How to Choose a Tattoo Design

Two Methods:Following a Basic Decision-Making ProcessResearching Specific Designs

Besides reaching the decision to have a tattoo at all, the next big decision is what design to choose. Tattoos can look really cool, provided a lot of thought has gone into choosing your design, and based clearly on the understanding that this is a permanent marking on your body. Removal is expensive, painful and not always effective; thus, it's best to make the right choice from the outset, to avoid tears and regrets later.

Hopefully you won't just wake up and think to yourself, "yeah, let's get tattooed today." If you do, then rethink, and fast. The more planning that goes into your design of choice, the more likely that you will enjoy your tattoo now, into the near future and through to much later in your life.

Method 1
Following a Basic Decision-Making Process

  1. Image titled Choose a Tattoo Design Step 1
    Avoid making any rash decisions. The bad body art comes from making spontaneous decisions to go and have a tattoo done on a spur of the moment. If you're getting a tattoo because you're drunk or high, rebellious or your friends are goading you, then you're getting a tattoo for all the wrong reasons and the choice you make is likely to reflect this lack of forethought. Things you will regret include:
    • Any tattoo that looks like genitalia. Think about that, very carefully but not too long because the answer is simple: Just don't do it.
    • Anything misspelled (mostly because you were too drunk or high to notice till later).
    • Anything to do with high school or college (you do realize that it's over soon enough, right?)
    • Anything that mars your wedding dress, upstages your honeymoon, or gives your children an odd impression of you...
    • Anything written in a language you're not fluent in. Those Chinese characters might look sexy until a native Chinese speaker tells you what it really means is "object for sale", "I like mold for breakfast" or "horny goat"
    • Anything with the current crush's name on. It might feel like the two of you will last forever but if the tattoo has more chances of success in lasting the distance than the pair of you, this is plain dumb. The number one tattoos that artists are asked to cover up, after homemade tattoos, are names. If the person is not dead, or your child, names are usually not the best idea.
    • Anything faddish right now. A band, TV show, cartoon or comic book character you love today may not be something you want to carry around forever on your skin. It could date you more than your botoxed skin will ever give away...
  2. Image titled Choose a Tattoo Design Step 2
    Slow down. You have your whole life to look at this tattoo, so some good reflection before getting it makes absolute good sense. Most of all, will you be happy with this design in 5 to 10 years time? Think well forward, too. Is your tattoo going to look good even when you're old and wrinkled? Chances are, a tribal dragon, Disney character or Hello Kitty won't.
    • Think about how big of an impact the design has on you. If you've fallen in and out of like with other designs like this before, then wait a few years before you decide to get it.
    • On the other hand, if a design you're thinking about is something that represents or has given you hope in a rough time in your life, perhaps helped you find out who you are, or something along those lines, then it might be the right choice, as that monumental self-change is going to guide much of the who you become for the rest of your life.
  3. Image titled Choose a Tattoo Design Step 3
    Consider where you want the tattoo. This will have some influence on the design, especially if it's an intimate design. For any parts of your body that you show regularly (and that is a lot of body if you're a bikini or board shorts wearer), then that doesn't leave much space for intimate tattoos that you don't want your grandmother seeing.
    • Consider how likely it will be that you will need to cover the body area where your tattoo is to go with clothing, or otherwise, at some point. For example, if you're a female, will you feel comfortable wearing evening wear such as backless or strapless dresses if you have a back tattoo?
