In this article, we explore the history, styles and artists within the Illustrative tattoo style.
Illustrative tattoos could easily be mistaken as mere drawings on the skin, immediately recognizable due to the line quality and style. We discover the history, styles and artists who have used the organic and varied techniques of sketching to create their work with an origin deep in the antiquity of man, from primitivism to modernism.
The History of Illustrative Tattoos
Within the history of drawing, there are many different movements that have perpetuated the technique to the forefront of fine arts. However, we’ve highlighted the most popular strains within this genre since there are so many artists, techniques, and moments in historical contexts, that are a part of the Illustrative tattoo style. We’ve included the style of Old Masters preliminary outlines for masterpieces, etching and engraving, Abstract Expressionism, sketch-like gestures, German Expressionism and more.
There are also many different techniques involved in Illustrative tattoo style. Stippling, dotwork, linework, cross-hatching…modes of applying the ink vary for different textures or desired looks. We’ve tried to include many of the different way artists work within this illustrative tattoo style, but with personal tastes and concepts, the options are almost virtually endless!
The oldest cave painting is circa and it is 40,000 years old. Although you may think these paintings would be simple, they are far from and It seems self-expression is about as old as humankind. Dated at about 20,000 years ago, the bison paintings in the Altamira cave in are incredibly detailed and expressive. Showing the form of the animal in the abstracted shapes of Cubism, they are eerily haunting in their modernity. The same could be said of Chauvet Cave, the focus of the 2011 documentary by Werner Herzog.
The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, nestled in Southern France, is one of the best-preserved examples of cave paintings dating back to around 30,000. The movement, the line quality, the layering of pigments are all some of the most beautiful examples of human illustration. And although it may seem a far cry from Illustrative tattooing, the caves prove just how intuitive and integral this style is to humanity.
Although the influence of cave painting can be seen, perhaps, in cubism, abstract expressionism and more, drawing was typically seen as a preliminary sketch coinciding with architectural proposals, or in the process of a planning a painting. However, even still, some of these are still used by Illustrative tattoo artists as inspiration for their pieces. Take for instance the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci.
A sketch he made in the late 15 century depicting the perfect proportions of man as expounded by Vitruvius, an ancient Roman architect. Not only the image, but the idea of sacred geometry is often used in Illustrative work due to its origins and techniques. So while illustration has often had expressive means, it can also help in recording ideas and events or even as visuals for advertising. Obviously, before the invention of the camera in 1816, people had no means of conveying or replicating reality without the means of drawing and therefore many styles developed globally.
The Styles and Artists of Illustrative Tattoos
The etching and engraving style most often seen in Blackwork is inherently a part of Illustrative tattooing. Woodcuts are also considered to be in this family. In most cases illustrating the envisioned finished product includes drawings as an initial step in creating detailed work. Odd Tattooer, Aaron Aziel, and Franco Maldonado are some illustrative tattoo artists who frequently employ this line-heavy style for their work.
Inspired by the works of Goya, Gustave Dore or Albrecht Durer, this can have a very surreal or dark look depending on the tattooists personal tastes. illustrative tattoo artists who tend towards this illustrative tattoo style usually use fine line needles in conjunction with drawing techniques like cross-hatching, parallel hatching, and, at times, small dashes. These particular line styles are great for replicating the texture of fur, or the look of antique etched or engraved prints.
Tattooists who are inspired by engraving and etching often fall into the category of Blackwork or Dark Art. It’s pretty understandable why; the visual artists and past masters who have influenced these works were often interested in esoteric philosophies, alchemy, and magick. Sigils, demons, and mythical creatures can be illustrated in many varied ways, but these pieces usually rely heavily on black, or black and grey.
Alexander Grim is a very good example of this. There are some illustrative tattoo artists, such as Derek Noble, who employ colour but they are usually very deep tones like blood red or burnished orange. Some illustrative tattoo artists, such as Cristian Casas, are inspired by these same concepts and tend to straddle a few different styles; merging Dark Art and Neo-Traditional, Casas still tends towards very bold Illustrative tattooing.
Another Illustrative tattoo style is highly influenced by the art movement German Expressionism, an aesthetic that started before the first World War and had its peak in the 1920s. Perhaps one of the most influential artists from this era and movement is Egon Schiele, who died at the very young age of 28 in 1918. His portfolio, however, has gone on to inspire many illustrative tattoo artists including Korean artists Nadi, Leeso, and Panta Choi.
Perhaps part of the fine art replication trend currently hitting the tattooing community, the fine line is perfect for the expressive linework that artists like Schiele and Modigliani. There are other tattooists inspired by this movement, particularly by the visual artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Käthe Kollwitz who were known for their incredible prints. These tattoos often have thicker lines, but the designs still radiate an energetic movement like those with a fine line.
Of course, art movements are all incredibly varied, but Abstract Expression, Cubism, and Fauvism are closely related in ideas about colour, shape, and form but have each had their effect on Illustrative tattooing. Artists involved in these movements like Picasso, Willem de Koonig, and Cy Twombly created work that was highly emotive and often very colourful. Using abstract shapes, quick gestures of line, and, at times, words, bodies, and faces, these artists and their movements continue to inspire collectors and artists alike.
