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21 designers reveal their awesome tattoos

Some well-known creatives unveil their awesome tattoos, and reveal the story behind it and what makes it special to them.

Whether it starts as the ultimate showcase of a favourite artist's work or is motivated by something deeply personal and meaningful, many creatives don't stop at their first tattoo.

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Getting inked often becomes a compulsion, transforming dull skin into a walking work of art. And there's one thing on which the vast majority of designers we've spoken to agree: respect the artistic flair of the guy with the needle.

Whether they're inking a design you've given them, interpreting your brief in their own way or cooking you up something entirely from scratch, they're called tattoo artists for a reason.

Ryan Carson

 ryan carson
awesome tattoos

"The tattoo is for my wife, Gillian," explains Ryan Carson, web designer, entrepreneur and CEO of Treehouse. Colorado-born Carson recently moved back to the States from Bath, England, where he'd lived with his wife for many years. "The Lion and Unicorn are from the British Passport and the Teacup symbolizes England, as she’s from St. Helens, UK," he adds.

Tattoo artist:

Kirsten Holliday, Portland, Oregon.

Steven Bonner

 Steven Bonner
awesome tattoos

"I wanted something timeless," says designer and illustrator Steven Bonner of his impressive tattoo. "So I chose two things that have consistently appealed to me all my life: birds and skulls. I like black and grey, and trusted my tattoo artist to do something great, as he's a brilliant illustrator with a great style. Done in around 10 hours."

Tattoo artist:

Marcus, Custom Ink, Glasgow.

James O'Connell

 James O'Connell
 James O'Connell

After admiring the fine detail in the Hokusai Great Wave at an exhibition, O'Connell, a designer at Dinosaur, decided to get an oriental sleeve tattoo. "The whole idea is to make the elements big so that they can be recognised from distance, so I decided to go for a couple of lilies surrounded by those famous waves and a couple of koi carp," he explains. The artist drew straight onto his arm with pen for an hour before the inking began – and the work took around 35 hours in total.

Tattoo artist:

Danny Rossiter, Studio 81, Manchester, UK.

Dustin Hostetler

 Dustin Hostetler
 Dustin Hostetler

After graduating from high school, illustrator, artist, curator and publisher Dustin Hostetler opted to get a colour wheel tattooed on his wrist to represent his commitment to the arts. "As my life moved forward as a graphic designer, getting arrows tattooed made perfect sense," he suggests. "To me, the arrow is the perfect representation of a distilled graphic design image. For the most part, I've basically just said, 'Draw me some arrows, and fit them on my body', and they do it."

Tattoo artists:

Elizabeth Carey Smith

 Elizabeth Carey Smith
 Elizabeth Carey Smith

Over the years, graphic designer and typographer Carey Smith has covered her body with 26 tiny letters: "I didn't start off thinking I'd get the whole alphabet," she admits. "I got the first one (j) on a whim, then the next few (g, a, q) without thinking much about it." It grew from there: every time she drew a letter frequently, it was inked onto her. "It's the most uneconomical way of getting tattooed ever," she smiles. "You pay by the hour, and these little letters take about seven minutes each."

Tattoo artist:

Stephanie Tamez, New York Adorned, New York, USA.

Ryan Sievert

 Ryan Sievert
 Ryan Sievert

Before he was old enough to get tattooed, designer, illustrator and photographer Ryan Sievert opted for piercings instead: "That was the best thing I could have done," he believes. "By the time I was old enough to get any work done, I knew I was too picky to settle on a tattoo that wouldn't make me cringe later on." He and his younger sister got matching tattoos, based on how they settled fights when they were younger – and most of his others also have family ties of some description.

Tattoo artists:

Carson Brown

 Carson Brown
 Carson Brown

A fan of simple, graphic tattoos, freelance designer and photographer Carson Brown started with a circle: "I wanted a reminder of how to live that wasn't type, and didn't have significant cultural meaning," he explains. "I wanted to get the triangular void after watching Donnie Darko. I love that movie." Although he has no regrets, Brown does get a lot of people asking if he likes Pacman. "The triangle feels a little unfinished; I'd like to add more to the back of my arm," he adds.

Tattoo artist:

Dav at Love, Michigan, USA.

