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Helen Capewell
OCA Learning Log
Student Number: 522802
Degree: Illustration
Current Level: 2

A Tattoo

When I saw that Unit 4 had a brief that meant designing a tattoo, I was pretty excited. Then I saw what the brief was and suddenly the struggle to be inspired was real. Tattoos dedicated to your mum, dad, other family members or loved ones can go in either direction. They can be really personal with symbolic reference that the individual would associate with whom they dedicate it to (those are interesting), or it can be straight tradition (a little bit mainstream and trend driven). I like the idea in taking it in the personal direction, but with such a loose brief it was difficult to think where to begin, apart from using my own personal ideas.

I have a big appreciation for tattoo art. The skills an artist has to develop in order to reach the status of an established tattoo artist is beyond difficult. You really do start from the bottom of the chain when pursuing a career in tattooing, this alone comes with its struggles.

With my initial thought process flying all over the place, I began where any other brief would; research. The all important search for inspiration!


Leaving a permanent mark on ones skin has been practised around the world for thousands of years. Before the use of ink, other resources were used in order to create the permanent marks. Soot, ash, charcoal were often rubbed into cuts. Traditional tattooing is not only a term for a particular style known in todays society, but also holds a rich history in the art form and how different cultures would practice their tattooing.

"Locations where tattooing practices have been recorded on human remains, include: Alaska, Mongolia, Greenland, Egypt, China, Sudan, Russia, and the Philippines. All of these discoveries link to different periods of time throughout ancient history. Some of these date back to 2100 BC." [1]

From the book "The World Atlas Of Tattoo", Anna Felicity Friedman, Foreword by James Elkins

Whang-Od has been called the last tattooist of the Kalinga tattoo tradition. People are known to travel from all parts of the world to be tattooed by her. She is said to be aged 103, and still continues her practise! That is a true testament to the art. Here's a short documentary I found.

Prison Tattoos

Looking through a book titled "Russian Criminal Tattoo" with a foreword by Danzig Baldaev, it's hugely surprising to think you know a little about tattoos when there's a whole rooted history in other parts of the world. This book is certainly an eye opener to the explicit designs thieves / criminals would wear with pride. Explicit art that really has you question the times they were done and the minds that wanted them.

As the blurb describes, the book is full on with content. Not sure it content I could take inspiration from but interesting insight on a huge industry.

Prison Gangs

Here is a world that is surreal in its own way. Scary in fact! To think tattoos would carry such a heavy meaning that could offend or cause gang wars/death is a different level completely. It's totally fascinating how complex the tattoos are! I found documentaries on YouTube with interviews from "famous" prison tattooists who would build their gun from a needle, a pen and a motor from a CD player. Of course illegal and if caught will see them being put into confinement. With the risks aside, they say it brought them status for being a tattoo artist, but also it brought their struggles! All being linked with gangs.

In some parts of the world, tattoos are illegal. South Korea associate tattoos with prison, gangs and criminals, so being seen with one brings shame. Grace Neutral documented on the beauty scene there which takes you underground to the illegal scene of tattooing. The government estimates that there are around 20,000 tattoo artists working illegally [5]. An art form that we see so often and is easily accessible being illegal somewhere seems hard to believe!

"MOM" Tattoos

Traditional mom heart tattoos can be traced back to sailors during the golden age of American tradition [2]. Any sailor who were due a long journey out at sea, which would sometimes include the possibility of not returning, would often get the heart tattoo to keep their loved ones close. This could be their mum or a partner [3].

"Legend has it that the first Mom tattoo was on chest of an Irish sailor, who had been inspired by an old sailor’s song that spoke of the excitement of leaving Ireland for the open sea.

In the song, the sailor says that he “kissed me darling mother” before taking the treacherous voyage on the sea." [4]

From the book "Tattoo Sourcebook", by the editors at


The first moodboard I put together based on the words I brainstormed:

Initially I did begin the process by using words I thought of when thinking of my mum. Just a few words of things that she liked etc. I went straight in with traditional style, and surprisingly I quite like where my ideas went pretty quickly.