Ayhan Karadag, along with Carlo Armen and Jeff Sypherd, has done replications of Picasso paintings, or have fused his bold and vibrant style with their own. Parisian based artist Maison Matemose is a highly abstract and illustrative tattooist, much like Korean artist Gong Greem who uses bright colours and forms like Kandinsky. illustrative tattoo artists like Servadio and Rita Salt also share a line heavy quality, pulled from the Primitivist origins of Expression and Abstraction. Their work is usually figurative, but that’s the beautiful thing about Illustrative work: it’s always enhanced by the personality and style of the artist.
The Japanese and Chinese arts have influenced Illustrative work around the world for centuries. There are many different styles within this category alone. Calligraphic line work often looks graceful and spontaneous, while still somehow perfectly depicting the chosen subject. Tattooer Nadi tends towards this style, using different line weights, and sketchy textures to create his work. Irezumi, of course, is also a huge influence on Illustrative tattooing, These Japanese tattoos mainly gathered their aesthetic from the Ukiyo-e prints of the Edo period.
The outlines flattened perspective, and use of pattern were all characteristics commonly seen within these prints. Even now, most Japanese pieces have a stead black outline, almost as if the tattooist took a pen to the skin. Due to the use of pattern, and sometimes colour, this outline is important. It makes the designs clearer and holds in pigment. Illustrative techniques are usually not just for looks, there are reasons why tattooists work this way. With Japanese tattoos depicting Chrysanthemums, beautifully intricate kimonos, or the many scales on a dragon is made easier with a sweeping outline. Some artists working in this vein of Illustrative tattooing are Chris Garver, Henning Jorgensen, Ami James, Mike Rubendall, Sergey Buslaev, Lupo Horiokami, Rion, Brindi, Luca Ortis, Dansin, and Wendy Pham.
Immediately looking at Irezumi you can see the influence on Neo-Traditional, another strain of Illustrative tattooing. Not only inspired by the same Ukiyo-e prints of Irezumi, but also Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Art Nouveau, in particular, was highly affected by the Japanese use of nature as a concept, as well as graceful curving lines to delineate frames, faces, and botanicals. Art Nouveau was more lush and decorative than most Japanese crafts that inspired it, but you can see a wonderful use of pattern, filigree, and ornamentals in the works of tattooists Hannah Flowers, Miss Juliet, and Antony Flemming.
Some of these artists go beyond Illustrative tattoo style, to a look that is highly painterly, such as Aimee Cornwell, however, you can still often see the spark of Art Nouveau artists. Visual masters such as Alphonse Mucha, Gustav Klimt and Aubrey Beardsley are some favourites; many reproductions of their work have been made into ink.
Neo-Traditional isn’t the only Illustrative tattoo style influenced by Irezumi and Ukiyo-e. Japanese animation, with a rich history of its own, garnered widespread overseas appreciation thanks to Western adaptations, dubs, and networks started pulling animes for their own programming. Toonami, first originating as an afternoon and evening block on Cartoon Network, exhibited shows like Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Outlaw Star, and Gundam Wing.
This was also in thanks to the materialization of highly skilled animation studios like Studio Ghibli. Even now many tattooers are asked to replicate characters from anime and manga, especially in the genre of New School tattooing. The Illustrative tattoo styles not only includes Japanese comics but global comics and graphic novels as well. Marvel superheroes have become a recent fad and, since the ’90s, Disney tattoos depicting favourite characters or scenes have always been on trend for collectors.
It’s easy to understand why; tattoos are used for people to express what they love…anime, manga, comics, and Pixar tend to have some of the most passionate fans who love to ink their skin. Most anime and comics are first drawn…and while many films and books are becoming computer generated these days, there is still the use of line that is indicative of the Illustrative tattoo style.
Another Illustrative tattoo style is Chicano. The main reason why much of the work in this genre is so illustrative, is due to its influences, and origins. Considering its roots in pencil and ballpoint pen drawings, it’s no wonder that stylistically the artworks blend those techniques with an incredibly rich cultural background. While many people are familiar with the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, other illustrative tattoo artists such as Jesus Helguera, María Izquierdo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros were also at the forefront of the Mexican artistic output.
Their work, along with other South American artists, mainly focused on depictions of political strife, familial representations, and illustrations of daily life. Later, modern stylistic approaches emerged that were directly influenced by life behind bars. Using what few materials they had in prison, or barrios dotting the landscape of LA, artists drew inspiration directly from their own life experiences, as had their artistic forerunners.
Scenes from gang life, beautiful women, slick cars with filigree script, and Catholic crosses quickly went from hand-drawn illustrations, such as the ballpoint pen decorated handkerchiefs and linens called Paños, to iconic Illustrative tattoos. Inmates would use pure ingenuity to piece together a homemade tattoo machine and, using only the black or blue ink they had available to them, depict that which they knew best. Chuco Moreno, Freddy Negrete, Chuey Quintanar, and Tamara Santibañez are at the forefront of contemporary Chicano tattooing.
As you can see, Illustrative tattooing involves many different styles, cultures, histories, and concepts. The beauty of this genre of tattooing is that it merely represents the use of line; if a tattoo looks as if it could have been drawn on a piece of paper rather than skin, it’s probably Illustrative. Of course, some tattoos are more illustration based than others, but the varied look, the amount of styles, the abilities of the illustrative tattoo artists above…everything about this particular style is inspiring and necessary to the art form of tattooing.