Exercise: A Tattoo

Design a tattoo (for a friend!) based on the word ‘Mum’ which also will become a greeting card.

Research the history and convention of Tattoos and body art.

Make decisions about complexity and colour.

Draw up design… mindful that it is for skin and paper!

History and Conventions of Tattoos


In the documentary Skin Geoff Ostling and tattoo artist eX de Medici consider donating Geoff’s skin as a work of art after his death. This turns the phrase ‘Living Artwork’ on its head… as the host will die and the work becomes merely not living… deosn’t it? (Excerpt from skin)


Naturally mummified Sudanese woman found to have tattoo of St Michael on her thigh. (Telegraph, 2014). She died and began to become a mummy in around AD700. The letters, superimposed in one spot, are M, I, X, A, H, A – spelling the Ancient Greek for the name Michael. The reasons for the tattoo are unknown but could be for protection – the woman was part of a Christian community.

Ötzi the iceman (from3250BC) had 61 tattoos – incisions into which charcoal was rubbed. Many of his tattoos match acupuncture sites. Lines tattoo’d around the wrist became popular after Ötzi started sporting them.


Initial look around at website blurs and confuses the different meanings of common sailors’ tattoos. In general all of the sailors’ tattoos seem to be strongly linked to the environment that they lived in and the traditions have outlived the initial inspirations.

The Anchor

This seemingly mundane piece of marine equipment was used only at some of the most interesting parts of the journey – arriving and leaving land locations. It is suggested that they represent a solid place – hence why Mum or Mom might be added to them – the home ground.

However The physics of an anchor suggests, and perhaps the sailors knew about this, that a ship ‘rides’ an anchor like a person rides a horse. The anchor is heavy and tries to lock to a position on the seabed by its design but will not simply become attached like a limpet – it will move and drag along the sea bed in the worst of conditions… but, it will stay attached to the ship via the chain. Even when it’s out of sight, it is there doing its best to hold fast.

In a well equipped harbour the anchor might not have been used. So perhaps upon returning home to Portsmouth no anchor was used – the ship would dock.

So the ship would use its anchor when it was abroad in the most remote and unsophisticated places. The tattoo could be a mark of achievement indicating a well travelled sailor. When combined with ‘Mum’ it might indicate their inspiration, reason for doing it, who they were thinking of once at these exotic locations, and perhaps the sense that ‘Mum’ was always with them… on the end of that unbreakable chain, to steady them and keep them from being dashed upon the rocks.

Aside from all this… the anchor was adopted the British Royal Navy as the emblem of the Lord High Admiral – an office created in 1408. It hadn’t appeared prior to that in flags and such (flagspot.net). It included the ‘fouled line’ – the wavy decoration often adorning anchor tattoos these day which otherwise would make no-sense to add. A fouled anchor can’t be lucky.

The Swallow

The swallow, like, it is suspected now, many birds have an amazing piece of biology in one of their eyes – they can effectively ‘see’ the magnetic field lines that enfold Earth. This gives them the ability to return home and migrate with uncanny accuracy. As a sailor in more primitive times (before ships acquired good clocks during the 1700s) navigation was difficult and the swallow must have seemed like a magician. Sailing was dangerous and surviving to return home after months or years at sea was good fortune. The swallow, who can do it year on year, might be considered a mark of success and the tattoo of a swallow indicate yet more experience.

Another way to look at it is to have the swallow as a good-luck charm – to encourage safe return.

Some websites cite 5,000 nautical miles per swallow, which is about 9,200 km – a bit further than Portsmouth to Mogadishu in Somalia (via the Cape of Good Hope – before the Suez canal was navigable). So if you made it to India and back you’d earn a pair of swallows in one return trip, seeing swallows as you made ports all the way around the African coast.

The Bluebird

As far as I can work out Bluebirds are from the Americas so are the indigenous alternative to the swallow for sailors originating from those continents.

The Bird (Pinup)

Women were not sailors in those ever-so romantic times of Henry V and the Spanish Armada so if you needed a woman with you on your voyage you’d best have one tattoo’d to your forearm where no-one can steal her. Perhaps they were likenesses of loved-ones back home, or perhaps they were more generic, or celebrity, a pin-up: something to admire to help you… erm… ‘relax’. Just guessing.

