Choosing Your Tattoo

Excerpt from INK: The Not-Just-Skin-Deep Guide to Getting a Tattoo by Terisa Green.

Chapter 2: Your Design and How It Finds You

‘With the Haidas, however, every mark has its meaning…’
James Swan, Tattoo Marks of the Haida, 1878

You look at the topless mermaid and she doesn’t seem quite your type. Then next to her is the crawling black panther which is perhaps a bit more menacing than you feel. Maybe the red rose on the other side would be nice or the Japanese symbol for courage just below that. Actually, the more you let your eyes wander over the flash, the more designs you realize are crammed into every nook and cranny of the sheet – not unlike some of the tattooed people in the shop there with you.

There seem to be tattoo images everywhere, many more than you could have imagined, and now it’s becoming difficult to separate them all, let alone choose one. Finally though, you settle on one of the designs that had attracted your attention in the first place and you point it out to the tattoo artist.

Love kanji tattoo design based on artwork by Greg James.

Love kanji tattoo design based on artwork by Greg James.

Most of the people who wander into a tattoo shop thinking that they’ll get a tattoo and who don’t have a design in mind, will choose something from the flash. The good parts about that: (1) flash is eminently tattoo-able – not all art makes for a good tattoo, (2) the artists in the shop probably have a lot of experience tattooing the designs displayed in their flash, and (3) you’ll find yourself comfortably fitting into a tattoo lineage of sorts where you can take up your place as the latest person to get that design tattooed. The not so good part about choosing your design from flash: see (3) above. It’s not particularly original or unique. When you’re choosing something from flash, you can rest assured that somebody else (dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of somebody else’s, depending on the design) has the identical tattoo. If that’s not a big deal for you, choose away. However, if the thought that you were going to permanently mark your body with a design that was individual, one-of-a-kind, reflected something special about you, and set you apart from the unwashed masses, then think again.

Ultimately, nothing is wrong with either scenario. It’s really just a matter of what you want and how much time you want to spend in the process of getting a tattoo. In either case, though, whether you spend months creating something custom with your tattoo artist, or whether you walk right in off the sidewalk and couldn’t be happier with the Japanese character for courage, be aware of the design that you are choosing. Whether it’s flash on the wall or a design right out of your own brain, you will eventually be choosing something that will be with you for the rest of you life.

Where to Start Finding Your Design

Totally lost on this one? Yeah, that happens to a lot of people, so let’s start with something concrete – the different categories of tattoos. Part of the decision making process involves getting acquainted with all the options. Some of these will immediately turn you off, which is a good thing when you’re trying to narrow down the choices. Others will not only seem interesting, but you’ll come back to them, over and over again. We’ll get to that later.”

Tattoo Lingo Lesson: Flash refers to the tattoo design samples that typically are displayed in posters that cover the walls of a tattoo shop. The word comes from “carny” lingo and the days when tattooers plied their trade in carnival side-shows at the turn of the last century. Originally, carnival flash was the collection of expensive-looking (and many times unwinnable) prizes that booths would offer. Over time, the term likely started being applied to any type of prize and even to better looking signs. The classic tattoo font is a direct descendent of the fonts used in carnival show cards.

More information on how to find your tattoo design, find your artist, be health conscious, and protect your new tattoo is in INK: The Not-Just-Skin-Deep Guide to Getting a Tattoo. Not just for your first tattoo, but also for your fifth.


Choosing Your Tattoo — 2 Comments

  1. Hi, I’m planning on getting the kanji symbol for love on my shoulder. I wanted to know if I can get it filled in with cherry blossoms or something instead of being a solid color. Is this possible?

    • Hi Rose, Well you’d really have to ask a tattoo artist, which I’m not. I think it’s a lovely idea though. Best of luck, Terisa

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