early 50s and oh holy crap we're all getting old, so some of their tattoos have seen a lot of wear), some of whom are tattoo artists themselves. In my observation, tattoos that tend to stay looking the best the longest are blackwork only with thick, solid lines, on people who stay out of the sun, and use high-SPF sunblock and moisturizing lotion near-religiously.

I know all tattoos will need touchups eventually, but on my friends, shading seems to get blobby or indistinct faster, and anything with large color patches tends to fade unevenly. Thin lines and small dots that are close together tend to blur pretty quickly. "Faster" and "quickly" are obviously used in relative terms, here, since we're talking about decades!

All experiences vary. Some people's skin seems to hold ink better and longer than others, and the skill of the artist has a lot to do with it too, of course.
posted by erst at 2:26 PM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

1. Leg is a decent place, just because it won't stretch much (unless you gain or lose a very large amount of weight), and it will be (presumably) protected from the sun.

2. The tattoo might look alright in 20 years, but it certainly won't look the same in 20 years. All tattoos bleed/fade/smear. Big, simple shapes survive time better than small, delicate lines. A scrimshaw/fine-line/pointillism tattoo will fade/turn into something with a very different feel in 20 years. There's really nothing you can do about it. With regular touch-ups (5 years or so), you can have a tattoo that you'll still like in 20 years, but you won't end up with an unchanged tattoo.

3. Same goes for text.

Source: Lots of tattoos and tattooed friends and tattoo artist friends.
posted by DGStieber at 2:46 PM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Flank is good! Black only is good!

Black line pieces are very simple and durable. Things that will age less well are: lots of colors, lots of shading, lots of very light grey, lots of tightly spaced lines). Pigments will migrate, slowly, but good tattooists know this and will advise you on it based on their skill set. The "detailed" image you shared is likely fine for most artists--the light grey will be the first thing on it to fade out, but that design is strong enough that it won't render the piece unpleasant. The "open" design will last even longer, and that's why most classical tattoo designs are based on very bold outlines. Nevertheless, the edges of it, too, will migrate out and get fuzzy over time.

But with "over time," I'm talking decades. If you want, I can send you a pic of my decade old ribcage mockingbird, which has held up remarkably well (and is all black with a lot of shading). She gets loads of sunscreen, but otherwise care is minimal. I've gained probably 10 pounds in that decade, so I shoudn't gain any more for fear of damaging the design permanently, but you get the picture.

Text size: as long as you're not doing tiny, single-needle stuff, you'll be fine. Some of this single needle work is really popular right now, but... there are already some examples of how quickly it can turn to shit out there. That said, there are some (possibly overhyped) masters of the craft whose work still looks good after lots and lots of time, on average, so as with all things tattoo you should have this exact chat with your artist before committing to the bleedy part.

Congrats on your soon-to-be ink!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:58 PM on January 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you memail me, I'm happy to send pics of my tattoos, about 8 years in. Half sleeve and hip. I went with all black ink, and as large as my artist wanted, specifically for longevity's sake. I have some text (cursive and print). The text is two words maybe...1/4 to 1/3 an inch tall? I'm very pale, and they've only seen the sun maybe 20 times because I'm paranoid (it's so funny how the grownups always cautioned about the permanence, when I've mostly worried about the impermanence because I love them so much). I think they look fine still? Definitely legible. Maybe a tad smudgey? I could just not notice though.
posted by unknowncommand at 3:02 PM on January 14, 2015

Oh, mine are maybe halfway between your detailed and open examples.
posted by unknowncommand at 3:20 PM on January 14, 2015

I have a sleeve of black Celtic knotwork. The oldest is an arm band that was done twenty five years ago, all detailed fine lines that are close together. Today it looks like a dark, muddy mess.

When I got most of the other knotwork done, about twelve years later, the artist warned me that fine lines don't age well and even though the arm band looked alright at the time (it was beginning to fade), it wouldn't stay that way. He wanted to go much bigger and bolder than I had originally planned. Every time I have a good, thoughtful look at my arm, I am so thankful that he knew what he was talking about and I listened to him. All the knotwork he did still looks fabulous fourteen years later.

Fine lines aren't necessarily something to avoid, but they do fade and blur with time. Fine lines that are close together, which happens the smaller a piece is, will blur together and not just look fuzzy--they will look like a different tattoo. In the first picture, those leaves will eventually lose the detail and look more like a solid, shaded leaf.
posted by chaoticgood at 4:12 PM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have a shoulder tattoo that I got in ...1994 I think? Blue not black but all one color. And I still have it. It used some shading not specifically pointillism and it's on my shoulder. Was out in the sun a normal amount of time. I'm very light skinned. It still looks fine. Like seriously look at this image. You can only tell that the one on the right is the old photo (mostly) because it's an old GIF! Not super complicated, none of the lines are really thin but there is some subtle shading that held up fine and most of the open spaces are still open. I had a very good artist do it, which may matter, but I've been pleased (and a little surprised) that it did not get bloblike.
posted by jessamyn at 7:14 PM on January 14, 2015

I have strictly blackwork. The type-text on my forearm from ~7 years ago looks like it was letterpressed there yesterday. People frequently ask me if it's really a tattoo, because it doesn't seem possible. However: I am allergic to the sun and my skin is pretty moist. I'm medically goth.
posted by sweltering at 7:55 PM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have some fairly delicate all black line work (rotating spirals) on my right bicep that I had done in 1996. (I can't believe it's been 19 years). While it has faded and is not sharp black the line work did not turn into a blob. It is still distinct. I could probably get it touched up..but it's just not as important as it was in my college days. Other friends' tattoos that were put on about the same time have faded pretty significantly but they used multiple colors.
posted by Benway at 6:26 AM on January 15, 2015

I've had tattoos for 11 years. My newest ones are around 3/4 years old. I have thick outlines and simple colors and they still look amazing. I stay out of the sun and wear 100SPF outside.
Don't get anything super detailed, don't get anything too small, go for thick outlines, so not get anything without an outline because it will blow out and age really badly.
posted by shesbenevolent at 7:08 PM on January 15, 2015

Here's an interesting video that looks at tattoo removal but also explains why tattoos fade over time. Maybe there are specific inks that have larger pigment particles and which fade less quickly. I think I'd research the highest quality ink possible.
posted by guy72277 at 12:38 AM on January 16, 2015

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