The big idea

Summing up sailors’  tattoos a bit they are drawn from mundane surrounds with an infusion of the beliefs of the time and place – superstition, religion, family ties

Russian Prisoners

I don’t think I want to delve too deeply into these but, as I’ve come across a guide to Decoding the hidden meaning behind Russian prison tattoos I thought I’d mention that they exist as it’s quite interesting, but doesn’t seem to relate to MUM…

Many of these tattoos are to denote status within the criminal fraternity, as you might expect. But they are quite elaborate – both in size and meaning in some cases. The degree of commitment is quite astonishing in some cases – tattoos that advertise the recipient as a murderer for hire or as someone who is making their way into and up within organised crime. Stars on the knees indicating that the wearer will not ‘kneel before the police’… they are not a snitch and will not think of themselves if in trouble.

Perhaps the reason for these tattoos being successful can be seen when a criminal does not have them… does this mean they are not committed and will betray their fellow criminals?


A recent trend in tattoos (although I can imagine it’s happened before in some circumstances) is for the concealment (or camouflage) of scars. In the contemporary sense these have most notably been scars left from breast tissue removal following breast cancer. There is a very strong psychological idea behind this which is the turning of a marring of the flesh into a work of art… a psychological scar into a strength of spirit. The fact that tattoos and scars are both ‘permanent’ (“scarred for life”) makes them two sides of the same coin.

There is another connotation… “scarred for life” is something often said (in sit-com shows too) by a grown-up child about what their parents have done for them. “Mum, when you made me wear Asda trainers on my first sports day you scarred me for life”. Opportunity here for a really hard dig at your mum by having an unbranded trainer tattoo, especially if the tattoo included a scar in the design.


The people indigenous to New Zealand call these markings Ta Moko. Much like the Europeans  continue to do today with other countries they sold weapons to the Maori in the 1800s and incited tribal warfare (offical moko guide). The weapons were traded for tattoo’d enemy heads so that the Europeans could study the markings. Genius [ironic stress]. The Maori would capture slaves and commoners, behead them, and tattoo their heads after beheading which gave them greater value.

A reversed-out version of the designs was called puhoro.

The designs are all unique and are arranged about the face in order to describe the person’s accomplishments, work, marriage, rank, signature (used in trade), prestige, birth status.

The painful practice subsided only to resurge since the 1990s due to modern techniques and equipment.


The whole tattoo idea seems to have originated in Tahiti from whence it travelled to New Zealand and was adopted by sailors. This paragraph from the Tahiti Tourism website is very interesting:

The word tattoo originated in French Polynesia. The legend of Tohu, the god of tattoo, describes painting all the oceans’ fish in beautiful colors and patterns. In Polynesian culture, tattoos have long been considered signs of beauty, and in earlier times were ceremoniously applied when reaching adolescence.

The ocean’s fish seem to have inspired the whole thing… which makes it all the more appropriate for sailors.


Naturally the US of A has it’s own, complete, internal history of Tattoos which is also the history of one man’s life: ‘Sailor Jerry’. Now a brand of Rum too!

Norman Collins (1911- 1973) was many things in his lifetime but dedicated the majority of it to being the best Tattoo artist of his time in America. He started tattooing by hand, one dot at a time, with a simple needle and whatever he could get for ink while riding trains across America. He travelled the world in the US Navy and settled in Hawaii where his tattoo shop served the sailors, providing them with their famous anchors, hearts and birds (both varieties). Tattooing in this era was not sterile, and very painful – having a tattoo meant you had taken the pain.

He was always ahead in his art. His designs benefited from skilled composition and a sense of linguistic humour. Later in his career he made links with Japanese tattoo artists who had taken the traditions of Japanese art and applied them to skin in huge, body-wrapping designs. Sailor Jerry was highly influenced by the methods and materials (inks and shading techniques) which he incorporated into american designs of his own creation.

Today’s tattoo artists are considered to have an easier time getting to the work because of the technological advances and the cultural acceptance of tattoos. In the early 1900s in America the tattoo was a difficult, secretive subculture found only in back alleys, and there was ‘at least 100 miles’ between tattoo shops.

The documentary Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry:The Life of Norman K. Collins attributes the arrival of tattoos to US shores in the early 1900s to the travels of the High Society to the now open Japan. They encountered tattooing there and brought it back to the west as an expensive and elite practice.

Some of the top Tattooist mentioned, who knew Norman, are…

  • Bob Roberts
  • Ed Hardy
  • Lyle Tuttle
  • Rollo Banks
  • Mike Malone
  • Eddie Funk


MUM Tattoo

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Initial doodles have led me to consider the double-helix as the modern-day ‘line’ of connection… which is appropriate for a birth-mother but might be odd for an adopted child.

