I’ve heard this from too many people. People who got a tat which now feels like a ‘mistake.’
And I get it.
Whether it’s misinterpreted artwork, or a hasty tat of an exes name, tattoo mistakes are unfortunately common.
Getting inked can be a big decision.
Because although tattoos aren’t so permanent anymore, removing one can still be a b***h. No one wants to make a mistake with their tattoo, so the design, artist-choice, and more needs consideration.
Sure there are cover-ups and laser-removal, but to me, what feels best is designing such a great tat, and choosing such a great artist…
…that there’s practically no chance your tat can be a mistake.
Tats are powerful.
They can open doors, spark collaborations, and create deeply shared moments.
So if you design yours well, it’ll have meaning and impact. It’ll impress people, and most importantly, it’ll impress you.
Pour proper time, energy, and love into your tattoo design and it’ll be one of the best investments you ever make.
So many people get tatted on a whim, without putting thought, care, or love into their ink.
Breathe. Control the urge. Take the time to do a little self-reflection first. Because the better you know yourself, the better your tattoo will be.
Seriously? “Know myself?”
Yep. Embracing your personality, your quirks, and your flaws can turn mistakes into masterpieces.
What do I mean?
Understand what brings you joy. Often these are things you’ve loved since you were a child. Or they’re hidden things waiting for you to meet them.
Look at the people, hobbies, and values that make you happy. Jot them down. Highlight ones that stand out to you. The results may surprise you.
For example, Skylar impulsively got a tiger tat, regretting later as silly, meaningless. But if we take a look at her joy list, the meaning grows.
Sometimes fixing a bad tat doesn’t take work, or cover-up, or laser-removal, it just takes creative self-knowledge.
The tat of your high-school boyfriend may seem terrible, until repairing it becomes the reason you meet your tattoo-artist husband.
There’s countless stories of people who began with something ‘bad’, but which becomes a huge gift.
And if we use Skylar’s joy-list, we can inject a lot of meaning into her simple ‘tiger.’
If we have a good perspective, tat-fails can be a blessing we wouldn’t trade for anything, because they lead us to a truly fulfilling, joyful life.
So, with all that out of the way…
Creating meaningful ink is easier than most people think.
You already have the tools to design epic tats. Here’s 7 things you control that impact the meaning of a tattoo.
1. Lines – Curved, straight, open, closed, none, etc.
2. Color – Mono, duo, more, vivid, none, etc.
3. Size – Giant, full-back, half-sleeve, ankle tat, etc.
4. Location – Neck, finger, lip, calf, etc.
5. Typography – Font, size, weight, spacing, etc.
6. Content – Story, metaphor, layers, etc.
7. Artist – Designer, self-drawn, famous tattoo-artist, etc.
You may not know exactly how to use each of these now, but learning to tweak any of them can be a game-changer.
We’ll look at some examples together, then after we’ve explored all seven, hopefully you’ll be ultra-confident designing meaningful, beautiful, high-impact ink.
Lines are just lines… aren’t they?
You can have open lines, closed lines, straight ones, curved ones, thick, thin, frequent, sparse, crossed, separate, parallel, converging, and more.
Straight lines tend to be more masculine, curved more feminine.
Thick lines are used for emphasis and to draw attention to stuff that’s important. They’re often seen as ‘loud’ or ‘firm’.
Thin lines are used for detail, subtlety, and to add texture to things without overshadowing them. They’re often seen as ‘soft’ or ‘delicate’.
Keep this in mind when designing your tattoo, some line-types will suit your piece better than others.
If you’re a ‘badass biker dude,’ maybe you want extra bold lines on your giant eagle feathers. Or maybe you want the opposite, something small for that juicy contrast.
If you’re a playful, girly-girl, maybe you want fine, precise lines for your cute hummingbird tattoo.
Or maybe we wanna get extra creative.
Let’s say Skylar gets an artist to draw a gorgeous, roaring tiger across her back…
…using only thin lines.
