A friend has asked you to design a tattoo for them based on the word ‘Mum’. He would also like you to make it into a greeting card that he can send his mother. (What a good idea for Mother’s Day).

Research the history and conventions of tattoos and body art – as well as the modern ranges look at the designs from the past and other cultures.

Decide on how complex your design will be and whether you will be using colour.

Draw up your design on a large scale, mindful that it will be smaller both on a body and the card.

Write up your decision making process in your learning log.

The History and Convention of Tattoos & Body Art

The word ‘tattoo’ can be traced back to Polynesia where the term ‘tatu‘ or ‘tatau‘ meant ‘to strike’ or ‘to mark something’.

Evidence of tattooing can be found in the history of most cultures and civilisations across the world; the meaning of tattoos ranging from rites of passage, punishment, gang or tribal marking, signs of love or religious devotion and many more.


Instruments used for tattooing have been discovered during excavations of Prehistoric sites, these include inks made from soot, plants and oil, and ‘needles’ made from wood and stone. The earliest European human remains displaying tattoos dates back 5,000 years and was found in central Europe. Dots and crosses tattooed on the various parts of the body are thought to have been for pain relief.


In modern times tattoos have been associated with sailors and soldiers, who would often tattoo the names of loved ones as well as emblems to represent the places they visited and to show loyalty to their comrades.


Tattoos came to symbolise rebellion and a rebuttal to accepted norms. In Western culture, tattoos were definitely not something that middle or upper-class people had. They were often associated with criminals, prostitutes and people who had chosen to distance themselves from ‘polite society’. In some areas this stigma still remains today, especially among the older generation. Young women are often chastised for getting ‘unfeminine’ sleeve tattoos and are often told ‘you will regret them when you’re older’ or ‘you won’t be able to find a job.’ Thankfully this attitude seems to be changing and society seems much more accepting of how people choose to decorate their bodies these days. Even organisations like universities, the police and the NHS seem to be slowly relaxing their strict rules on visible tattoos.


Tattooing has a rich and diverse history. In Japan, tattooing can be traced back to the Jomon Period (10,000 BC-300 BC) where small figurines were discovered that have body and face tattoos. The Gishiwajinden, a third century Chinese text that is thought to contain the first mention of Japan, or ‘Wa’ as it was then known. The text refers to ‘the men of Wa’ who tattooed their faces and bodies with symbols of protection, tribe and rank. In some tribes, girls received tattoos as a sign of sexual maturity.


Tattoos were also used in parts of Japan as a form of punishment to brand a criminal; they were often placed on the forehead and took the form of lines, dots or the ‘犬’ or dog.


Tattooing was actually made illegal in Japan with the government declaring it a danger to public morality. During this time criminal gangs, specifically the Yakuza would use tattoos as a form of initiation and a sign of loyalty. Even today there is still a lot of stigma surrounding tattoos because of their association with criminal gangs.



Tattoos were also used by African tribes as a sign of courage and also as symbols of protection against evil spirits. One of the oldest tattoos ever discovered was found on the mummy of an Egyptian priestess, thought to be from 160-1994 BC. Her tattoos consisted of lines and circles which are thought to have symbolised fertility.


Interestingly, tattoos have not been discovered on any male mummies in Egypt, however in other parts of Africa, such as Libya male mummies were found to have tattoos relating to religion. In Africa today the practice of cicatrisation or scarificationis popular; this involves wounding the skin so that the scar tissue forms slightly raised silvery patterns across the skin.



The mummy of the Princess Ukok, which was found in the Russian Altai Mountains was covered in tattoos of creatures resembling deer. It is though that these tattoos were a form of identification, each family would have tattoos that would help them find each other in the afterlife.



The Chiribaya, who occupied Peru and Southern Chile before the Incas also left behind evidence that tattooing was part of their culture. A female mummy was found to have decorative tattoos of animals but also circles around her neck, which are thought to have been part of a healing ritual.


Modern Tattoos

In Western culture today tattoos are widely accepted, more so within the last decade or so. People choose to have tattoos for different reasons. For some it is purely decoration; they choose designs that they like aesthetically. For others a tattoo can be a memorial to a friend or family member who has passed and some people choose to have a tattoo to celebrate the birth of a child or marriage; it’s not uncommon today to have a finger tattoo in place of a wedding band. Some people tattoo the names of their partners as a declaration of love; the permanence of the tattoo is thought to prove that their love is real and will last forever.


For some, a tattoo will serve as a painful and permanent reminder of a drunken mistake, but for others tattooing is an integral part of their identity and culture. However you feel personally about tattoos we can all agree that tattooing is an art form which is constantly evolving. Tattoo styles differ wildly from country to country and thanks to the Internet and to people travelling more, tattoo artists have a constant supply of influence and inspiration.


