A good tattoo is a handmade work of art that sets apart a person as an individual. So why pick out a standard design from a shop? An original tattoo no longer needs to be designed by hand — in recent years, technological advances have made it possible for intricately designed creations to be done digitally.

While artists still implement tattoo design onto skin by hand, the methodology for doing so has changed dramatically in recent years. Whereas body art’s most famous practitioner, Sailor Jerry, originally started tattooing in the 1920s using a hand-pricking method (he then moved on to a rotary machine), tattoo artists now use advanced machinery that is both safer and has multiple needles that can be set for a variety of distinct tasks. This means that a tattoo artist or designer skilled in Photoshop, for instance, can create layered imagery that goes a major step beyond a mere drawing, and the new machinery makes executing those designs feasible.

For example, the German studio Buena Vista Tattoo Club sparked a trend in Europe with its “Trash Polka” style of tattoos. These artists create digital images that merge text, graffiti art, and heavy shading for a unique look that is at once realistic and painterly. Though designed on a computer, the results are vivid, complex, and eye-catching:

tattoo design buena vista

images via Buena Vista Tattoo Club

Digitally designed graphic tattoos allow artists to play with text-image combinations, a very old theme in body art that is now seeing a new approach. Xoil from Needles Side Tattoos in the small French town of Thenon-les-Bains has become one of the biggest names in graphic design tattoos. Xoil uses Photoshop to layer text with asymmetrical line work and abstract imagery. The effect recalls a mixture of illustration, drawing and painting, akin to a collage:

tattoo design Xoil

image via Needs Side Tattoo

But a designer doesn’t necessarily need to be able to both create and execute the design. Most tattoo artists can render a variety of styles; with the right tattoo artist (one open to working outside of their comfort zone), a designer can create a piece of their own art that can be brought to a tattoo artist for execution.

One of the best ways this design process works is when client has a highly specific idea for a design, but no particular image in mind. Here are several examples of designs done for 99designs employees through contests on 99designs, where the illustrator was able to really capture an idea in an edgy and intricate tattoo design:


99designs staffer Garrett knew he wanted a tattoo of a man pushing a boulder up a hill (inspired by The Myth of Sisyphus). But he also wanted something uniquely distinct from the images he’d already found. Designer Ilustreishon delivered with an detailed sketch involving shading, shapes, geometry, and text that looks pretty stellar when inked.


Community Team-er Floyd wanted to connect to his personal history with Pink Floyd — he had a lot of specific imagery in mind, but wasn’t sure how to connect them. He didn’t want it to be a bunch of random images stitched together, but a complete piece of unified piece of body art. Designer Giulio Rossi was able to combine these elements and create that unity with intricate curves, lines, and shading.


Kevin wanted to pay tribute to his hometown of San Francisco, incorporating the graffiti element. Ilustreishon came through for him by taking a pretty straightforward sketch of San Francisco’s iconic imagery, and using a several techniques for applying color to make it gritty and unique.


Monica, customer supporter-extraordinaire, was all about combining text and imagery, and creating a piece of work with hidden meanings. She had seen a lot of inspiration, but nothing with all of the concepts she loved together. Once again Giulio Rossi came to the rescue, creating an amazing work combining geometry, natural forms, and text to create a mysterious and fascinating image.

So if you’re thinking about dipping your toes into the tattoo design industry, or even getting some ink yourself, you have more creative options than ever before. Experiment! Talk to designers on the site who have done tattoo work, or talk to your local tattoo artists. Bring a stunning idea to life, as a permanent art exhibit on a real live person.

Have you designed any tattoos? Show us below!

The original post was written by Samantha Graves.

Also see: A brief history of cultural tattoo design