Chuck Anderson

 Chuck Anderson
 Chuck Anderson

Rather than attaching overly deep meaning to his tattoos, creative director Chuck Anderson has more of an aesthetic attraction: "I just love black-and-grey tattooing," he shrugs. His right arm sleeve is a montage of natural imagery, such as orchids, mountains, clouds and birds. The left arm includes his wife's name, 'Holly Giovanna'; a pair of cherubs; and a small 'NP' for NoPattern. "In some case I came with an exact plan, but for the big stuff I let the artists take my general idea, and do what they wanted," he explains.

Tattoo artists:

  • Right forearm to wrist: David Allen, Chicago, USA.
  • Lines and birds on right arm: Rich Kocis, Peace of Art Tattoo, Chicago, USA.
  • Mountains/clouds/birds up to shoulder: Kore Flatmo, PluraBella, Cincinnati, USA.

Gavin Strange

 Gavin Strange
 Gavin Strange

It's no surprise that Gavin Strange's calf tattoo reflects his self-confessed obsession with bikes: "The ship wheel represents both being by the water here in beautiful Bristol, and riding bicycles in general," explains the senior designer at Aardman Digital. His friend, accomplished tattoo illustrator Ollie Munden, designed it following a late-night iChat – and also crafted a pair of Mexican sugar skulls for the tops of his feet. "Most of my tattoos are hidden, and I thought, what better place to have a surprising bit of ink than on top of my feet?" grins Strange.

Tattoo artist:

Jessica Hische and Russ Maschmeyer

 Jessica Hische and Russ Maschmeyer
 Jessica Hische and Russ Maschmeyer

Before Facebook designer Maschmeyer met freelance letterer and illustrator Hische, he was considering an RGB tattoo. "I convinced him it would be 'conceptually stronger' if I got the CMYK version of the same tattoo," enthuses Hische, who's now engaged to him. "He was a little freaked out about having a couple's tattoo, but the more we talked about it the more it made sense. Russ got  additive colour (RGB) since his career passions were primarily screen-based; I got subtractive colour (CMY) because I started my career in print design."

Tattoo artist:

Virgina Elwood, NYC Adorned, New York.

Brian Carley

 Brian Carley
 Brian Carley

Executive creative director Carley's first tattoo was inspired by the artist Dave McKean, who used to create the cover art for the comic book series Sandman. "I'm a bit of a nerd," he shrugs. The Saatchi & Saatchi creative director prefers to give the man with the needle relative free rein: "I'm not a tattoo artist: I don't understand all the idiosyncrasies of the art form, so I don't assume that I know what's best," he reasons. "I'm confident that the artist I'm paying will do the best job possible."

Tattoo artist:

Three Kings Tattoo, Brooklyn, New York, USA.

Jon Contino

 Jon Contino
 Jon Contino

"I wanted to get a classic pin-up style image of my wife on my forearm, but I didn't want it to look exactly like her," remembers creative director and freelance illustrator Jon Contino. "I thought it would be weird if we were out with friends or family and I had a giant, photo-realistic portrait of my wife within eyeshot." His solution was to use a reference shot from an odd angle, stripping back some detail to make the portrait more generic. The inking process took about one and a half hours in total.

Tattoo artist:

Mohawk John, Three Kings, Brooklyn, New York, USA.

45rpm

 45rpm
 45rpm

45rpm, a Bristol-based artist and illustrator and member of the WHAT crew, believes that 'traditional' tattoos have the most timeless appeal, and prefers to let the artist interpret an idea in their own style. "Marcos at Broad Street Studio tattooed my bike-based piece. I said I wanted a penny farthing; he drew an amazing design," he recalls. "It's like collecting art from great artists, except you get to see it all day every day. Each piece of ink reminds me of a good chapter in my stupid existence. No regrets."

Tattoo artists:

Rick Nunn

 Rick Nunn
 Rick Nunn

"I was always going to get tattooed; it was just a case of deciding what I wanted," begins freelance
photographer and designer Rick Nunn. "After making that first step, the ampersand, the flood gates opened." Most of his tattoos have been a two-way collaboration with the artist – he'll often pitch a concept with a few doodles, and then bounce ideas back and forth. "I really like the feeling of being tattooed – it's kinda Zen," he adds. "That and being left with a permanent work of art on your skin."

awesome tattoos

Tattoo artist:

Mitch Allenden, Inspirations, Leeds, UK.