    • Think about future career options. Is a tattoo likely to be an issue or even a liability if it's showing with the expected work clothing or uniform? This may well depend on what industry you intend to work in but remember that with increased fluidity, people are changing careers constantly, so you may not ever be able to be sure what you'll do down the track. Keep this in mind when choosing placement of a tattoo.
  4. Image titled Choose a Tattoo Design Step 4
    Spend some time refining the design and choosing one that has meaning for you. Do some research first. Head over to the library or a reputable tattoo parlor and look through tattoo design books. What sorts of designs are current, what seem to be timeless and what ones would you ever get in a million years? Some things to bear in mind include:
    • Stay away from the art (known as "flash") shown in the studios, except as inspiration. It is better to go with a unique and original design than a mass market design - "flash" is designed by excellent artists then sold to tattoo artists around the country and around the world.
    • Are there any particular artists whose style really impresses you? What about their work has such resonance for you and is likely to be classic over the years to come?
    • Writing, in any form or language, should be thought over twice as long. Check and recheck the meanings of any words or ideograms of a language you aren't fluent in. Choose quotes carefully. If using writing, also be sure to search for a font you like, or create your own.
  5. Image titled Choose a Tattoo Design Step 5
    Draw your own representation of the design that you've come up with. Even if you cannot draw, a little practice and patience can get you a good outline, at least. Or, you can use drawing tools on your computer and some Photoshop magic to help out. Don't be overly bothered about your lack of drawing skills, as most tattoo artists will help you redraw and redesign a tattoo to a desired standard. This is a prompt and a guidance tool, to get your tattoo artist on the same wavelength as you.
  6. Image titled Choose a Tattoo Design Step 6
    Find a tattoo artist or designer and ask them to make a custom design for you. Many tattoo artists are also conventional artists, or can at least reproduce a traditional drawing, sketch or painting onto your skin.
    • Most artists will do what you want, but also excel in certain "looks." Check their specific portfolios, and compare the different styles: old school, new school, naturalistic, Asian, black and white, etc. If you don't know what style it is you're looking at, ask. Better to know with a giggle, than to be laughed at later with a design that won't come off.
  7. Image titled Choose a Tattoo Design Step 7
    Try to get a printout of the final design. Doing this will help you to see how the design will fit against your skin. Look at it against the mirror during daylight and night lights, so that you can get an impression of how it might vary during different times of the day.
    • Pin the design up on your mirror and look at it daily for a few days. Is it growing on you or do you have a nagging feeling that it's either not the right design or that it's close but not quite there yet? Follow your instincts; there is still plenty of time before it's tattooed into place.
  8. Image titled Choose a Tattoo Design Step 8
    Try a rehearsal run of the tattoo. Use henna to get a temporary version of the design. You won't be able to see different colors, or certain looks, but you will be able to judge the feeling of a tattoo. Henna lasts a week to a month. During this time, use the opportunity to see how it looks with your usual clothing and how you feel about it as you go about your usual, daily activities.
    • If even a henna tattoo is out of your price range, try the Sharpie option. Crude but still effective for knowing how it makes you feel to have a bold design inked onto a part of your body.
  9. Image titled Choose a Tattoo Design Step 9
    Think before you ink. Think about it a lot. When you are certain, wait some more just to make sure. Ultimately, a well chosen tattoo design can be a thing of beauty and a confidence enhancement. A poorly chosen one done on a whim can leave you unhappy for all time. Which outcome will you choose?