“Hey Sky, why’d you get your tiger inked with all those little lines?”
“‘Cause I wanted to show how the most badass majestic animals… are actually a perfect blend of nature’s inspiring finesse & subtlety.”
You don’t need a crazy talented artist to do this. You just need to know that thin lines send a different message than thick, and then make sure that’s what is used.
Suddenly, Sky’s tiger fluff-piece has off-the-charts meaning, just from playing with the lines.
Imagine what you could do with color.
Color your world, or not, black & white works too.
Whether you get intensely colorful body-art or stick with shades of grey, have a purpose for it. It could be as simple as “My heart tat is purple ’cause purple is pretty,” but there’s room to go beyond that.
Using no color at all lets lines & shapes speak for themselves.
Using a tiny splash of color on a black & white piece can give focus to whatever’s in color. Using a rainbow of colors can signify inclusion, unity, acceptance.
And there’s many more color-meanings available.
You can even explore the psychology each color symbolizes and inject it into your tattoo design.
There’s sites & infographics that explore colors way deeper than myself, so I won’t get into it here.
These sites usually don’t talk about cultural meanings of color though. For example red means something a bit different in China than it does in America. So if you care about that you’ll have to break out some real Google-Fu.
Anyway, let’s say Skylar wanted to give her Tiger more meaning through color.
She could simply have an artist go back over the Tiger’s eyes in say… purple.
“Why’s your Tiger have purple eyes, Sky?”
“The tiger says I’m courageous… and the purple means I see life through imaginative eyes.”
(Note: color ink has unique properties and can look quite different on certain skin tones. See below.)
I thought it was ‘how you use it!’
Picture meeting a woman with a two fully-inked sleeves. Do you get a different vibe from her than one with a tiny butterfly on her cleavage?
I’ve never met anyone who said ‘no.’ So clearly, with tattoos, size does matter.
“Got so many tats, you can’t even count ’em up / In the shop every week / I can’t seem to get enough” – Wiz Khalifa
Basically, you want the size of your ink to send a vibe that matches your personality.
You can express mystery & have flexibility with a small, easy to hide tat. Express boldness & social rebellion with big, in-your-face ink. (ie: Rick “Zombie Boy” Genest in the splash photo above.)
Tiny tattoos often have a feminine feel, and big tattoos often have a masculine feel.
Either way, size counts, but there’s room to play around with it.
Say you get a giant chest-piece of scrolls, roses, & skulls, but hidden at the core is a tiny little musical note.
“What’s with the mini music-note in your chest-piece, Sky?”
“It’s about dancing to my own life’s rhythm no matter what my journey brings, and only certain people are aware of it.”
“Sheeeeeee-it, that’s awesome.”
It may seem like a small thing, but the size of your tat makes a big difference.
So there ya go, size on the ryze.
“I just want it somewhere it doesn’t hurt!”
Is Cara Delevingne the reason behind the ‘finger-tattoo’ trend? What does it say to people if your tat is on your neck? What about a half-sleeve’s message?
Lots of people know what they want their tattoo to be, but often the placement is whatever’s easiest.
I hear stuff like “I’m trying to make it hide-able,” or “I want somewhere that won’t hurt.”
But that’s not exactly ‘meaningful’ criteria. Personally, I’d rather hear this:
“I got a tombstone-happy-face on my hand because I want a visible reminder that we all die, and to make every moment count.”
“I got L-O-V-E tattooed on the inside of my middle finger, ’cause I wanna show love even when I’m flippin’ the bird.”
“I got Marilyn tattooed on my a$$ as a reminder to see my beauty, be inspired by beauty, and as a tribute to beauty.”
A powerful example is Billboard-charting rapper Fetty Wap.
Fetty has a missing eye.
But instead of covering it up, or getting a glass eye… instead he got ink on his face to draw attention to it:
“I don’t give a f**k, who cares, tats on my face…”
He owns his missing eye, flaunts it, and inks it up.