Below is a list of some of the most recognised tattoo styles around today:

  • Traditional
  • Realism
  • Minimalist
  • Trash Polka
  • Watercolour
  • Tribal
  • New School
  • Blackwork

Traditional styles are defined by their bold outlines, gradient blending, thick needles and bold colours. The style began around 1700 with sailors and one of the biggest influences is Sailor Jerry.


Realism tattoos, often depicting faces and animals appear photo-real and 3-dimesnional with intricate shading and no harsh outlines. The danger with realism is that unless the design is absolutely perfect, it can look awful. Common mistakes are adding too much shadow, asymmetry, too much detail around the teeth and not getting the likeness quite right.


Minimalist tattoos are clean, crisp and usually just made up of a single line. It’s a relatively new style that has become really popular within the last few years.


Trash Polka is one of my personal favourite tattoo styles. They are only done in black white and red and they combine realism with expressive slashes, strokes, dots and splatters of colour. The result is a dynamic and visually chaotic design. Technically Trash Polka tattoos can only be referred to as such if they were done at the Buena Vista Tattoo Club shop although the style is becoming increasingly popular all over the world.


Watercolour style tattooing is also really popular at the moment. They are created with skilful blending to give the impression of a watercolour with soft, translucent, watery colours running into each other.


Tribal tattoos consist of strong, crisp linework, usually in black. Designs are usually inspired by ancient tribal tattoos.


Similar to the Traditional style, New School uses bold outlines and strong colours. Tattoos  are often cartoonish in style and features are exaggerated.


Blackwork tattoos use only black, grey or white ink. Many modern blackwork tattoos tend to be abstract, consisting of bold lines and shapes but subject matter varies. Some people will have a part of their body, usually the upper arm, completely ‘blacked out’.



I have done some research and collected examples of tattoos that inspire me. My personal favourites are the very modern and chaotic Trash Polka style but I don’t think these really suit the brief. I do really like the 1920s traditional style ladies (see last image); they are so iconic and just ooze femininity and strength. I think they would look fab given a modern twist.

Mum Tattoos

These are done in a traditional style, which I really like as they remind me of the tattoos sailors would get to honour their mothers and loved ones.

These ‘Mum’ tattoos are more subtle and done in a more modern style. I like the simplicity of these tattoos as opposed to the more chaotic water colour and Trash Polka ones because they look more concise and I also think they will work better on a greetings card. I also think that a small tattoo will be best for this exercise, again because it will look better on a card but also because (and I know I’m generalising massively here) but I think a mother with an adult son would prefer a small tattoo as a homage as opposed to a huge back piece or sleeve (I’m really just going by my Mum here!).

Inspirational Tattoist

I love Sailor Jerry tattoos and I think this style would be perfect for this brief. The lines are bold and clean and the colours are bold. The women look really beautiful and he is famous tattooing roses in his designs, which is perfect for Mother’s Day.



I like the idea of using Wonder Woman as inspiration as all Mum’s are Wonder Woman! I also quite like the traditional things we associate with Mothers Day, such as roses, birds and butterflies. I think that colour will be an important part of the design; Sailor Jerry tattoos have a specific palette of warm bronze tones and I also want to incorporate some colours associated with Mother’s Day, such as pinks and reds. I don’t want the design to be over-complicated as very intricate tattoos don’t work on a small scale.


I definitely want to create the tattoo in a 1920s-1930s traditional style as tattooists like Sailor Jerry are still iconic and his ‘Mother’ tattoos are what everyone thinks of when someone wants to get ‘Mum’ tattooed.






I used a reference image to make sure that I was keeping to the Sailor Jerry style. I am really struggling to get the airbrushed texture. I changed my mind about using the turquoise as a background as I wanted the design t have a classic feminine feel to go with the Mother’s Day theme. I changed it to a warm peachy pink, which I think pulls the illustration together more. I also used the eraser tool to thin out the colour at the edges of the background ellipse as this tends to be what tattoo artists do to avoid a hard edge.

Completed Design






Card Mockup



I felt really excited to design this tattoo but I actually really struggled with it. The traditional Sailor Jerry style looks quite simple but it’s actually really difficult to replicate. I had to use the Blend Tool a lot to get the blurred lines and delicate colour gradients, which was great practice as I hadn’t really used it before but it’s not a style I really like personally and I was really conscious of over-blending and ruining the design. I wouldn’t say that I am completely happy with the finished design, it just doesn’t seem right somehow but I can’t quite put my finger on why. I do like the colours though, I think they look really feminine yet strong, which is the message I wanted to convey and I do like the delicacy of the gradients. I actually feel that I have got a lot out of this exercise, even though it was a struggle; I’ve learnt loads about the history of tattooing and the different styles and I’ve also tried some new techniques, which may come in useful in the future.

Revision Following Tutor Feedback

My tutor suggested that the text ‘Mum’ does not really fit the scroll and I agree that it looks quite awkward. The three letter word is too short for the scroll. I extended the sentence to fill the space and I think this looks a lot less awkward and I also tried a more flowing cursive script which works really nicely and looks much more a part of the design.