Part 4: Tattoo

Initial thoughts on the exercise

This seems an unusual exercise.  Different.  I look forward to the prospect…

A tattoo design could certainly be said to be an incredibly emotional and personal type of artwork.  To ink a design onto someone’s body for life is a profound statement.  I think that producing this kind of “illustration” is almost the purest type of creative brief. A very direct and permanent link between the artist and the recipient.

However, my first reaction to the subject matter of this exercise was “awful, awful, awful”   My mind brings up visions of terrible stereotypical love hearts and daggers “I LOVE MUM” tattoos. Being frank, I’ve always disliked tattoos devoted to mums and dads.   However, I have to take care not to be artistically close minded.  I need to review tattoo designs in a spirit of open minded inquiry and judge on visual interest and aesthetic merits.   I am also determined to flip my initial reservation about the MUM focus, and enjoy this subject matter.

Researching the history and culture of tattoos

I think that the range and styles of contemporary tattoo artists is simply stunning. A quick review online shows me a vibrant and exciting scene of dedicated artists.  And any analysis and review of tattoo artwork could be wide ranging and extensive.   However, what particularly catches my imagination is the very ancient and deep traditions of tattooing across many cultures.  I’m particularly interested in historical accounts of tattooing…

I knew from my past history studies about the prevalence of tattoos in Northern Europe amongst Celtic and Viking peoples.   Contemporary accounts give vivid pictures of painted warriors.  Whether these were permanent or temporary is a matter of debate, probably a mixture of both for individuals of the time. A dye was made from the Woad plant; either glazed on the skin or pricked into the skin.     The colour of Woad tattoos is a deep blue, for example below:


The Ancient Celtic Picts of Scotland inscribed many designs on stone tablets and provide an interesting array of designs.  These were the tattooed “painted people” to the Roman occupiers, dangerous and unruly warriors eventually blocked out by Hadrian’s wall.

Exploring ideas

My thoughts about “mum” as a tattoo take me into a direction of honouring a deeper sense of the feminine.  In pre-Christian cultures, the feminine was divine.  And Viking, Celtic and neo-pagan motifs and designs feel like a rich source of inspiration to honour and revere mothers and the feminine.  For this exercise I wanted to draw on those influences.    And since Celtic and Viking artwork is something I’ve always been particularly fascinated with. This exercise gives me an opportunity to explore this style of artwork (which I think is very well suited to tattoo work).

My brainstorming and sketching around the theme:

I didn’t feel particularly warm to my initial sketch (the one on the left of the sketchbook page), so I decided to make an alternative…

The tattoo design

In my 2nd sketch (the one on the right) I wanted to create a tattoo design which is all about the lettering style.  My influence is traditional Celtic knotwork and lattice work, along with the incredible Lindisfarne manuscripts.   However, I was fairly free-flowing and literally let the pencil “take me” into pattern, knots, and swirling motif.

I took the initial sketch and decided that the crispness of a vector artwork would suit.   I took the sketch into Illustrator, I vectorised the sketch, and then took time tidying up the image.   The final artwork:

And I couldn’t resist seeing it as a rough visualisation:

As the visualisation shows, I envisaged the artwork to be quite complex, and therefore better suited to a slightly larger scale when tattooed “for real”.   The visualisation in particular makes me feel fairly pleased with the design.

I think my final artwork has some merit and visual interest.  I’d describe it as a “robust” Mum tattoo.  It was a surprisingly difficult subject matter, and I had to fight my inherent dislike of the subject matter.  However, despite this I enjoyed sketching it and producing the vector artwork.  I set out to achieve something inspired by the ancient Pictish and Celtic past, and I’m happy that the influence is visible.


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