Alongside beards and beer that tastes like mulch, tattoos have been inescapable for the last half-decade. The hipsterisation of fringe interests means that body modification – once reserved for sailors and bikers – no longer marks you as a ne’er-do-well.
Since David Beckham had son Brooklyn’s name scrawled on his lower back, tattoos have gone mainstream – even BBC veteran David Dimbleby went under the needle in 2013, opting for a scorpion on his right shoulder.
Frankly, tattoos are trending. They’ve appeared on celebrities, in the Daily Mail sidebar of shame, in every fashion editorial. “But you shouldn’t approach it like a trend,” says Naomi Reed, from London’s Frith Street Tattoo. “You can’t take it off.”
An ill-thought-through man bun only means some Facebook photos you’d rather not revisit. It’s tougher to ignore a novelty moustache indelibly etched on your index finger.
It’s estimated that a fifth of Brits have a tattoo. Among the under-30s, that figure rises to one in three. But just because society approves, that doesn’t mean you will in two decades. Pick wrong and you have to live with something you hate until you die. Or you have it lasered off. Better to choose wisely and enjoy your ink forever by following these steps to getting inked. No regrets.
Remember those baggy jeans with the hammer loop on the side that you thought were the pinnacle of cool when you were 14? Well, imagine if you still had to wear them now. Worse still, imagine if you had to wear them forever. Everywhere. Summer weddings, dates, job interviews.
This hypothetical scenario should serve as a metaphor as to why it’s perhaps not the wisest move to get a tattoo just because it’s popular at the time. Those flames on your wrists might have been cool in 2001 (debatable though), in the present day, however, not so much.
With that in mind, here are some best tattoos for men: styles that have either been around for thousands of years and have never fallen from favour, or newer trends less likely to age. Just remember to engage your brain when deciding and you should be okay.
Once confined to prisons, the new craze for stick and poke tattooing involves using a needle to bore ink into the skin by hand as opposed to using a tattoo gun. Results can be impressive when performed by a professional, but the danger of this trend comes from people opting to go it alone.
“DIY tattoos have become a craze,” says Matt Adamson, a renowned tattoo artist from Kings Avenue Tattoo in New York. “But they can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Despite modern perceptions of tattoos in Japanese society, which often see them linked to organised crime, the tradition for body modification is perhaps more deep-rooted here than perhaps anywhere else, with elaborate designs dating back to around 10,500 B.C.
“Japanese-style tattoos are something that people study for their entire lives,” says Adamson. “Composition and balance are key to this style. It outlived the nineties era of dolphin tattoos, zigzag tribal, and it will be there when others fall out too.”
It took the western world slightly longer than everywhere else to adopt the tattooed life, but once sailors started getting inked, the rest of mankind wasn’t too far behind. The style of scrawl favoured at sea is what we now refer to as ‘traditional’. It’s highly popular, it looks great and its classic design means it’ll stay that way for longer.
“It may not be a new trend but it’s one that’s always going to stand the test of time,” says Adamson. “Simple, bold, clean designs and techniques make these tattoos stay that way forever.”
In stark contrast to the simple designs and thick lines of traditional-style tattoos, single needle/dot-work refers to when artists create highly-detailed, intricate pieces, using particular techniques. “The defining characteristics are pencil fine lines and airbrush-like shading using dots,” says Adamson. “This creates depth and results in a very delicate tattoo style.”
More than a fleeting fad, dot-work is a style that has been steadily growing in popularity and is now a respected medium among artists. If you’re struggling to alight on a style for your first tattoo, this could be a good place to start.
Blackwork is exactly what it sounds like – tattooing where large sections of the work are filled entirely with black ink, creating a bold appearance where the blank space is doing just as much work as the ink in terms of a finished look.
“This style creates tattoos that are really high contrast and super simple,” says Adamson. It can lack some of the intricacy found in other styles but many people are drawn to the striking black/white look of the designs.
A tattoo artist is precisely that. And as you wouldn’t ask a conceptual sculptor to paint you a watercolour, you shouldn’t expect someone that specialises in sailor tattoos to nail a photorealist portrait of your cat. If you’re not sure what you want, let your taste dictate your choice.
“We ask people to bring in things they’re into that aren’t tattoos,” says Reed. “It can be art, ceramics, design. It helps us get an eye on whether you’re more graphic, or after something intricate. Then we can get a feel for which tattooer works in that way.”
Treat your first meet with them as a first date, using get to know you questions to establish common ground. “If you’re doing a big piece of work you’ll spend a lot of time with that tattooer,” says Reed. “A full sleeve could be 30 hours. It needs to be a pleasant experience for everyone, and you need to be able to communicate.” Halfway through a back piece is no time to discover how much your opinions on politics differ.
Odds are that the person with more ink than skin knows more than you about whether your design will work. “The body is something which is not fixed. It’s not like paper,” says Reed. “Things shift and move with the ageing process. And while everybody is different, there are basic guidelines of what works and what’s going to look good long term, so listen to the tattooer about what’s workable.”
Time’s effect on your skin is echoed in what’s imprinted in it. Squeeze too much detail into too small a space and the years will have the same effect on its intricacy as rain on an oil painting. “Colour portraits, realism – they look incredible when they’re first done. Five years later they’re like colourful mush,” says Reed. Black outlines add longevity. “It holds up better than anything else. Having that structure means even as it softens, the design is still readable and understandable.”