Where you place your tattoo is an individual thing, but as in our examples… I encourage you to think deeper about it. Exercise creativity. And if you want to explore tattoo placement further, this post from allwomenstalk.com is a decent start.
Hopefully these examples show you how changing the location of your tat can turn even a ‘standard’ tattoo into something truly compelling.
Next up, typography.
Text in tattoos can be telling.
And typography speaks volumes.
You could study typography for years and still not learn it all, but if you understood the lines tip earlier, you’re well on your way.
Bold, angular fonts send one message. Thin, curvy fonts send another. And then there’s various degrees in between.
You could just walk into a parlor and say “I want the word ‘Soul Sisters’ on my foot.”
Orrrrr… you could put some thought into the look & feel of the text. Extra intention & meaning.
For example: ‘Soul-Sisters’ in a heavy, headline font has a different meaning than ‘soulsisters’ in a hand-writing font. You have the freedom to choose one or the other.
Another possibility: Use one font for ‘soul’ and another for ‘sisters,’ then overlap them. Eventually someone’ll ask about the meaning:
“Why is ‘soul’ a big font in black, and ‘sisters’ in a handwriting font, in white?”
“‘Cause the soul is a strong foundation for sisterhood, and only in soul, are Alessia and I true sisters.”
“Nice! Now I want one, can I be a ‘soulsister’ too?”
And that’s just the power of two words.
Imagine adding in inspirational quotes or resonant phrases like “Carpe Diem” or “When we’re drowning, all water is an ocean.”
Point is, even a bit of typography can help add meaning.
Tattoo design from the inside out.
Most people understand that what you get tattooed is important, so make it a great outer-expression of who you are inside.
A simple ‘heart’ tattoo can be meaningful if you are a simple, loving person, and that’s what you wanna express.
In fact, Mashable covered 27 Meaningful Yet Subtle Tattoos For Introverts, which emphasizes this example.
But you don’t have to go simple.
It’s fine to go complex, add more subject matter. Let’s say our friend Skylar starts with a simple heart. But she also adds her star-sign in the middle. She then takes that, and puts it on a background of an inkblot.
“Hey, I get that you’re a Gemini, but how come your heart has an inkblot background?”
“It’s actually a splash of ink, ’cause my Gemini-heart is at the center of my writing.”
“Oh snap, that’s awesome, wish my tattoo was that cool.”
Adding more elements to her heart tattoo shows that Sky’s an affectionate Gemini who loves to write but who keeps life simple.
Anyway, when you’re thinking of what elements to include in your body art, even if zodiac signs aren’t your thing, consider these:
Animals have meaning.
Enneagrams have meaning.
Soul-Types have meaning.
Symbols have meaning.
Passions have meaning.
Geometry has meaning.
Glyphs have meaning.
Constellations have meaning.
There’s plenty of other things as well, but hopefully this list of elements gives you a jumpstart when designing your tattoo.
You’re smart, you’re resourceful, you’re creative.
You can sketch, brainstorm, or discuss these topics with friends and you may be surprised how meaningful your tattoo ideas become.
We’re on a roll!
Ahem, no ‘tats off the rack.’
Imagine impulsively walking into a Walmart, picking a design from the Walmart Tattoo Book, and getting inked by whoever happens to be available.
Kinda cringe, right?
Well, there’s no actual ‘Walmart Of Ink’ that I know of, but people do often get work done by the lowest common denominator.
They’re too rushed to seek out a quality artist.
And hey, going that route can be a big step for them. Maybe a quick tat is something they needed for their own growth & development as a person.
Like Skylar did, it’s totally fine to add meaning after the fact. You can make a tat meaningful, post-parlor, but that route isn’t my recommended route.
Go to a ‘true’ tattoo artist. You deserve it. When you choose one, you’ll feel pride. Identity. Self-worth.
