Areas of Illustration

Exercise: A tattoo


Mummified skin, ancient art and archeological finds of possible tattoo tools suggest that tattooing has been practised since Neolithic times. The tattooed body of Otzi the Iceman is said to be the earliest discovery which dates between 3370 and 3100 BC. Other tattooed mummies have been found all over the world.

In many countries, tattoos were used to mark or punish people. In China, Persia, Greece and Rome, tattoos were used to mark prisoners, criminals and slaves. Despite being initially practised for spiritual and decorative purposes in Japan, a tattoo became the mark of a criminal. Tattooing was banned altogether in 1868 in Japan.

Tattooing has long been a tradition amongst indigenous tribes around the world. For these people, religion, spirituality, ritual, nature and myth were all bound up in their tattoo culture. For some tribes, tattoos were used to ward off evil spirits. The photo below left shows an Ainu woman of Japan tattooed for this reason. Photo:

The photo on the right shows ‘Kayan woman with hornbill, ‘shoots of bamboo,’ ‘guardian spirits,’ ‘dragon-dog,’ and tuba root motifs that are all believed to repel evil spirits. Floral imagery, symbolising spiritual powers and relationships, permeates every facet of Kayan life. Plants are regarded as a major kind of living thing, sharing the same fundamental properties of life and death as humans’. Krutak.L

The Mentawai tribe of Siberut Island believe that by decorating themselves in imagery of beads and flowers, they ensure that their souls will wish to stay inside their bodies in order to be surrounded by the beauty.

For people suffering from medical complaints, tattoos were seen as a healing balm. “In the northern Philippines, tattoo artists tattooed markings on the throats of patients suffering from goiter or other markings on the backs of individuals plagued by skin disorders.’ Krutak.L

In Papua New guinea, women were adorned with ritualistic tattoos from head to toe, while men had them on theirs chests to show conquests in head hunting. The motifs used were mostly animistic, ‘The tattooed tribes of coastal Papua seemed to prefer abstract motifs of natural subjects, and those of falling objects (stars), flying birds, especially predatory birds (Frigate bird, hawk) or other creatures associated with movement and predatory habits (like centipedes, serpents, and crocodiles) were quite common.’ Krutak,L. (2005). All photos:

The word ‘tattoo’ comes from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ and is said to have been introduced into the English language by Captain James Cook after seeing tattoed indigenous tribespeople on his voyages to Polynesia. Botanical illustrator Sydney Parkinson documented some of these tattoos for Cook, and in particular, ‘show us how the Mãori, with their traditional Tã moko tattoos were seen.’ Hardy.L. (2017) The images below show some of his illustrations, which are thought to have had a certain amount of artistic license used.

As more and more was discovered about indigenous tribes, so the interest and fascination in their tattooed bodies grew. Tattooing became a tradition amongst British seamen and sailors and became fashionable in the upper classes during the Victorian era. Since the 1970s, tattoos have continued to become more and more socially acceptable in the UK.

Tool and Techniques

Hand tapping was one technique of primitive tattooing. Tools for this technique varied greatly between tribes. the photo on the left shows carved tools in the style of those used by tribes of Borneo. In the centre you can see a simple tool made from wood and bone and the photo on the right depicts some modern replicas of traditional hand tools from Bali. All photos taken from the book ‘Tattoo. An Illustrated Miscellany’ by Lal Hardy. In addition to examples like these, hand tapping tools were made from thorns.

Another form of tattooing was skin cut tattooing in which the skin was cut with iron tools and a pigment rubbed in. Tattoo pigments were made from natural ingredients such as plants and oil from animals.

Hand tattooing is still practised in areas of the world such as the Pacific region and Asia and demand foe it is growing in western cultures. Most contemporary tattooing however, is done by machine.

In India, which has a rich and interesting tattoo tradition and culture, city tattoo studios create beautiful artworks, however the price of a tattoo in these studios is too high for most people. For them, a visit to one of the hundreds of the roadside tattooists is a cheaper alternative. these tattooists use hand made machines and often work in unsanitary conditions. The photo below is of an Indian hand made tattoo tool and is taken from the book ‘Tattoo. An Illustrated Miscellany’ by Lal Hardy.

The Artwork - Tattoo styles

Traditional western/ American - This style is characterised by thick black outline and bright colours, usually the primary colours plus green. The imagery is typically skulls, roses, daggers and eagles.

Traditional Japanese - This style is similar to traditional American in that is based on solid black outlines and bright pops of colour. Japanese mythology and folklore is often referenced in the imagery which typically features dragons and other mystical beasts and warriors. nature also features heavily with images of tigers, waves, flowers and Koi fish.

Realism - Art in this style is much more realistic than the two previously mentioned. The black out line doesn’t feature and there is a lot more colour shading in a wider variety of hues and tones. Black and grey is a form of realism in which tones of grey are used to create depth and shading. Portraiture is usually done in a realist style.

Illustrative - This is a mixture of traditional and realism and uses black outlines and lots of colour.

New school - This is an illustrative style on steroids! It is typically highly caricatural and animated.

Bio- mechanical and bio-organic - Both of these forms use pattern to mirror body flow and inner working. organic tattoos combine imagery of earth elements, animal and human anatomy while bio-mechanical features the anatomy of humans and machines. If depicting human anatomy, the tattoo is often placed over that part of the body. These tattoo styles seem to combine illustrative and traditional styles in their use of black line and colour.