Sara Blake

 Sara Blake
 Sara Blake

"I never intended on being a very tattooed person," smiles freelance illustrator/designer Sara Blake, who's now pretty comprehensively covered. "I started with a small one on my shoulder, and it grew from there. I like things you have to suffer for in order to earn." Blake has forged an artistic relationship with Steve Boltz at Smith Street Studio, having some earlier tattoos removed since working with him. "His brief is pretty simple: I give him a body part, an animal subject matter and the rest is up to him," she shrugs.

Tattoo artist:

Steve Boltz, Smith Street Tattoo, Brooklyn, New York, USA.

Alan Wardle

 Alan Wardle
 Alan Wardle

Newcastle-born, London-based designer Alan Wardle is now on his second tattoo, and believes each one should have a bit of meaning behind it: "Being a North East lad, I wanted something to represent the area, the people and the memories that made me who I am today," he explains. "Magpies are the nickname of the football team I grew up supporting, and I had to have two because of the nursery rhyme. Couldn't have one, and bring sorrow on myself."

Tattoo artist:

Mitch Allenden, Inspirations, Leeds, UK.

Suffoca Boyce

 Suffoca Boyce
 Suffoca Boyce

"A lot of artists get tattoos for the same reason: they enjoy art, and being expressive with it," suggests Suffoca Boyce, founder of Suffoca Clothing. "Where better to reflect your life stories and interests than on your own skin?" Once he found an artist who shared his wavelength, he gave her free rein to interpret the brief. "My woman piece took three sittings," Boyce recalls. "I really enjoy the whole process of getting tattooed; it still makes me nervous beforehand, but I feel like I've accomplished something great after."

Tattoo artist:

Valerie Vargas, Frith Street Tattoo, Soho, London, UK.

Jeffrey Kalmikoff

 Jeffrey Kalmikoff
 Jeffrey Kalmikoff

Jeffrey Kalmikoff, head of product and design at Betable, has a winged hourglass on each upper arm inspired by the Latin phrase 'Memento Mori' (remember death). "One is full, with big feathered wings; the other empty with tattered, broken wings," he explains. The scenes below are inspired by a line from William Cullen Bryant's poem, Thanatopsis – 'All that breathe, will share thy destiny' – and are intended to be a macabre way of stressing the importance of making the most of the time you have. The two arms took around 36 hours in total.

Tattoo artist:

Tim Biedron, Deluxe Tattoo, Chicago, USA (but now at Pioneer Tattoo).

Joshua Smith

 Joshua Smith
 Joshua Smith

Illustrator and designer Joshua Smith is influenced by tattoo culture, particularly from the 70s and 80s, when they were taboo – and he believes that they may become so again, with current 'trends' becoming ugly and dated. His own ink is more individual than that: "I decided to get my kids' names, and also the word 'Piety'," he recalls. "I ended up misspelling it as 'Peity', but the meaning of the word is the 'pursuit of perfection', so there's extra meaning added," he shrugs. "Mistakes add something epic to life."

Tattoo artists:

  • Script tattoo: BJ Betts, Orlando, USA.
  • Skull, snakes and roses on lower arm: Angelo, Red Letter, Tampa, Florida, USA.
  • Top of hand: Big Sleeps, Norm Will Rise, LA, USA.
  • Fingers: Ghost Wolf, LA, USA.

Matt Booth

 Matt Booth
 Matt Booth

Web designer and Flash developer Matt Booth was fascinated by tattoos from an early age – as a child in the 70s, he once embarrassed his mother by telling a man off on the bus for drawing on himself. As an adult, Booth opted for a full Japanese-style sleeve that took six four-hour sessions, with two weeks' healing time in between. "I like where it cuts off at my wrist; so much so, that I haven't worn a watch since having it done six years ago," he chuckles.

Tattoo artist:

Louis Malloy, Middleton Tattoo Studio, Manchester, UK.

Nigel Dennis

 Nigel Dennis
 Nigel Dennis

Tattoos, for designer and illustrator Nigel Dennis, are a permanent record of temporary feelings and states of mind. After getting his first tattoo on an impulse, and partly inspired by the movie Memento, he hasn't looked back – and gets "the itch" every few months to get another. "It's really addictive," he insists, and has had six or seven different artists work on him to-date. "One of the pieces was inspired by John Dyer Baizley's work," he explains. "I love his band, and I love his art."

Tattoo artist:

"Six or seven different artists."

Words: Nick Carson

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