A New Generation of Fine Art Methods in Tattoo Design

Me tattooing Susana Raquel.
Me tattooing Susana Raquel; looks like it’s getting painful.


There are many things I am proud of and thankful for that have improved my adult life and my profession in the tattoo industry.

For years, tattoos were picked by the client off remade sheets of artwork called “flash,” during the days of traditional understanding of simple, clean designs that could go just about anywhere the client desired. These were priced by the piece and usually 3 colors.

More recently there has been an interesting divide from the “old boys,” a new generation of tattooers with fine art backgrounds that have been utilizing the wisdom of the great masters of the tattoo world and now the masters of the painting world.

Any artist would know the basic design elements: Color, shape, texture, space, form, balance, hierarchy, scale/proportion, similarity and contrast. In tattooing, these are mixed with the anatomy, placement wishes, colors wanted vs. actual skin tone, and still in keeping my own peace of mind, within my artistic style.

It’s not like drawing on paper at all.

It is so rare as a tattoo artist to be able to freely create a design that will compliment the client the most within my own style.

I have come from a more fine art background, and I still see these moving canvases explaining their ideas within so many restrictions. Here is the chance, the challenge, and why I am not a carrier painter but a master of puzzles.

Generally, before I even think of drawing, I take the client’s body form, skin tone, and tattoo concept into consideration. Obviously I am no longer in the world of a flat quiet canvas. I am now in the presence of an excitably nervous living thing. Humans all share common traits of burbling, coughing, twitching, farting and emotional spasms. A canvas stays still. So, after some time, I have found a couple of systems to work, and they even started to work with my fine art adventures at home. As I am describing these tricks, please keep in mind I am referring to all of the many worlds of art.

The first step in anything is the goal and in this case it’s the concepts. It’s the imagery that extracts feeling from subject, style and colors. On top of that, it’s about understanding what my clients like and where they want their tattoo. Most of them are not as excited as I am about words like “foreground” and “high contrast.” So I am there with pencil in hand to show my interpretation.

Sometimes I draw what my clients think is absolute colorful nonsense. But then they look again and I can show them a clean line on top; the nonsense is usually the directional pattern of their rib cage if it’s a side piece. I take their muscle structure and then add my twists to the piece in the end. I used these same loose steps to build up my forms when learning figure drawing. The only difference is that now I can draw on the figure itself.

To ease everyone’s mind and build confidences all around, tell yourself and your project/client that you will not settle until both are satisfied. This lets your client know that you won’t skimp out on doing your best work. This, most importantly, reminds you of your artist goal, not to rush, and to remember your education, experience, even your own creativity.

Next will be the assessment. What colors would work best on top of my client’s skin tone? How big of an area will it have to fit, and what space/anatomy/form am I working with? The scale and proportion are huge factors in tattooing because a tattoo changes and morphs just as much as the human skin does. Tattoo two long black parallel lines too close together or too small and ten years later it will become more of a black rectangle.

Tattooing is simply layering. If the client is dark with a warm hue, I won’t go crazy with too many cools. Dark blues or greens layered with clear makes dark blues or greens. Anything darker, they start to brown on top of the natural warm skin tone. Again, it’s basic color theory.

With these alone I can begin in my mind’s eye to incision a concept idea, the approach and style that will be best used for this individual, the lines I will use and how I’ll space them appropriately building the concept around and on top of the desired area. With the great puzzles, sometimes the pieces don’t fit, so I deduct the worst of the variables, making sure that the piece of art I create will fit the canvas perfectly.


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