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Styles of Tattoos

Stock and Custom Tattoos

Tattoo designs fall in two categories: stock (sometimes called flash) tattoos or custom tattoos.

Stock or flash tattoos are the pictures that you see lining the walls of tattoo parlors. Usually these images consist of perennial favorites such as anchors, hearts, skulls, dragons, butterflies, crucifixes and other common images. These are the images that the tattoo artist is willing to do for a flat rate.

Custom tattoos are usually more expensive. In this case you commission the artist to draw what you want by bringing in an image or combination of images that you would like reproduced on your flesh.

Bigger is Better

Although any image can be tattooed onto your body, some of them might look better on paper than they do on your skin. In general a big, bold simple image is clearer than a tiny, detailed image. Bigger images simply have more impact. American tattooist Walt Dailey sums up the "bigger is better" issue by saying "A beautiful, big, fierce bear head design just looks like an angry hamster's face when you shrink it down."

When it comes to tattoos "bigger is better." If you find yourself looking at an array of complex designs full of curlicues, landscapes and portraits you might also want to recall the KISS rule used by American astronauts "KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID." Remember you can always add elaborations to your tattoo later if you are not satisfied with a simple design.

The Science of Tattoos

Early tattooing techniques seem quite barbaric by today's standards. South American tribes scratched or pricked at the skin and then smeared it with dye or dirt. The Inuit punctured the skin and passed a needle covered in soot through the open wounds. The Maoris pierced the skin with a tool used for cutting bone and then smeared ash and other dyes over the cuts. Today traditional Japanese tattoos are still created by manually puncturing the skin and wiping the wounds with dye.

Fortunately, tattooing techniques have become much more sophisticated thanks to O'Reilly's electrically powered tattoo machine.

The Tattoo Gun

This modern tattooing machine has a base that looks a bit like the handle of a gun so it is sometimes also called a tattoo gun. The tattoo machine is a three-part device; the gun-shaped base, the motor housed within the base and a tube that holds the ink and needles.

The machine pulsates vertically and needles puncture the first two layers of the skin. The ink from the tube is forced through the epidermis by the impact of the needle hitting the skin.

Varying the number of needles used in the machine makes the different lines that are used to build up the tattoo. Solid lines are created by a group of needles arranged in a circular pattern. Needles used for shading are usually lined up in vertical or horizontal slots.

Tattoo Ink

Tattoo ink isn't really ink. It's a combination of pigments suspended in a carrier solution. Unfortunately there is no real way to know what is in tattoo ink, as manufacturers of the stuff are not required to label the ingredients. Also, recipes for certain colored inks are secrets that are as closely guarded as the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

It is known that most tattoo inks are created from metal salts, although some may consist of vegetable-based pigments. Given that the ingredients in most tattoo inks are unknown even to the tattooist, it's difficult to predict if you could have an allergic reaction to the ink. Reactions are rare but it is something to consider if you have especially sensitive skin. The most common reaction is an itchy raised appearance to skin that can take as long as a week to show itself.

Basic Inking Styles

Just like any art form, tattoos can be expressed as line drawings, paintings, cartoons, caricatures or even as airbrushed creations. Tattoos may be classified into distinct styles, much as painting may be classified into the styles of impressionism, realism, cubism, etc. Each style incorporates specific artistic elements which many are not familiar with. So here’s a look at tattoos, not as a form of rebellion, a health hazard, or a display of “coolness,” but as an art form.

The following is a summation of just a few of the most popular tattoo styles.

♦ Black and Gray work. This style originated in the prison system of America, where it was difficult to get colored ink. These tattoos have the kind of warmth and depth to them that you usually associate with a charcoal drawing.

♦ Traditional. This style of tattoo refers to work that features bold black outlines and pitch black shading contrasted with very bright colors. The style is thought to have its origins on military bases in the 1930s and 1940s.

♦ Fineline. These delicate tattoos are very detailed and usually associated with black and gray work. Fineline is also often used to express a realistic depiction of an image. Fineline images cannot be too complicated as sometimes over time the image can degenerate into a blotch or a shadow.

♦ Tribal. These designs are black silhouettes. Most are based on ancient tribal designs. A popular modern mutation of this style is to modify a traditional design so that it appears to be tribal. Many of the most popular styles are modeled after the ancient styles of the South Pacific Islands. These tattoos are usually abstract, artistic representations that consists of combination of discrete design elements such as spikes swirls and spines. Tribal tattoos are often designed to fit or accentuate a specific part of the body. For example, a tribal tattoo might snake along the contours of the lower back.

♦ Realistic. These designs are usually portraits or landscapes that mimic the fine detail of a photograph. Mostly they are done in black and white as it takes a master tattoo artist to emulate images in colors. Sometimes this style is also called photo-realism.

♦ Oriental. Usually the oriental style of tattooing involves using the entire body as a canvas rather than adding a single image here and. Images are used to weave a story or a myth on an entire arm or over the entire back. Usually this is very fanciful, bold, yet detailed color work. Big murals of dragons, flowers, fish, and other animals are the most common oriental tattoos. A dominant image such as a dragon might be surrounded by “fill work” that consists of artistic, fluid-like swirls of color. The oriental tattoo often follows the rules of Japanese perspective in painting that is concerned with symmetry and balance. Also the symbols in a Japanese tattoo often have deeper meanings. For instance, a tattoo of a carp represents wealth and prosperity.

♦ Celtic. These silhouette style tattoos have thick bold black lines, and sharp angle. A Viking offshoot of the Celtic style includes mythological creatures such as griffins. They are primarily completed in black ink only. Because they are difficult to do, Celtic tattoos are often best created by an artist who specializes in the style.

♦ Biomechanical. These tattoos often depict machinery intertwined with human flesh. A typical f biomechanical tattoo work might depict a human hand, arm, or chest tangled with pieces of machinery such as screws, wheels, or and pulleys. The result is an image of a creature that looks half-robot, half-human. This type of tattoo is inspired by movies such as "Alien."

♦ Caricatures and cartoons. These tattoos are noted for their bold lines and often humorous references to classic tattoos.

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