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Designing the Perfect Tattoo With Your Artist

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How to design a tattoo that's perfect for you.

How to design a tattoo that's perfect for you.

If you've never gotten a tattoo before—or even if you have!—you might not know exactly what you want or how to get it. This article will answer the following questions:

  • What if I don't know what I want?
  • Do I have to know what I want before I go?
  • What are my motives for wanting a tattoo?
  • How do I choose a style, color, design, and placement?
  • How do I make my design unique and personal?
  • How will my artist participate in the design?
  • How can I communicate effectively with my artist?

Each of these questions is answered below.

The perfect tattoo is both meaningful and beautiful to you. Get some advice on how to choose the right design and communicate with your artist.

The perfect tattoo is both meaningful and beautiful to you. Get some advice on how to choose the right design and communicate with your artist.

Do I Need to Know What I Want Before Getting a Tattoo?

Yes. Your assignment is to have a solid idea of what kind of tattoo you want—or at least have something solid to start the conversation with your artist. One of the best ways to ensure you get the tattoo you want is to bring in a picture, but as long as you choose a capable artist and show up with a solid idea, your artist can help you develop the style and placement.

What If I Don’t Know What I Want?

No matter how good your artist is, they will not be able to tell you which tattoo is best for you. A tattoo artist’s pet peeve is being asked to design a tattoo for a customer who doesn’t know what they want. This is an image that you will have to look at for the rest of your life! If you are stuck for ideas, you need to put more thought into it before approaching an artist.

But There Are So Many Cool Ideas, and I Can’t Decide!

Yes, it's hard to choose—this is why some of us have so many tattoos! Sometimes it is appropriate to play it by ear and go with the flow, like for something small or a collaborative project or friendship tattoo. But you and your artist will be much happier if the basic idea for the design comes from you.

To help you narrow it down, here are two helpful articles:

How to Choose Your First Tattoo

What Tattoo Should I Get?

It also helps to understand your motive for getting a tattoo.

11% of people who opt NOT to get a tattoo do so for religious reasons.

43%: "To Honor a Loved One"

43% say that their tattoos are to memorialize a loved one.

To honor a mother, child, sibling, pet, or other beloved figure.

37%: "For Aesthetic Reasons"

37% say they got tattoos for aesthetic, cosmetic, or style reasons.

To accentuate or decorate a body part or cover a scar.

25%: "For Personal Meaning"

25% of those surveyed said they got a tattoo to mark a significant personal experience or struggle.

To mark a memory, honor a relationship, or mark a difficult or triumphant time.

12%: "For Self Expression"

12% say that their tattoos are an extension or expression of who they are.

“My body is a book, my tattoos are my story.”

"A rose is a rose is a rose." —Gertrude Stein

"A rose is a rose is a rose." —Gertrude Stein

Now That You Have an Idea, What Do You Like About It?

Say you saw a beautiful black-and-grey rose placed perfectly on a hip. You bring a photo of it in to your artist. You like the piece, but you don’t want to copy it. Roses are nice and all, but maybe they don’t mean much to you.

Is that enough of an idea? Sometimes that is enough. Some people stop there. They may end up with a nice tattoo, but not something that they are completely thrilled with.

Will the Artist Create a Design Just for Me?

If you are lucky, your artist will take it the rest of the way, but you should not depend on your artist to do this for you. Like you, artists have 365 days a year that could be good, bad, or busy. They are often running their own business as well as tattooing and struggling to make time for their families. They have multiple clients each day, and it can be challenging to connect with all of them.

So, using the rose example above, ask yourself some questions. What do you like about it? What do you dislike? How could you make it more meaningful? Maybe you realize that you like the placement above all, but you want the image to be different in some way.

A Rose Isn't Just a Rose

Different styles of bloody roses.

Different styles of bloody roses.

A yellow rose with twining leaves on the shoulder.

A yellow rose with twining leaves on the shoulder.

Time for a Brainstorming Session!

  • Do you prefer color, black-and-grey, or monochrome?
  • How could you personalize the design of your rose, such as by emphasizing the thorns or adding a dagger?
  • Hmmm. . . that might sound cool in theory, but maybe on the body, that image would be too rigid. Consider changing things to get the flow you are looking for, like adding ribbons or something around it. Maybe you happen to be studying marine biology and the ribbons make you think of the tentacles of an octopus, and you wonder if that would work.
  • You approach your artist with the picture in hand and your ideas. . . and in the end, you leave the shop with a stunning eight-armed cephalopod mollusk gracefully posed on your hip. Win!
It is possible to achieve the same effect with your personal touch.

It is possible to achieve the same effect with your personal touch.

A Note About Communicating With Your Artist

Good communication is the only way to make sure you will end up with the tattoo that you are hoping for. You want to make sure that the picture in your mind is the same as the picture in your artist’s mind—or at least very similar.

Remember that we all have a unique frame of reference with which we view things. As you can see in the photos above, something as simple as a rose can be interpreted a million different ways. You may be thinking of a delicate, pink, watercolor garden rose and your artist may be thinking of a bright, dramatic, bleeding rose with a traditional hard outline.

Talk to Your Artist in Person

The best piece of advice I can give you is to stop by and talk to your artist in person. During a consultation, you can tell them what you're thinking so far and say you are looking for input. If you want the artist to draw something for you ahead of time, you should offer to pay them for their time. If you want to spend an hour of the artist’s time going through books and discussing your piece (if they have time for this), you should expect to make an appointment and pay them according to their hourly rate.

Which leads to other questions:

How do you pick a tattoo artist anyway?

Um. . . what are the different tattoo styles?

What are the things I will wish I'd known before I tattooed?


Brandon Hart from The Game on December 07, 2016:

If you're just starting out, would you get something small and meaningful or go with something bigger and, perhaps, more significant?

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 27, 2016:

Excellent article. I have a few tattoos, the largest of which is on my back. It started with a flash option on my right shoulder blade. I changed the colors so I wouldn't have the same tattoo as everyone else who goes into a tattoo studio and chooses items from the "coloring book".

Two of the additional pieces I had put on my back were drawn by artist friends. But having three tattoos on strategic parts of my back, did not a design make. Then I met a champion tattooist who was the friend of a guy I was dating at the time. He took an ink pen and tied the three tattoos together to create a cohesive design.

It's beautiful and I haven't regretted it for one minute.

It took a few years to complete the "mural" on my back (I could only withstand and pay for an hour at a time), but each time I went back, the artist knew the original design and carried on. He never made a stencil. He simply re-drew the design and went from there. That's a true tattoo artist. No flash needed. No outline stenciled onto the surface.

Tattoos are forever and need to make a statement. Make sure it's the right one. As you age, your body changes and so does what's important to you. Think about that before you embark on the body art journey.

My back mural is over 30 years old now and the only thing I regret is the rolls I've developed with age. I still love the design and what it says about me.