Method 2
Researching Specific Designs

  1. Image titled Decide on Tattoo Designs Step 1Bullet1
    Consider a tribal tattoo. Tribal Tattooing originated thousands of years ago, and it is still being used by various cultures throughout the world. Tribal tattoos originated in areas such as Hawaii and Samoa. Their characteristics include heavy black lines and shading of geometric designs. The great thing about tribal tattoos is the variety of creativity that a tattoo artist can use. In fact, any basic design can easily be given a tribal touch by a skilled tattoo artist by working freehand alone. With the flexibility of this design, anyone can easily come up with a unique tribal tattoo design.
  2. Image titled Decide on Tattoo Designs Step 1Bullet2
    Look at Celtic tattoos. Celtic designs are an incredibly popular choice today for those looking to get tattooed. A general rule of thumb is: the shape of the design often determines the "meaning" of a knotwork design. Circles represent unity or eternity, spirals reincarnation or cycles of life and rebirth, triangles and trefoils the threefold dominion of earth, sea, and sky. Squares or four-fold shapes are shield knots, symbols of protection from spirits or evil influences. Interlaced animals and men usually represent relationships, or emphasize the interdependence of mankind and nature.
    • There are actually very few records of the Celts themselves, and most symbols are interpreted by archaeologists and other scholars who have studied the symbols in context. Some ancient Celtic symbols have changed in meaning over time, having been influenced by the introduction of the Church and the influence of other cultures. Be sure to seek advice from the tattoo artist when deciding on which design would best suit your personality.
  3. Image titled Decide on Tattoo Designs Step 1Bullet3
    Research cross tattoos. Cross designs are one of the oldest types of designs, and are still an incredibly popular choice for those who are looking to get tattooed. There are 4 basic cross designs that are very popular.
    • Celtic Cross
    • Iron Cross
    • Gothic Cross
    • Christian Cross
    • There are some people that just love a well done cross tattoo just for the sake of how beautiful it is. If it is done well, and the ridges and curves are very smooth and detailed, it will have an amazing result. It can almost have a three dimensional effect when you look at it from the sides.
  4. Image titled Decide on Tattoo Designs Step 1Bullet4
    Consider a butterfly tattoo. Butterfly tattoos are still an incredibly popular choice for those looking to get tattooed. They can be done in many ways. They can be done in a big way, with bold colors and details, or they can be done with a more subtle approach. They can be done to match the actual realistic look of a butterfly, or you can be very creative with your rendition. You can also combine them with other designs and themes. Before you have a huge butterfly tattooed on your body, please consider the following. The basic symbolism of the butterfly involves grace, beauty, spirituality, transition, so be sure to have your tattoo made delicately and carefully.
  5. Image titled Decide on Tattoo Designs Step 1Bullet5
    Check out dragon tattoos. Dragon tattoos are one of the most sought after tattoo designs today! In Japan, dragons are an important part of the Japanese mythology. In Japan, they are water gods; therefore, that is why they are generally portrayed with clouds. Japanese dragon tattoos symbolize power, protection of home and family and longevity. In China, the dragon has a stronger, more masculine depiction of the Dragon. There, they represent strength, intelligence, luck, health, and harmony. They commonly protect life, fortune, and fertility. They generally have a snake-like appearance, and scales all over their body. They are also said to possess supernatural powers. The Tribal variation of the Dragon tattoo is also impressive. They are dragons that are designed with the strengths of the Tribal Tattoo style, such as the bold, black colors. The meaning of the Tribal Tattoo will depend more on how you decide to combine it with Tribal styles.
  6. Image titled Decide on Tattoo Designs Step 1Bullet6
    Look at angel tattoos. Angel tattoos are another type of tattoo with multiple types and meanings. Generally, when women get an angel tattoo, this symbolizes calmness and serenity. When men get them, it usually symbolizes more of a connection to their spirituality and inner self. Some angel designs are designed to make the wearer safe and protected. Of course, there are some darker designs that can also represent a person's darker side. There are Cherub designs, which symbolize hope and optimism, relating to love. Generally speaking, the symbol of an angel represents a representative from God, and the spiritual and emotional support he gives us.
  7. Image titled Decide on Tattoo Designs Step 1Bullet7
    Check out arm tattoo designs. Arm tattoos are also very common, and can be done in many ways. This is probably the most common place on the body to tattoo. They are common in both Eastern and Western cultures. This spot on the body is very visible, so you want to ensure that you get a design that is important to you. There are just so many choices in this area, upper arm tattoo, forearm tattoo, shoulder tattoo, sleeve tattoos, wrist tattoos, the list can go on and on. Full sleeve tattoos are probably the boldest choice. Tattoo sleeves seem to be preferred by men although many women also seem to be getting them. It should be noted that full sleeve tattoos take a very long time to complete and usually require more than one session. Now that being said, it also takes great deal of commitment and money to create quality sleeve tattoos.
  8. Image titled Decide on Tattoo Designs Step 1Bullet8
    Consider a skull tattoo. Skull tats have been a huge choice for many decades, and are still extremely popular. From fun and jovial, to scary and creepy, this tattoo can be expressed in hundreds or ways. The symbol of the skull is known all over the world as a sign of death. People generally assume that the Skull Tat is a representation of death or other negative images. It also symbolizes power, strength, and the ability to overcome a difficult time in life, and the ability to avoid death. Historically, the skull has also been seen as a triumph over an enemy.
    • You can see many different styles of skulls based on the creative imagination of the person creating them. They can be seen in many places, video games, comic strips, books, and of course tattoos.


