Before we start, I’d like to observe a moments silence for upper right 7?
He’d been with me for most of my life but unfortunately our relationship had become painful so he had to go and that’s my way of saying that I’ve been to the dentist recently and I’m currently feeing a little sorry for myself! But, I digress. Lets get onto the main topic of conversation and thing I want to pull on your coat tails about and thats that there are only three tattoos
Honestly, this thought isn’t really a fully formed idea yet but I’m getting there and hopefully I’ll have it figured out by the end of this blog entry.

Here’s what I have so far.

I did an interview recently for a client of mine who is studying film in LA. It was an odd setup because they sent me the questions and then I sat and answered them – to camera – on my own. All the questions centred around the meaning behind tattoos. I figure the piece they’re filming is gonna centre around that but –  the way the questions were written IE: to force a certain response from me – just really annoyed me. Imagine sitting in a room on your own getting annoyed at a camera whilst  trying to come up with an answer that explains why tattoo meanings are something that – in my opinion – should be secondary to the decorative nature of the art. Fuck my life…
Ideally, every client should get a beautiful tattoo that means a lot to them. But what if I could only offer one of those two options? Would you choose beauty or meaning? Beautiful and meaningless or meaningful and cliched or worse meaningful and ugly?
The opening scene of  the movie Collateral Beauty (great movie – see it) with Will Smith includes this monologue;

"Love. Time. Death.
Now these three abstractions connect every single human being on Earth.
Everything that we covet, everything that we fear not having, everything that we ultimately end up buying is because at the end of the day we long for love, we wish we had more time, and we fear death"


Do the meanings of all tattoos fit into those three categories? I think they might. Does it give us some insight into why the current iconography and semiology of tattooing is as limited as it is?
And by that I mean is that why we keep getting asked to tattoo the same stuff over and over again? Ask yourself when was the last time you saw a truly original tattoo? Not just in it’s style but also in it’s content?
If there are only 3 themes and if only certain things will be tattoo-able AND look good on the body
and if the things that are tattooable will go in and out of fashion, is it any wonder that tattoos go through ‘fads’ and phases? But it’s not the clients fault when every TV show out there incorrectly tells them that you have to walk into a shop with a printout of what you want and get the artist to copy it instead of saying find your favourite artist and work with them to come up with something that is both original in its execution and has meaning. So we end up with an endless parade of sameness because the images or ideas that clients choose to get tattooed are already really limited by the 3 themes, whether they’re tattoo-able and if they’re in vogue.

Love, Time, Death

Rose, Pocketwatch, Skull.

Rinse & Repeat

Something that I personally think we’ve lost from tattooing is the outsider culture and the semiology that comes with it. Traditional, ancient and even prison tattooing styles have always had their own deep and rich meanings attached to objects and images in Japanese tattooing a Dragon represents the Protector in traditional tattooing a Flick-Knife actually means love thigh neighbour and the number 13 is actually Lucky.
But, as tattooing has left the underground and become mainstream, mainstream ideas have diluted the rich history of tattoo iconography. The rise and recurrent presence of the social media ‘echo chamber’ also compounds the problem. In a world where everyone confirms their importance to humanity based on their ‘likes’ anyone could be forgiven for thinking they are at the centre of the universe just as long as they never confirm this in the actual world – you know, the one were you’re not a rockstar anything just another human in the machine. This sense of self importance and the search for meaningful images that relate to an ordinary life in a way that the Sistine chapel tells the story of nine scenes from the Book of Genesis can ruin an otherwise great tattoo.
Every artist I know has had this type of brief; the client has come up with something ‘totally original’ and wants you to draw 300 women dressed as giant crabs battling in space using 10,000 oranges as ammo ‘to represent my family’ and every single element HAS to be included whether it fits or not. Physically or thematically.
My record for this type of overthought brief is a 37 page annotated PDF of text along with a powerpoint presentation of images! In this situation the client could potentially end up with an ugly, unsuccessful piece all because they have been badly informed by tattoo TV. No problem – it’s only permanent right?

So what do I do to avoid this situation?

Well, I talk to my clients. Contrary to what you may think I really like having a brief to work to. I’m a designer so it’s, kind of, what I’m used to and it makes life very easy for me as I don’t have to second guess myself. But creating a brief is quite hard. Most people don’t have to brief a creative (tell a tattooist what they want them to draw) very often – if at all. So I get that it’s a difficult thing to do especially if it’s the only time you’e ever done it!
So, to get the ball rolling, I explain my 3 themes idea – because even though it’s still not a fully formed thesis it’s a great way of getting clients to focus on the idea and not the image – and try to get us both on the same page. During the consultation process I attempt to drag a brief out of them in exactly the same way that I did with clients when I was a designer.
I find that if I can get a client talking and then listen, ask questions and suggest original imagery that can have various meanings attached we can usually arrive at a place that suits us both. In fact some of my favourite tattoos that I’ve done have come about in exactly this way. We discuss all the possibilities for their piece in an attempt to avoid the ‘battle of the space crab women’ and get to something that is artistically beautiful and tells their story in a new way. I often explain that meaning and imagery don’t necessarily have to be linked and use examples like the “flick-knife = love thigh neighbour” thing as an idea of an abstract concept.
Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth (see what I did there?) but these days I can usually get a decent brief from a client over a coffee. So If you’re thinking of getting a tattoo, don’t bother getting a load of images together or anything like that. Just decide which one of the three themes your tattoo falls into and come and have a coffee. We’ll figure it out, together.
Until next time, take care.
P x