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Exercise 4.5: A Tattoo

For the last task in this series of three briefs, I had to come up with a tattoo design. The illustration would hypothetically be for a friend who wanted a concept designed around the word Mum. This would also need to be suitable as a cover of a mother’s day themed greetings card.

I have three tattoos of my own and can, so I have some first-hand understanding of the meaningfulness that can be involved in the process from a customer’s perspective, but I wanted to start by doing a bit more research on the history of tattooing across different cultures and styles.

My mood board displaying a range of tattoo styles.

The art of tattooing has a long and ancient history. Evidence found on mummified human remains has shown that different cultures from across the world have marked their skin with various symbols for thousands of years. In ancient times, tribes would tattoo themselves to maintain close spiritual bonds with their own people and certain markings would indicate social status within a group or show an individual's prowess and skill in the role that they play within a group. Some of these same connections still remain prevalent today as Polynesian style tattooing is one example of how these kinds of long standing traditions are still surviving now.

Early European settlers supposedly reintroduced tattooing to western society through visiting indigenous tribes and tattoos became common within sailors. As society continued to develop, tattoos would fluctuate in popularity depending on how the subcultures they were applied to were viewed by communities as a whole. For the Victorians for example, tattoos began as less favourable as it was seen a barbaric practice for criminals, circus performers and the lower classes, but as the era progressed, fashions would change as elite members of society decorate themselves with personal images, setting the trend for the rest of the population to follow. Similar patterns in the rise and fall of tattoo popularity came throughout both world wars and in more recent decades there was a resurgence in general popularity after the 1970's.

Today, seeing someone with a tattoo has become commonplace as it is now less of a taboo practice as it has ever been. Although certain specific tattoos are still used as status symbols for groups, the modern symbolism of tattoos is derived from the self expression of the individual. Some people get tattoos as a souvenir from a place they have visited or with fictional characters that they feel a connection to, others may use it to remember a loved one or remind them of virtues that they wish to live by.

In the case of this brief, the tattoo is meant to represent the bond that a son shares with his mother, so I made a brainstormed words that helped gather some common images for this kind of symbology.

I found a few articles that listed specific symbols that had connotations to motherhood. Many of these were from celtic and germanic origin, in particular the celtic motherhood knot, a symbol which I discovered is a popular choice for many people to have tattooed on their skin for much the same reasons as the client in my brief.

A friend of mine recently brought my attention to Sacred Knot Tattoo, a studio based in wales that specialises in symbolic tattoos that honour the traditions of nordic and celtic style tattoos. The level of detail and craftsmanship in their designs is inspiring and although I would love to be able to produce something in that art style, but I knew that it was currently out of my range and that I should adapt my existing style to suit an illustrative blackwork tattoo instead.

With these symbols and a rough style in mind, I began working on how I could incorporate them into my designs. I found some difficulty in deciding on a direction for my artwork at first as in a professional studio the artist has the advantage of being able to communicate with the customer. They could choose from an existing catalogue of an artist’s work, or commission them to create and original piece for them in a process of careful collaboration. Without a real client for me to ask any questions to I had free reign, so I approached the design process with the mindset that I was producing something for my own catalogue.

My material choice for this project was an easy decision though. Pen and ink drawings are my go to when a specific style isn’t required, but in this case it happens to be ideal as modern tattooists often plot out their work on paper using fine liners before transferring onto skin using a stencil. The differences in line thickness from pens translates to the different nibs that can be mirrored through layering or by changing needle size as I know from when I had my own tattoos done. Crosshatching is often avoided as it can be difficult to reproduce the same tones on skin without copying every small line which can be irritating to the customers skin. To create gradients stippling is often used instead or the case of realistic styles, a wider multi needle attachment can be used for smoother shading.

I wanted to keep these designs free of any text, as I think designing typography that spells out the word "mum" or "mother" in a literal way is less unique and inspiring than choosing from the symbology that I had been looking at. I carefully sketched out the four solid ideas that I had in my head. I toyed with ideas for geometric elements and shapes as decoration at first, but decided whichever I choose as my final version would be more effective if I stuck to clear line separations and dotwork as methods for shading.

I didn't know where the client would want the tattoo to be applied to their the body, so these ideas were produced with around a 5-8 cm length in mind as a small to medium sized tattoo that could easily fit onto most of the popular areas such as the upper shoulder, forearm and back.


1. Handprints

This design was the simplest of the four and symbolises the mother and child's hands overlayed and surrounded by a heart. If this was a real commission, i would make sure to illustrate the hands of the actual mother and son concerned, but for this purpose left them quick and generic.

2. Infinity Symbol / Silhouettes

This was the most experimental of my designs and features a lot of improvisation. I considered the concept of infinity as a symbol for bonding and incorporated motifs that formed a heart at the edges. Inside the rings of the infinite loop are the silhouettes of a mother and her young son.

3. Rooted Celtic Knot

This was a more direct adaptation of the symbol that I discovered earlier, but I created it out of intertwining roots, to reinforce natural connections and connotations. I like this design for it's overall simplicity, but it still has opportunity for line detail in the textures of the wood and the leaves

4. Elephant With Calf

African elephants are symbolic of strength and endurance through their matriarchal herd relationships in the wild. Mother elephants will care for their young for many years and I've seen other tattoos that interpret elephants as a symbol for motherhood in this way, but none from a front facing perspective. For my own design I kept some rough symmetry as the mother elephant gently cradles her sleeping child directly below her with her trunk.


Of the four, I ended up choosing the elephant to produce in more detail. Although I like qualities from the others, I think this one has the most universal appeal if I had it in a catalogue as an "off the shelf" tattoo design.

By looking at extra elephant photos as reference material, I sketched out my design in pencil on A5 paper, then filled in the line work using 0.5mm and 0.3mm Ink pens. This method is fairly standard for my style of drawing but throughout I kept in mind what would be best as a stencil for a tattoo artist as through using variable line thickness and stippling for skin texture.

To finish off, I set up the image as a simple 5x7" mothers day card as per the other part of the brief and was happy to see that it translated cleanly. I used Viner Hand ITC for the main title and added a soft pastel digital pallette to the elephants and background. I think this works well at putting across the emotion that I intended with this piece and that it didn't need embellishing any further.

I enjoyed this brief, but without having a real client that I could talk to and ask if there was any specific style or personal connections that they wanted to include, I had to lean on my own interpretations and I felt that this was limiting for creating an item that should carry a lot of personal relevance to someone else.

I like my elephants though, and would be honoured to have any of my work tattooed on someone else. It’s one thing to have your work put on someone’s wall or on a product that they buy, but to have something that I have designed etched permanently onto someone’s skin would be really special. Hopefully somewhere down the line I might get the opportunity to do a proper commission.



Ancient Symbols (2020) Motherhood Symbols At: (Accessed 4/4/2020)

Chronic (2019) What are the Different Types of Tattoo Styles? At: (Accessed 4/4/2020)

Hunter, D. (2020) History of Tattoos – A Complete Timeline At: (Accessed 4/4/2020)

Langley, Liz (2020) Stay-at-Home Animals: These Youngsters Stay With Their Mothers For Years At: (Accessed 4/4/2020)

Lineberry, C (2007) Tattoos The Ancient and Mysterious History At: (Accessed 4/4/2020)

Shoemaker, R. / Atker, Z. (2019) How tattoos became fashionable in Victorian England At: (Accessed 4/4/2020)

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