Lettering - There is a huge range of lettering tattoos, from very simply lettered to hugely decorative and stylised. Some incorporate lettering and images. Although a more traditional form of tattooing, lettering is still a popular style, perhaps because it has the power to communicate so much meaning.

Neo traditional and Neo Japanese - Both of these styles are modern twists on the traditional American and Japanese styles. They incorporate more realism with the use of more colour and shading.

Surrealism - Influenced b y surrealist painters, this type of artwork has different images meeting each other, intermingled in totally bizarre and unrealistic ways.

Polynesian - The Polynesian tribal tattoos I referenced earlier are still sought after. Th photos shown below show some modern versions.

Watercolour - These tattoos use watercolour instead of the traditional tattoo ink. They are bright in colour and a large part of their effect is the way in which the different pigments blend with each other. They look particularly effective when coupled with black ink. Imagery is often of animals and flowers.

Henna- Henna tattoos are made from the dye of the henna plant and painted onto the skin. They are not permanent. Henna tattoos are most commonly associated with India where the artwork and piping style is called Mendhi. They are also common in Arabic countries where the designs tend to be softer and more floral.

The brief for this exercise is to design a tattoo based on the word ‘mum’. Before I started generating ideas, I wanted to look at the history of the ‘mum’ tattoo which has become quite iconic! It is said that the mum tattoo can be traced back to sailors during the traditional western tattoo era. during the 19th and early 20th century, mum tattoos tended to be memorialistic as shown below left. It grew in popularity throughout the 20th century even featuring on a New Yorker cover in 1993. Traditionally mum tattoos are centred around a heart with the word ‘mum’ written in a banner across it.

Contemporary mum tattoos are a lot more varied.


Hardy, L. (2017). Tattoo. An Illustrated Miscellany. London. Robinson

The tattoo based around the word ‘mum’ for this exercise is for a friend who also wants to make the image into a Mother’s Day card. There is no indication of the likes or dislikes of the friend’s mother which makes choosing content for my design tricky. I could do my own version of the traditional mum tattoo, base it around the lettering of the word ‘mum’ or something completely different connected with mum. I made a mind map to help generate some ideas. I thought about motherhood and what it means to me. I also researched animals that make good mothers and symbols of motherhood.

Once I had generated some ideas, to help me choose one, I thought about the style of tattoo I would like to design. My illustrative style lends itself well to watercolour tattoos and the illustrative style tattoos. Watercolour tattoos tend to be quite feminine in content and design. The content tends to be of birds, animals, floral and magical. The pigment is applied in a loose manner that creates a floaty quality. Black ink is used, but it tends to be to indicate the shape, rather than outline everything.

With this in mind, I chose a blue tit and bellflower as the content for my watercolour tattoo. Blue tits are considered very good mothers and the bellflower is a symbol of unwavering love which is something mums have. I thought these two elements would work well together to create a tattoo in this particular style.

I started with some quick observational drawings of blue tits and bellflowers, then made some thumbnails. These helped me work out how best to position the bird and flower to create a flowing movement through the design. I found that it looked most effective when the line of the blue tit’s wings and tail followed the line of the bellflower stalk.

From there, I created a colour visual. This enabled me to practise some technique in applying the watercolour in a way that would resemble a watercolour tattoo.

To create the final artwork, I used Indian ink to provide some black outlines. I kept these to a minimum because I wanted the watercolour to be able to move freely without boundaries.

I used the wet on wet technique to add the watercolour and allowed the different colours to merge into each other. I also use paint splattering to add movement and life. The watercolour didn’t come about as vibrant as it does in watercolour tattoos so I made some adjustments in photoshop. Two different versions are shown below.

In addition to the watercolour tattoo, I also wanted to try out a more traditional style, somewhere between traditional American and Illustrative. Looking back at my mind map, I chose to include a vulture and yellow cactus flower in the design. Traditional American tattoos feature harsher content than watercolour, often depicting things like birds of prey, wolves and daggers. They also use a lot more black ink and outline everything.

Although the content is harsher, I didn’t want to depict the vulture in a scary way . I chose it because an image of a vulture was the Egyptian hieroglyph for ‘mother’ so I thought it important I depict it as such. I chose the yellow cactus flower because it is a symbol of motherhood. I used a photo for reference for the position of the vulture and added the flower in to look as if the vulture is looking after or ‘mothering’ it.

I chose coloured pencil as the medium for the final artwork because I thought I could achieve effective black outline and shading and I think it did work well.

The other part of the brief was that the design would be used on a Mother’s Day card. The photos below show my designs made up as cards. (The yellow is not supposed to be there, the printer was playing up.)

The blue tit design fits a portrait card perfectly while the vulture design is a more unique squarish landscape card. I think the blue tit design definitely works well as a Mother’s Day card. They often have things like birds, cute animals and flowers on them as shown below in some designs I found while researching (below). The vulture perhaps doesn’t work as well. Although my research on motherhood led me to the vulture, a buyer isn’t necessarily going to know the meaning behind it. The nurturing pose does indicate a motherly quality but perhaps this card has a more limited audience.