What is a good tattoo?

Someone once asked me how to get a good tattoo and I said “you need to find someone who does really nice tattoos and go and see them”, to which they replied “but how do you know what is a good tattoo?”
That was a good question and one I think I had taken for granted. After all, if you don’t know much about a subject it is hard to be properly critical. You might know what you like on a superficial level, but you could miss things that later on you really wish you had been aware of.

One of my favourite tattoos, yet technically awful.

So, here I am going to do my best to help people recognise the difference between good and bad tattooing to help them find the artist for them.

(Of course, it is not quite that simple as that as a tattoo can be technically perfect but it isn’t what the customer wanted, or it can be a piece of blown out crap that they love. One of my favourite tattoos I have is technically awful, but it’s by a good friend of mine who isn’t a tattooist. The imperfection is part of the appeal.)

Of course, like with all art there is a large amount of subjectivity, and this is just my opinion. Others may disagree and that is ok, they can write their own blog about it. I’ve been around the industry a while though and I think I’m as qualified as anyone to at least give my thoughts. 
So, let’s just try and nail down as much as possible what makes a good tattoo.

It looks good close up and from a few metres away. 

Ideally there is a balance between the large shapes and the finer details. Japanese work is so good for this, the larger shape of the koi and water can be read from across a room but you get closer and you see all the detail on the scales. 

There should also be a range of values from the lightest colours or greys (or even bare skin) through to the darkest. This is one of the biggest mistakes I see, sleeves etc that from across the room are just one big lump of dark or mid tones. I can spot a good tattoo and tell it’s been done by someone good from quite a distance, this is a big part of that. 
Of course, one could argue that tiny tattoos might not fit this criteria, but you could also argue that really tiny tattoos are often not likely to age very well. 

They fit well on the body.

Tattoos need to be the right scale, not too big or small for the body part they are on. All tattoos will distort around joints and curves so the design needs to account for this. I once saw – but luckily didn’t do – a koi on an arm that when folded looked remarkably like a penis. Luckily the customer was a gay man who thought it was perfect. 

They are really in there.

I am afraid good tattoos are not subtle. If everything is soft and subtle I guarantee it won’t last. All tattoos age, they soften with time and lines thicken. Soft greys and really light colours have a tendency to fade to almost nothing and contrast is lost. They need to be big enough and bold enough. They usually have black ink (even if it is kinda hidden within shading), lines and/or edges. Not everything needs a line, but this is a complicated topic. Without a line you still need contrast and edges between shapes. If a tattoo isn’t sharp and clear when it is done, it will only get worse with age. Often the best “watercolour” style tattoos are quite large and either have areas of stronger shading, often with black, or areas where edges are created with contrast between colours. (I wrote advice specifically about “watercolour tattoos” and you can find that here.)

Lines should be smooth, colours fully saturated.

On a perfect tattoo lines should be smooth and an even thickness. In reality, tattooing is an imperfect medium and perfect lines are impossible as a tattoo ages, but a good design should account for this. Even so, less than perfect is not the same as crap. The tips of points shouldn’t have little blobs on and lines should be reasonably even in diameter (assuming they are meant to be of course).

Colour should be solid. Whatever colour it is should be smooth and saturated, and gradients between colours should be smooth too. Sometimes bad tattoos can have a choppy look to the colour whereas good work has a smooth and even look. A good artist can get the colour in easily without churning up the skin too much and scarring everything, a less experienced one may struggle and it shows in the final result. 

Black and grey shading should be smooth.

Another contentious point as there are some caveats which I will get to. Black and grey shading can be silky smooth or it can have a grainy effect, but the gradations themselves should still be pretty smooth. From the dark to the light areas it really shouldn’t be choppy and there shouldn’t be dark patches where it really should be soft, or light patches where it should be dark.

This doesn’t apply to some really traditional looking work where some people like a “whip shaded” black which shows the little lines the needle leaves and it’s all part of the effect. I’m gonna assume that of you like that kind of work, you probably aren’t the intended audience for this blog. 

Beware the Instagram filter.

One final thing to be aware of, all tattoos look like tattoos in real life. They don’t look like pencil sketches on white bits of paper and they don’t have blacks so dark next to white highlights to make them look like they glow. Some artists really push the limits on filtering their tattoo photos, bumping up contrast and unfortunately sometimes even using blend tools to smooth things out, or overlaying reference images. I recommend the Instagram account Tattooed Truth Fairy (here) for good examples of this stuff.

Always try and see pictures of healed work and unfiltered work wherever possible. 

Final advice

Don’t be in a rush to find someone, follow plenty of people and accounts on social media or buy plenty of magazines and you will start to recognise the signs of good and bad work. Good luck!