The ultimate tattoo dilemma – what do you get? How do you come up with a tattoo design? Where do you start? How can you be sure you’re going to like in five, ten years? Wonder no more! We talked to some of our artists to gather the best advice on how, exactly, you can come up with a tattoo design idea that you’ll love forever. This doesn’t just apply to brand new tattoos either, these tips can be used if you’re looking for ideas to cover up old tattoos as well.
From where you want your tattoo, to what style you should get, find out what our artists suggest you do to come up with your ideal tattoo design inspiration, so that your artist can take it from there and bring your idea to life.
Think of Where You Want the Tattoo
The first step in coming up with a tattoo design, according to Christine V., an artist at Custom Tattoo Design, is to determine where you want the ink to go, “First thing would be to decide where on your body you want your tattoo, and what size. The placement determines the shape of the tattoo design, and the size determines the level of detail that can be included in your tattoo”. This is important, because an intricate design with a ton of detail may not fit in a small-scale tattoo, so location is a key component in the beginning stages of the process.
CTD art director Jen L. emphasizes this point, “you will need to work with the space available. Larger designs, like full sleeves and full backs, can handle the most elements and the highest level of detail. While smaller designs, like a wrist piece for example, will be constrained by the size”.
She wants to be clear that you can still find a happy medium, regardless of what you thought you wanted initially, “A simple [tattoo] design can be just as beautiful as a complex design; it is just important to manage your expectations when it comes to the detail versus the size”. Before you have your heart set on something too specific, talk to your artist about what you have in mind, as “they will be able to give you a realistic idea of how much you can fit within your desired space”.
Choosing where your tattoo is going to go on your body is the best place to start, even before you come up with inspiration for a tattoo design.
Consider What’s Meaningful to You
Once you know where you want to get your tattoo, it’s time to think about the visual elements you want involved. Christine V. suggests you keep in mind “what… you actually want in your tattoo, what personal meaning will it carry?” She advises against getting too literal with your design if, at all possible, “Sometimes it is good to consider more metaphorical symbolism, and not just go with a literal theme or idea. Being a bit more subtle and symbolic will yield a more personal and unique tattoo”.
Christine D., another artist at CTD, believes that if you’re looking into getting a custom design, you already have some kind of inspiration in mind – even if you don’t consciously know it yet, “…it is pretty rare for someone to simply get a custom tattoo designed ‘just because’… There is always a trigger for the desire [to get] a tattoo”. She goes on to explain:
When someone seeks an unique design, made just for them, it is a sign that there is something very special that they feel connected to, and that they need to make it a visible part of themselves, but…the person [doesn’t always have] a clear picture of what they want, sometimes what they have is just a feeling. And how to put a feeling into paper?
Which is where working with an artist comes into play. “A tattoo is always more than a piece of artwork, it is an inspiration”, says Christine D., so she encourages potential clients to think about what inspires them, whether it be music, art, someone special in your life, or a symbol to represent your own personality and experience.
Jen also recommends you think about what’s meaningful to you, because tattoos are “such a personal form of self-expression”, you could take inspiration from: one of your favorite places, animals, flowers, people you want to celebrate or remember, significant moments in your life, hobbies or media you enjoy, your heritage, mythology that resonates with you, or any symbolism that you feel connected to.
If you can’t decide on just one theme, don’t worry, Jen says, “tattoos… don’t necessarily need to have one driving theme in order to be a beautiful piece of art. If you are having trouble focusing on one theme, you can always incorporate several themes and elements into your tattoo”. There a few different techniques that an artist could use to do this, like, “we can use filler elements (like clouds, waves, flowers, etc.) to tie all the elements together into a cohesive whole, or just draw everything in a specific tattoo style which will unite all the disparate elements”.
Tattooist and CTD artist Andy W. echoes the idea of going with something personal, “so that it will mean something for the rest of your life”. He would not, however, advise going with a spouse’s name, “Personally, I think a partner’s name is a bit risky, as anything could happen”. But that person can be inspiration for a symbol that represents your relationship, and make for a unique and lasting tattoo.
There’s a ton of room for creativity and expression through art when you’re coming up with a tattoo design idea, but choosing something that is meaningful to you personally increases the chances that you’ll be happy with the tattoo in the long-term, as opposed to getting a trendy, ‘current’ design done.
Decide on a Tattoo Style
Next, says Christine V., “you will need to decide on the style. First, color, or no color? The internet is such a great source of ideas and showcases all the myriad of tattoo styles out there. Browsing ideas and themes is a good way to figure out what style you like, and which you don’t like, and perhaps what looks you can combine within a single tattoo”.
Jen recommends this approach as well, “it is a stellar idea to do a little research on tattoo styles to see what style you are most drawn to. Common styles are: American Traditional (Old School), Neo-Traditional (New School), High Realism, Trash Polka, Japanese, Geometric, and Tribal”. She advises not to be held back by any specific style, “any artistic style that you like can be translated effectively into a tattoo design. We have had clients ask for more fine art styles, like Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and even Abstract Impressionism. There are no rules when it comes to your own body canvas”.
There are a number of different tattoo styles out there, so research as many as you can to find out which ones you prefer. After looking at them and comparing, you’ll notice you lean toward one particular style over the others, and that’s likely the one to go with. If not, you can always combine particular elements that you like about individual tattoo styles, and incorporate those into your tattoo.
Bring it all Together
The very last stage of coming up with a tattoo design, according to Christine V., is taking what you’ve decided, “then it’s just a matter of throwing all your ideas together and seeing what comes out of it”. At this stage, you want to get an artist involved, so that they can visually create what you’ve had in mind. This is why it’s important to think about all of the previous elements before contacting an artist. Christine D. explains that when you’ve considered your source of “the client gets a better understanding of himself and then, we artists can start to participate in his vision, allowing us to create a custom tattoo design in the image of the person’s thoughts and inspirations”.
From here, it’s just a matter of going back and forth with your artist, with the drafts they create for you, until you’re 100% happy with the final product. This may take several revisions, and it may take none, but don’t settle for a tattoo design that you feel even a hint of doubt about. Request the changes you want, and you’ll be better off for it.
4 Basic Tips From a Tattoo Artist
If you want to get a tattoo, but that’s about all you know, then Andy has some advice. He suggests four tips on making sure you choose the right design for you, so that you’ll love it in the long-run:
- Don’t get one until you are sure [about the design]! It is something you are either going to love all your life, or hate until you’re dying day.
- Spend a long time deciding [on a design idea]. Trawl the internet for as many designs around the area/type of design you are thinking of.
- Ask a graphic artist to graft designs you like on a photo of your body, so you get a rough idea of what it would look like.
- Get it individually designed – unless you are set on a design you have seen on a flash sheet. The more personal it is, the less likely you are to want to change it later on.
Tattoos don’t always need to be meaningful, but if you’re looking into getting a custom tattoo design done, chances are you want to immortalize something that’s important to you. By starting with the placement of your desired tattoo, then getting to the root of your tattoo inspiration, and finally, researching tattoo styles that you like, you’ll be on track to getting the best custom tattoo design for you.