But, I very quickly hit a wall and couldn't think how to move it along to a final design. I thought I had reached a final design too quickly and couldn't think how to develop it further. I was on the borderline of making it personal but not wanting it to be personal. Being female would also mean my taste would be different as say my brother wanting a tattoo for mum. The brief is a male client, and so the tattoo had to match that. So I decided to start again, but this time make it a live brief for someone else.

I knew a colleague wanted to get a tattoo designed and so I thought I would pitch him my brief and see if he was interested in collaborating. Of course he jumped to the opportunity, and actually the day I was to write to him and ask, he actually wrote to me and asked for a tattoo - a very spooky moment!

So the collaboration began. Firstly we discussed the potential ideas based on words he associated with his mum. He gave a me a little background on her life and the struggle she had when he was growing up. Despite all the struggles, she was there for him unconditionally. The word rock came to mind and stuck for him. I let him take it home and sit on the ideas in his own space.

The next day I was flooded with photos of lighthouse. Now this felt like a tattoo! I was pretty excited for this idea and began my own research.

He was loose with the idea, leaving it to me, but he wanted it based on a lighthouse. He also didn't really like traditional style and wanted something unique, (as a lighthouse can be quite a common tattoo). He seemed to be more interested in a sketchy style, something a bit rough. Which also inspired me given that this could symbolise the struggles / storms that we find ourselves in through life, the lighthouse (in this case representing his mum) remains standing and shining the light to guide us. Unconditional as he first said.

Here are 2 moodboards I created, one of Lighthouse tattoos and one of images of lighthouses I thought will be useful reference.


I wanted to explore all options to begin with. Perhaps he would see something in any of the styles that he would like, even if at first he was against it. It's always worth showing them! Though at this stage I flew solo as I had my focus on the initial exercise and wanted to give a range of ideas and developments. So I selected a few that I felt gave variety and made them into final designs.

These would be the designs I went on to show him. Plus I added a few initial sketches in case any of those were of interest.

We liked one design but thought to remove an element. Below was the result which I then proceeded to add shading like that of a tattoo.

Sadly this then gave it the traditional style which he had already decided he didn't like. But for the benefit of the doubt, I placed it on a greeting card and actually thought it worked better here than for a tattoo:

After this experiment, it was clear this wasn't going to be the final tattoo he would go on to get (but he would take the card). We settled on this design, though he would like to extend this in the future to also include representation to family etc.

I wanted to give an example of the tattoo on skin, so after some digging for a photo I could steal off the internet, I finally was able to mock it up.

And finally, a greeting card:


I really enjoyed this exercise in the end. It felt like a great idea to involve someone else who would better fit the pretend friend in the brief. I was able to find out more about his mum, and what the tattoo would mean to him. Why he would get it etc. All this information, in my opinion, feels important when developing a tattoo for someone. I would often ask questions that would push the client to think outside the box. I would always ask, where do you want it, how big, in colour or black and white? They are just starting blocks to building the perfect design. You want to create something that is in their mind, and when they see it go YES! That is exactly what I was thinking.

I do hit road blocks through the journey at times and I can struggle to move forward, like in this situation. I really couldn't move further with the very first designs. I was really uninspired when first starting this exercise as I felt it had to come from me, what would I get? Not that I wouldn't get a tattoo for my mum, it was just something I had never considered and I had no idea where to begin! I wasn't able to separate myself from the brief. Getting a real client involved broke that blockage and gave me new energy and a different outlook on the exercise.

It helps to communicate with other people when finding yourself at a stand still. You never know where you may find the inspiration. This was my lesson during this exercise.


Russian Criminal Tattoo - Danzig Baldaev, Alexei Plutser-Sarno

Tattoo Sourcebook By the editors at

The World Atlas of Tattoo, Anna Felicity Friedman, Foreword by James Elkins


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