Black outlines add longevity. “It holds up better than anything else. Having that structure means even as it softens, the design is still readable and understandable.”
Of course, ‘readable’ doesn’t have to mean your spouse’s name in Gothic capitals. “Meaning is an important starting point, but it has to look good,” says Reed. “The aesthetic is the most important thing if you want to be happy long term. It can be packed with meaning, but if it looks rubbish? Well.”
Not that you should avoid resonance. But sometimes, it’s best to be subtle. “You might not want a name, but you can get an experience that you share together, a flower they love,” says Reed. “It looks good, it has a meaning, but you’re not shouting about what it is.” Your tattoo becomes a personal marker that you can choose whether or not to explain. And it’s always nice to have a secret.
You might be open-minded, but even in a smart-casual office, most job interviewers still baulk at ‘Love/Hate’ knuckle tattoos. “Don’t get a tattoo because you think it’s hilarious,” says Reed. “Finger tattoos, you can’t hide. Some employers won’t employ you, and it’s not worth limiting your work options over a joke.”
The US Army bans anything on the neck, or below the knee or elbow. Adopt a similar rule – if regular work clothes cover it, then feel free to decorate that bit of skin. Just know that a full sleeve means you’ll have to spend hot summers with your cuffs buttoned.
Tattoos hurt. But probably not as much as you think. “It’s very uncomfortable, rather than painful,” says Reed. A tattoo machine uses a small needle to punch ink into the deeper layer of skin (called the dermis), which contains nerves and blood vessels. But the damage is no worse than a graze. “Some areas are more painful than others.”
If you have the pain threshold of a day old foal, steer away from your body. “The torso houses your internal organs, so you have more nerve endings there in order to protect them. There’s more sensation. Your sternum, your back, your ribs, your chest are more tender than your arms and legs.
But your biggest enemy is in your head, not the tattooer’s hand. “People get stressed out, anxious, and their adrenaline starts going,” adds Reed. “They panic, then they pass out.” If you feel strange, it’s advisable to say so you can take a breather and eat some chocolate to level out your blood sugar.
A tattoo’s for life. Look after it right and it will look good, for life. Ignore the aftercare and you’ll regret your faded, infected design. For life. “[While it’s healing] you need to keep it clean and dry,” says Reed. Wash twice daily with warm, soapy water, then let it air out before covering up. Put a tight T-shirt over your freshly inked bicep tattoo and the scab will fuse with the cotton then rip straight off when you get undressed.
There’s a glut of tattoo-specific moisturisers out there. “But you don’t need the fancy potions,” says Reed. “Once it’s totally scabbed over, a little bit of moisturiser – something unperfumed, like E45 or Cocoa Butter – will make it feel more comfortable.”
Tempted though you’ll be to show your brand new ink off, the longer it’s under wraps, the better it looks. Particularly during the warmer months. “Sun damages tattoos like it does skin,” says Reed. “People always want tattoos before they go on holiday, but it has to stay out of the water, out of the sun while it’s healing.”
Better to get inked in winter so you can show it off, scab-free, in T-shirt season. Just take pains to protect it. “Always wear sun protection,” adds Reed. Light colours will get broken down quicker, but if you wear a high-factor suncream, they stay nice and vibrant.”
Thanks to the rise of inked-up Instagram celebs, and real ones like David Beckham and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, body art is more popular than ever. But a tattoo is more permanent than an Insta-post, and considering a report by the British Association of Dermatologists found that nearly a third of people regret theirs, it pays to make sensible (and sober) decisions.
But we all make mistakes, and if you (or any of the guys you went to Kavos with in 2009) are one of them, all is not lost. “Laser removal is becoming an increasingly popular option for guys who don’t want to live with a tattoo they no longer like,” says Vanessa Charest from London Real Skin, part of The London Skin and Hair Clinic. “It’s a process that works by emitting light energy into the skin to break the ink into smaller pieces, allowing the body’s white blood cells to remove the particles via the liver.”
As a medical procedure, it will almost definitely hurt both you and your wallet more than the original ink, but a medium-sized black tattoo can be removed in around ten sessions. “In the last decade, the technology has developed so much that it’s no longer as lengthy or expensive a process as many think, but it’s still a big undertaking that requires time and patience,” adds Charest.
This Soho store has some of London’s best artists, plus regular guest spots from world-renowned tattooers like Chad Koeplinger and former Gallows lead singer Frank Carter. The team offers every imaginable style – whether you fancy a small graphic or a full Japanese bodysuit.
If you’re about all things bold and monochrome, double tap on rising tattooer Hellbow Elliott. His illustrations tend towards the macabre – think spiders, swords and skulls – but his ever-changing style means his feed flows through everything from Geishas to nesting birds.
Hooper made his name with tribal designs that have since morphed into almost impossibly intricate geometric patterns. Within his whorls you’ll find Asian mythology, planets and stars, all twisted into not-quite-recognisable new forms.
Second-generation artist Tim Hendricks gives old-school tattooing a modern twist: think black-and-white pin-up girls, boats with an impossible number of sails and skateboards crossed like a Jolly Roger. He also reps his favourite tattooers, so his feed is a great way to find new talent.
Fans of pneumatic blondes and leering sailors will leave disappointed. Machlev’s feed proves just how much you can do with straight lines – his geometric designs are part-sound wave, part-blueprint, all mesmerising.
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