  • If you feel hesitant, either about the design or the artist, don't go through with it.
  • Feet, hands, and faces need more touch-ups, and more attention to heal properly. Expect to pay more for these areas. Some artists refuse to do facial or hand tattoos on a person that doesn't already have visible tattoos.
  • Go temporary before going for the permanent. It's one of the best ways to know your comfort limitations.
  • Don't be afraid to get a tattoo that doesn't have a deep meaning if you love the design. If you love Winnie the Pooh enough to look at him forever, get that Pooh Bear.
  • Asian characters are a popular choice, as it is a way to get a meaning in a design. However, the tattoo studio walls are not the place to trust when looking for a character––many have double meanings, nuances, things that may give an impression that wasn't intended. Ask a friend who is fluent in the relevant Asian language to help you know whether the design might be misinterpreted in any way. Or go to online forums and ask nicely.
  • The darker and more filled-in a tattoo is, the longer it takes to remove. Which means more money, more pain, and more time. Multi-coloured tattoos will take longer to remove as they will require multiple treatments with different wavelength lasers for each pigment type. Completely black ink however, is easiest to remove by laser as it absorbs the beam on all wavelengths, breaking up the pigment with greater ease.
  • Often members of a family will get matching or complementary tattoos. Often, younger generations will incorporate elements of older family members tattoos in their own designs.
  • Perhaps have an honest heart-to-heart with people you know who do have tattoos already. Ask them how they feel wearing it and ask them to tell you both the good and the bad things about having a tattoo. Their responses will be part of what you weigh up when making your choice.
  • Think back to 10 years ago. If you had gotten a tattoo back then, what would it most likely have been? If you don't like the idea of having that on your body, don't get a tattoo now. Chances are, in 10 years, you'll regret getting it.
  • Look online for inspiration before getting one, but remember that it's what YOU want.


  • Tattoos can get infected, and should be washed and treated as wounds. Follow your artist's aftercare instructions.
  • Don't forget that if you chose to get someone's name, that person might not be around forever. They could leave, and you would have their name on your body.
  • Think before getting a tattoo. Will you like the design in the future? What will you do when it fades? Are you sure you want it where you put it? What will people think at a job interview? These are all things to consider before you get a tattoo. A tattoo is a big commitment and you should be prepared for the outcome, may it be good or bad.
  • Some people are against cultural appropriation, where someone takes a meaningful aspect of another's culture and uses it for fashionable reasons. If you're getting a tattoo of a traditional symbol, you should know the meaning and history of that symbol. And perhaps be prepared to defend your choice if it's not of your culture.
  • Think about it. Dwell on it. This is repeated often because tattoos are so permanent!
  • Laser tattoo removal is very expensive, painful, and time-consuming––in fact, much more expensive and more painful than any tattoo. In most cases though, it can completely remove tattoos. Tattoo cover-ups are cheaper, but find an artist that specializes in them. It's best to be certain about your design.
  • Be extremely careful when getting Kanji characters as tattoos if you've found the design on the internet or tattoo parlour wall. You may think it means "Peace, love, harmony" but for all you know the characters could be straight off a soy sauce packet, or worse.
  • Most tattoos will need touch-ups through your life. Using sunscreen and moisturizing daily will help your tattoo look new for years. After 10-30 years, expect to need touch-ups to combat blurring. If the thought of doing this over wrinkles when you're 75 grosses you out, this could be enough of a reason to not have one.

Things You'll Need

  • A lot of time set aside for reflection
  • Tattoo design books to look through
  • Reputable tattoo artists to discuss your options with (don't allow them to pressure you, ever)
  • Confirmation that your design is what it purports to be, especially when using symbols or words/characters from other languages or cultures not your own
  • Drawing materials for a mock-up of the design
  • Henna tattoo for a trial tattoo

Article Info

Featured Article

Categories: Featured Articles | Tattoos and Piercing