Tattoo art is at an all-time peak today, thanks to Instagram, and the art of tattooing and sharing your ink has become an art in itself. A growing trend at tattoo conventions worldwide are flat, graphic tattoos—in other words, tattoos that look a lot like graphic design. And the forces behind some of these looks are designers turned tattoo artists.
It’s no accident that many tattoo artists started out in graphic design and then wound up in the tattoo business. While some transition from one to the other (or from one to another), some manage to bridge both as professions. Either way, an experienced graphic designer brings serious skill to the tattoo table; they certainly know their way around composition. Here are some of the top designers turned tattoo artists working today who use their design background for stunning results.
Winston the Whale
Works at: Good Stuff Tattoo, Portland
Winston the Whale, whose real name is Dave, is known for his graphic tattoos that bridge Scandinavian folk art with 1950s graphic design and graffiti culture. It all started a few years ago when one of his friends asked to give him a stick ‘n’ poke tattoo. “I ended up doing this little planet and some stars and the tattoo actually looked pretty decent!” he said. “A month later I was booked out of my apartment doing stick ‘n’ poke tattoos! It was really crazy how fast it happened.”
The viral tattoo artist uses illustrative imagery that he feels speaks to a lot of people, and has even seen some rip offs on Instagram. His viral claim to fame was back in 2016, when he started doing red and blue tattoos that resemble the kind of images you see through 3D glasses. His career took off after one such tattoo hit 2,000 likes. Coming from a graffiti and mural background, tattooing as a next step was a natural fit for Dave. “Tattooing is not underground anymore but it’s still a sub-culture and you’re still able to make art and make a living at it,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Works at: Seven Eight Tattoo, Toronto
Jess Chen’s a Canadian artist known for her elegant floral and water-themed work; her portfolio’s full of tulips, seaweed, and rainbow fish. She also tattoos art history-inspired figures in their respective sketch styles. “I’m obsessed with art history; I just love obviously Picasso and Matisse and Gaugin,” she says. “Their paintings are incredible but I’m super into their sketches right now. I feel like they also translate better as tattoos as well. That’s kind of what I’m doing right now.”
She got into tattooing spontaneously after studying drawing and painting at art school. Two years in graphic design left her feeling trapped at her desk: “I was so sick of being on a computer all day and doing digital art. It’s just so out of my element,” she said. After an apprenticeship at then-new tattoo shop Tattoo People, she built her clientele, developed her style, and moved to a position at Seven Eight in Toronto.
Works at: Red Rocket Tattoo, New York City
She got her start in Berlin, where she founded the Black Mirror Parlor, then relocated to New York a few years ago. Myra credits a lot of her crazy, circus and sideshow-inspired work to her start in graphic design. “It was the first place that gave me the idea that I could work in a very creative industry that is full of opportunities,” she said. “But after a certain amount of time, you start to realize that you have to be outstandingly good to get a job at an ad agency.” She missed the artistic freedom that she had in her sketchbook, doing illustrations in ink and artwork with watercolors and acrylic paint. “I have to admit I’ve always been very thankful I had the privilege to study graphic design,” she says. “My Photoshop skills are a great help when I want to edit the pictures I took of my tattoos. I always set value on a good online presentation that gives my client a professional impression. I also use illustrator for editing my merch before I order it and InDesign for my flash books.”
Lately, she’s been working at Red Rocket Tattoo doing eerie, horror-inspired, fantasy-like cartoons that range from lemons with eyeballs to Hitchcock-esque screaming lips. “I started doing a lot of flash sheets full of hand-sized pieces when I moved to the States,” said Brodsky. “I’d say my work got a little more simple then. I like to mix my original style which has always been inspired by Victorian or art-nouveau like imagery with a light breeze of 1960s trippy neon comic aesthetics.”
Works at: Tattooing in Austin, Texas
He’s best known for tattooing Janet Jackson and Queen Latifah, but that’s not all. Zulu, who started out as a graphic designer, and still works today as a painter, calls himself an urban shaman. He started out with design after studying at an art and design school. After getting a studio in Los Angeles, he taught himself the tribal and indigenous histories around rituals and ink-making, which informed his tattoos. He calls his classic portrait meet surrealist work “comprehensive portraiture,” which aims to capture a person’s soul.
“I originally intended to be a traditional classical portrait painter but there is so much more to a person than what we physically see unless interpreted with some aspects of surrealism,” he said. “Each and every one of us are unique with an often untold story; my paintings tell that story. My work is a mirror of who we are and to celebrate and be fascinated with ourselves and the world we live in.”
Works at: Tattooing in South Korea and Australia
Zihwa Hongdae, who also goes by Le Jardin de Zihwa, is a South Korean tattoo artist who specializes in elegant and feminine florals. In Korean culture, tattooing’s not widely accepted, and Zihwa uses her talents to “break down the prejudice against tattoos.” Her inked bouquets of flowers make her ‘a floral arranger but with the medium of ink,’ though she started out as a graphic designer and switched to tattoos around 2014.
Using the smallest needle available for tattoos (what she describes as “a very thin pen”), her inked works are delicate and read like illustrations on skin. Through her minimal, seemingly zen work, she says: “I’m trying to be as feminine as possible.”
Works at: Good Stuff Tattoo, Portland
Known for his colorful, graphic designs, Damn Zippy started out as an in-house brand designer for a website and apparel company. At the same time, he had three roommates who were all tattoo artists. “Drawing had always been my true love, which is why I went into graphic design,” he said. He was drawing so seldomly at the office that he made the switch to tattooing. Now a designer turned tattoo artist, a background in graphic design has totally helped.
“It has helped my workflow to be more efficient and organized,” he said. “I was drawing in Photoshop with a Wacom tablet for years, which has definitely contributed to part of my aesthetic, but it has also made it easier for me to create mockups for tattoos that can be resized and edited easily. I also have an arsenal of toolsets that have given my work a little bit of uniqueness over the typical effects that you see with ProCreate basics – which is what most tattooers use to draw digitally on an iPadPro. I use it too, but I see its blindspots and can efficiently use Photoshop or Illustrator when those tools are going to get the job done faster or better.”
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