Tattoos. We see them everyday. Some are beautiful. Others are downright horrendous. Some commemorate loved ones who have passed, while others mark the passage from adolescence into adulthood. They could be a sign of faith, or a sign of rebellion. Tattoo artists are the graphic designers of the body. One thing is for sure; tattoos are the ultimate form of self-expression, and their permanence makes them an integral part in self “branding”.
The process of marking one’s body dates back thousands of years. The earliest known evidence of permanent markings was thought to be on Egyptian woman, but in 1991, the infamous Iceman was found. Along with a variety of Stone Age tools, the Iceman was found with markings on his body, successfully making him the oldest know instance of what we presently call ‘tattooing’.
The earliest forms of tattooing were crude, and astoundingly more painful than today’s process (which still hurts by the way, if someone tells you it doesn’t they’re lying). Archeological evidence shows that primitive tattooing equipment may have consisted of sharpened bronze points set into wooden handles. The point would then be dipped in ink and pounded into the skin, leaving the ink in the space created by the point. In other cultures, markings were achieved by cutting the skin with a blade, and then rubbing ash and other material into the wound, so that the residue would stay behind as healing process took place.
Presently, there are three pretty well-known tattooing processes. From the ‘point-and-stick’ process that’s popular in traditional Asian areas, to the traditional hand-tap tattoos popular in Polynesian cultures to the classic mechanized tattoo machine which is what most of us think of when we think of tattoo equipment. All three processes all run on the same principle, the needle (or needles) is dipped in some form of ink and then inserted into the skin. The needle penetrates the epidermis and deposits the ink into the dermis, which is why tattoos are permanent. If done incorrectly, either by not going deep enough or going to deep the tattoo can either fade fairly quickly or take on a raised appearance due to scarring.
Now, you may be wondering what tattooing has to do with graphic design? Well, a large part in good tattooing is the proper placement and overall design of the tattoo itself. A good tattoo should take into the consideration where the tattoo is being placed, since the shape of the body can greatly affect how the finished tattoo looks. For example, an artist wouldn’t want to place something with a lot of straight lines on a part of the body that has a natural curve, like a bicep or calf. A piece like that would be more suited to go on an area that has a large surface area such as the ribs, thigh or back. This can be related to the job of a graphic designer because we too have to take placement of things into consideration every day. Think of it as installation advertisement.
We wouldn’t want to run text across the gutter of a magazine, unless there was an extremely good reason to do so, and we certainly wouldn’t want to place key text in a place that would be unreadable. Likewise, a tattoo artist should take into the consideration the shape of the area that said tattoo is going to be placed, and fit the image accordingly. As a designer, fitting images into areas that are both appropriate and visually pleasing are a daily task. We wouldn’t try to fit an inherently circular image into a composition that was primarily angular. It may work, but nine times out of ten, it would make the whole piece look unbalanced and awkward.
Color is another huge aspect of tattooing, and graphic design. In school, color has a heavy emphasis, as it can set the whole tone for a piece and induce certain emotions. The same can be said for a tattoo. The artist wouldn’t want to choose colors that don’t match the clients skin tone, whether they’d be too bright or too dark, the colors can make or break a tattoo.
Finally, we come to text. Lettering is a HUGE portion of tattooing, making up probably 75% of all tattoos. In a sense, tattoo artists have to be typographers. Designers are taught at length about the dos and don’ts of typography, but tattoo artists don’t receive that education the same way designers do, so their skills are in a sense intuitive. Setting a seven letter word that’s going to be displayed across someone’s chest is just as difficult as setting a seven letter headline. With the headline, the designer has multiple chances to make changes, whilst the tattoo artist only has the sketching phase, because once the stencil’s on there’s no going back. If there’s too much space between those letters it looks sloppy, if there’s not enough space, the tattoo becomes unreadable. The same stands in the design industry. Oh, and make sure you tattoo is spelled correctly.
To conclude, tattoo artists and designers have a fairly similar job. Both work for clients, are presented with an idea that the client wants conveyed visually, make permanent marks (one on skin, the other on paper). Both professions need to be aware of positioning, the shape of the space, how color (or the lack of color) is going to affect the piece, and how text should be treated. A good tattoo artist is probably 60% graphic designer and 40% illustrator.