Exercise: A tattoo


A friend has asked you to design a tattoo for them based on the word Mum. He would also like you to make it into a greeting card that he can send his mother.

I started by researching tattoos from the past to modern-day, where they originated from and how they are used within different cultures.

Earliest Tattoos

Tattoos date back to 3250BC. In 1991, Archaeologists in Italy uncovered the remains of a Tyrolean Iceman with 61 tattoos covering his body. The tattoos were created by piercing the skin and rubbing charcoal into the perforations. Scientists believe that these particular tattoos would have been for therapeutic purposes and not for decoration or symbolism.

Tyrolean Iceman “Ötzi”

Cultural Tattoos


In the 1500s, European sailors were known to kidnap Inuit people to bring them home and make money by displaying them to the public. The Inuit population of Alaska would tattoo their faces as it was seen to ward off evil spirits and to keep any part of the soul leaving the body before death. They would also perform funeral tattoos under the assumption that the soul would continue to be protected after death.

Inuit woman with facial Tattoos

Tā moko

Tā moko is a traditional tattoo worn by the Māori. It was a symbol of status and rank within tribes and acted as a visual representation for passing from adolescence into adulthood. It is more common for Māori woman to have their chins and nostrils tattooed rather than the traditional male full-face markings. The practice of Tā moko saw a resurgence in the early 1990s and is encouraged as a sign of cultural identity.

Maritime Tattooing

In 1846, German immigrant  Martin Hildebrandt, opened the first professional tattoo studio in New York City. There was an increased demand for tattoo artists in port cities due to European and American sailors wanting to decorate their body’s. Tattooing was largely a naval affair during the first half of the 19th century.

Criminal Gangs


Founded in the 17th Century, the Yakuza is a Japanese criminal organisation where tattoos play a big part in status and symbolism. The Yakuza (gangster), are identifiable by their complete body tattoos which depict the individual’s friendships, enemies and current events. It was fascinating to learn that a member of the Yakuza can take years to complete their body tattoo and that they can have the artwork of an ongoing life story worked on as it unfolds.

Russian Mafia

Another criminal organisation that uses tattoos as a visual representation for life events, status and rank is the Russian mafia. The Russian criminal gangs seem to use tattooing as a more militant strategy, with one of the images even showing an Epaulette tattooed onto the shoulder of a high ranking member. They also serve a big purpose in prison, where individuals can be recognised as friend or foe by their markings.

Modern day


When researching modern tattoos, I found an abundance of images that looked reminiscent of the 19th-century sailors. Full body tattoos using heavy black ink complimented sometimes with colour, but with more emphasis on covering the neck area too. Knowing the origins of these full torso tattoos, it is interesting to see how they are exhibited among celebrities, models and criminals, all of them worn for very different meanings.


Another modern-day option is to create a more simplistic tattoo using pointillism. This technique uses far less ink and introduces a cleaner way of shading objects.


Symmetry is becoming more fashionable within the tattoo world, and the examples below show incredible geometric patterns that can be achieved. These markings would have taken a lot of ink and time to complete, I can only assume that the reason behind these tattoos is the love of body art. Assuming these generic patterns hold little meaning to the subject, it feels like they are using their body as a canvas.

Artistic Realism

On the higher end of the tattoo market, incredible artistic images can be created. Looking at these examples, it is oblivious that all tattooists are artists using very different tools to create their commissions. The incredible detail and techniques used to create such imagery is incredible and even more so that the canvas is human skin.

The Tattoo

I began my tattoo design by looking at the different ways the “mum” tattoo had been created in the past and present.


The good old traditional mum style tattoo. The traditional tattoos of the previous sailor tattoos can be seen in these designs.

Modern Take

A progression from the well-known mum tattoo, these designs use modern-day layouts and techniques. I was also impressed with the metaphorical symbol of mother and daughter, in which the stem acts as the text.


These designs made the list as I thought they were quite out there and a bit silly. It also highlights the different personalities of the subject and how people can use tattoos to express their emotions in different ways. Some people you find would have a tiny symbol of mum on their foot where it can be covered whereas others are happy to have an entire limb used to show their feeling/emotion for something/someone.

I wanted to make my design very simplistic and clean looking. I decided to aim towards a tribal style tattoo only using black ink with sharp lines. I created some basic ideas in adobe illustrator and liked the idea of the word mum somehow doubling as a heart symbol.

Early versions

I think my final design really works. After drawing a standard heart symbol in Illustrator, I was able to add the text then manipulate it into shape. The bottom side of the letters would have been cut short, so instead of blocking out this section with colour, I decided to drag each letters bottom edge down to the bottom centre point of the heart. This completed the shape and at the same time adds a more tribal looking design.

I then used photoshop to show how the tattoo would look on various parts of the body. My personal favourite is the smaller design on the wrist.

I again used photoshop and its vanishing point tool to create the card as requested in the brief. I thought it nice to change the colours of the tattoo to red for the front cover, and then a photo of the actual tattoo on the inside.


I enjoyed this exercise and found the history behind tattoos fascinating. On reflection of my final design, I feel that this is a design that would be more popular for female clients, and also I believe the smaller scale design would be more preferable as this seems to be the trend. I did have other sketches which unfortunately were lost, but I am aware that once I have an idea, I tend to run with it and forget to build. In some cases, my first idea will be the one I want to progress with, leaving little to no time for idea development, something I am trying to force myself to do.