DNA is an attractive, geometric shape that might lend itself to several designs – it could substitute for ‘rope’ quite well, but also can be the central focus. The style in which it is drawn is flexible as the shape can be represented in  different ways – perhaps made up from smaller imagery or symbols.

This is a symbol of ‘Nature’ and to balance it perhaps I need an aspect of ‘Nurture’… the ‘parenting’ part. Perhaps a ‘nest’ – like the provision of a home. Or just a circle of protection.

While looking into the current trend in tattoos I cam across the story of a young man who had acquired a tattoo after university and his mother refused to look at it and became a little estranged from her sone because of it. From her point of view he had marred the skin that she had cared for and looked after all of his life and was offended by the idea of it rather than anything to do with the image itself.

In designing this tattoo I’m straying into a very difficult area – a personal and familial relationship between a person and their mother. At this point I feel a bit disappointed with the progress I’ve made so far… like I haven’t cracked the problem. The issue of having a tattoo… a mark for life on your body… combined with the fact that it is to honour ‘mum’ makes it all of a very human dimension yet I’ve ended up with a chemical symbol… the double helix.

This video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSYaxnyf-3s  documents a tattoo of a peacock being applied to a woman’s shoulder in honour of her mother who has survived a heart condition that put her into a coma for two months. It’s notable that this beautiful artwork is very personal – the meaning to the recipient is not readable from the image. The tattoo itself is also a hugely noticeable – not subtle: an enormous statement.

Although the double helix is clever and relevant I don’t feel it chimes in with the way tattoos are used – they are personal statements of identity which connect deeply with the wearer and the mystic beauty comes before the direct symbolism. I suppose there are people for whom the double helix is beautiful (perhaps me!) but I’m still looking for a more classical beauty for the adornment of skin. This might mean just an adaption of the double helix in order to fulfil the decorative requirement.

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I’ve changed my mind… there are adequately different people in the world that a DNA tattoo expressing gratitude for their mum in a non lushey way would be suitable for some and I’m attracted to the simplicity of the double helix as a design motif.

“You’re in my DNA” is great way to express, in a non-traditional way, how close a person is to their mother. The word mum needs to be there too, so that there’s no ambiguity.

In terms of the detail of the design modern tattooing, and in fact the art practiced by the very top tattoo artists of the 20th century, especially in Japan, is limited only by the ‘resolution of the skin’. But in practice the tattoo will be seen from a certain distance which means detail would be lost.


a4-3_page_64A standard greeting card… say around 6 inches by 4 inches is about the size that a ‘Mum’ tattoo might be made. Lettering might be 20mm high (about the width of Sellotape)  with larger decorative lettering about twice that.

The inclusion of ‘hearts’ in the design seems like a good idea…as it will convey the love feeling.

There are three mahor components to my design… the helical bands, the lettering and the hearts which I’m using to join the helical bands together as if theyare the DNA base pairs. I think the hearts can be more loosly drawn that the real base pairs would be but they will create a mass of hear-colour in the centre.

I’ve noticed that my double helix could be drawn as a continuous band around a wrist or ankle (or neck or torso or thigh!) provided the design canbe made to join up at the far side… it needs to be ‘in phase’. This would be achieved by skillful measurement and pr-planning by the tattoo artist scaling the design until it fits the circum-inscription distance.


this is an Illustrator version of my design which is easy to produce due to the geometric nature of the design.

When hand drawing it I found the hearts very cluttered in their linked chains which were a very littoral interpretation of the normal DNA image. After experimenting a little I found that column of hearts were more pleasing


The Design can be cropped square or continued infinitely…


as fits the body position or card use. I later realised that the blank turns on the helix could be used to add names of children etc.


I’ve found this particular task frustrating because, although I can research the facts – what people have done before – I can’t put myself in the position of a person who wants a tattoo – I don’t understand their motivation, or the satisfaction that they derive from having one, neither do I understand the objection some people have to others’ tattoos. I enjoy the artwork and admire the skill; I admire the look people achieve… just don’t feel it!

I’m not terribly happy with my own design because I feel like it should be more decorative – ornaments and embellishments – that make it more like jewellery. To cap it all I haven’t experienced the kind of relationship that drives the desire for this particular theme of tattoo.


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