Friday, July 16, 2010

The Aesthetics of Tattoos

There's something that bothers me about a lot of the tattoos I see. Not all of them, by any means, but a lot.

I should probably start by pointing out that I'm not opposed to tattoos per se. Also, the choice of tattoos is a very personal thing - I get that. But even granting all that, I still think a lot of people are overlooking some very basic aesthetic considerations when they decide to get tattoos.

Tattoos are a type of visual art, and visual art consists of two basic elements: the image, and the medium. A sequence of abstract shapes is not the same as a picture of a fox; that's the image. Similarly, a picture of a fox rendered in charcoal on drawing paper creates a very different effect from a picture of a fox done in acrylic paint on a concrete wall; the medium makes a difference.

And the human body is a very odd medium. It's three-dimensional, for one thing, and composed almost entirely of curves. Plus, it moves - it changes its position, causing its surfaces to stretch, retract, or even bunch up. That's a very interesting medium on which to impose an image. It offers a lot of possibilities for using the medium to play up the image (or enhance it: "When her muscles start relaxin' / Up the hill comes Andrew Jackson"); it offers a lot of possibilities for using an image to play up the shape of the body.

To be fair, there are plenty of tattoos that do take advantage of those possibilities. Those are the sorts of tattoos that I usually like.

And then there's the other sort of tattoo: the kind where someone has decided that their ankle would be radically improved by having an image of Sixgun Sam (or Tweety Bird or a fearsome black panther) wrapped around it. Never mind that the shape of the ankle makes it impossible to see the whole image at once, and gives it a three-dimensional element that's entirely at odds with the sense of depth implied by the two-dimensional image. Those are the sorts of tattoos I dislike. I understand that they're usually filled with symbolic importance for the person who got them, but they just look misplaced.

C'mon, folks. This is basic art theory: the medium and the message. Make 'em work together.


  1. The message of every tattoo: "I'm boring, but maybe this will help."

  2. That's why I like words/quotes better than pictures. If I wanted to see a picture of Tweety Bird, I'd watch the cartoon. But everyone is different, and I think that's all a tattoo is supposed to do: highlight something that makes you you.

    For me, my tattoo was a form of self expression; a way to visualize an aspect of my life philosophy/personality I think is important. It's a way to bring what's inside to the outside. In everyday life, yep, I'm pretty boring, but I have one of the least boring personalities I know. So take it as you will. :)


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