Do you know anyone who absolutely adores their ‘off-the-rack jacket from Walmart’ for more than a couple years?
Sure, it can get you out of a jam. Sure, it can help you stay warm when you need it, but it’s not exactly an item of lasting pride.
Tattoos last— so hiring whoever’s easily available may not be your best bet.
In life, sometimes you buy a statement piece or favorite garment, and sometimes you buy a throwaway.
When dealing with tattoos, do yourself a favor and explore the world of tattoo artists before making any decisions.
Connect with an artist who’s personality, style, or creativity gets you psyched.
You have options.
You can aim high for a famous tattoo-artist at a designer studio, or you can connect with a local artist you believe in, or you can even do your own.
Here’s eight artists, each with their own style, to get you started.
Seriously. A great tattoo artist is worth their weight in gold.
It’s worth taking the time to find one. A great tattoo artist knows how to convey your message well. They know how to express what you want, often better than you do.
They’ve dedicated their lives to artful mastery over line, color, size, and the other principles of design.
So… you tell a great artist your story, and the meaning you’re going for, and they’ll translate it into something truly beautiful.
But beware, many artists prefer ‘minimal’ direction and as much trust and freedom as possible. And that’s a good thing. You want an artist with vison. One who doesn’t just ‘do what you think is best.’
You want an artist who takes pride in their work and style.
Find one where you can say: “I want a sexy, feminine tiger on my calf, please” and they’ll blow your mind with the results.
And the better idea you give them, the better they’ll do for you. Doing the same artwork every day is boring, and artists get excited when you present them with a fun, challenging design.
So even if you’re hooking up with a smaller artist or an artsy friend, as long as you both really care about creating an epic tat, you’ll likely get great results.
Great artists can easily turn down ‘fluff’ jobs, so the trick is to make sure your tattoo idea is enticing to your artist.
Because they’re usually in high-demand, and bold enough to turn down jobs that don’t sound inspiring or aren’t a right fit.
If you can tell a story that shows how your tattoo matters, that it offers creative opportunities, and that you’ve thought deeply about the things we’ve talked about here… that’s way more compelling than
“Uh, I think I want a rose please.”
And just imagine the chats with friends about your pro artist tat:
“Wow… Sky, that tiger tattoo is riveting! So elegant. Where’d you get it?”
“Oh, it’s a great story— I ended up collab’ing with famous Toronto-artist, Fabrizio Divari!”
“OMG. I. Can’t. Even— wait, is your tiger shaped like Africa?”
“Yep! That was Fab’s idea, cool eh? So honored to be a canvas for that genius.”
Better artists, better tattoos, better life.
You don’t have to do it all.
All this may seem like a lot of work to put in, just to get a tattoo.
It’s really not.
All you have to do is apply one or two of the tips and you’re on your way. Apply even a touch of the wisdom on this page and you’ll love it.
Fun, easy tattoos are fine, I respect ’em, but meaning is just so satisfying.
And if, after all this, you’re having trouble deciding on an image…
Nibbles has a fantastic tip. Take an image of the tat you’re interested in, and keep it in your sight for a month or two.
If you then feel the image represents the real you and you’re proud of it, it’s likely a good fit for permanent ink.
The tips are done, but here’s some tattoo resources. (Veterans won’t need these, they’re mostly for tattoo first-timers.)
I feel most tattoo mistakes are made by newbies and first-timers, so I figured I’d offer some resources that deal more with the nuts & bolts and practical steps of getting a tattoo.
Here’s some stuff that’d speak to me if I were looking into getting ink done. I’m pretty discerning with my sources, so hopefully my high-standards point you in the right direction.
Update: Marilyn La Jeunesse over at Mashable recently highlighted a brilliant product from “Momentary Ink” that lets you get gorgeous, color, custom-designed temporary tattoos that look and feel like real ink. Founder Jordan Denny says this allows for people to skip cookie-cutter tats and experiment with more meaningful designs, affordably and safely. 🙂
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