Giving Form to the Intangible: Meaning and Transformation in Tattooing

Giving Form to the Intangible: Meaning and Transformation in Tattooing

Many tattoos have meaning, but each one is unique. In this article we look at how getting tattooed gives form to the intangible.

The notion of Western tattooing now being ‘not just for sailors and bikers’ that has been perpetuated by media headlines for decades is not true, because, in fact, it never was just for sailors and bikers. Art historian Anna Felicity Friedman points out that since the 1850's, tourists have been traveling to the Far East to obtain small souvenir tattoos (2015, p.20), which included Victorian aristocracy (Cawley, 2014). That withstanding, although tattooing has been a part of Western culture for decades, it is feasible to suggest that it has made the transition into the sphere of popular culture. 

Statistics from Simply Business (2012) indicate a 112% increase in tattoo start-ups in the UK from 2009 – 2012, and at the time of writing (June 2019) there are reported to be 115 million uploads on Instagram containing the hashtag ‘#tattoo’ (Influencer Marketing Hub, 2019). Far from being ‘not just for bikers or sailors’, it’s for anybody who has the desire and means to get tattooed - from your 18-year-old nephew, to your 81-year-old grandma.

As members of tattooing community, collectors, enthusiasts, and tattooists, active participants with the content of Tattoodo and other tattoo media platforms, we tend to be interested in the work that is refreshingly novel, beautifully executed, and creatively composed. Some tattooists may be fortunate insomuch as they are able to function as what is referred to by Sanders and Vail (2008) as ‘fine art’ tattooists - tattooists who are able to be “selective about the images they create and the clients with whom they will work” (p.19). 

This is not the case for tattooists on a broader scale however. As a (albeit junior) practitioner, tattooing in such a way appears glamorous, but tattooing is inherently collaborative, and unless I’m tattooing myself, the least important part of my role as a tattooist should be satisfying my own desires. Tattooing is a service industry.  With the exception of a fortunate minority, the reality of the occupation is that for many tattooists, not every tattoo they produce is in accordance to their own artistic interests. But that doesn’t necessarily have to make it any less magic.

Names on wrists, infinity symbols, and band logos contribute to the bread-and-butter of many tattooist’s income. Subject matter of such a nature can be considered of equal validity on recognition that tattooing is a medium, that can be adopted using the approach of a visual artist, just as much as it can a craftsperson. There is no hierarchy; they’re just using the same medium and doing different things, depending on what the client asks for. 

If a client had a sleeve started by Chris Garver, for example, they would return to him to finish it, but should they want the date of birth of their children tattooed in a simple script then it would not be necessary that they get tattooed by Garver exclusively. It’s not that the client’s standards have dropped, it’s just that it’s unnecessary to undergo the longer waiting list for a piece that can be produced more or less equally well by other tattooists with a shorter waiting list or lesser cost. It isn’t necessary to have the artistic input of the same tattooist in such a case – just  a craft worker with the skills and materials who has, as Sennett (2008) calls it, a “knowing which act should be done with which thing.” (p.195) 

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There are many academic literature and media articles on tattooing as a singular phenomenon, but there is clearly a distinction between your mother having an initial tattooed on her ankle, and your sister having a Japanese backpiece. It is the medium that is shared. We as members of the tattoo community may sometimes favor the latter example, as there’s a powerful aspect to tattoos of such a nature. But there is a unique romance that is present in the medium of the tattoo and evident in some of the less creatively engaging work – the transformative ability for the tattoo to bring something intangible into a material embodied form. In some cases, the finished piece is perhaps less important than the process of having obtained it. 

In order to elucidate, the following example from my own tattooing practice may be of benefit. The black linework tattoo was completed in the early stages of my tattooing career, for a young man who held a lot of pride in being an older sibling to his 7-year-old sister, who he said was very important to him. His sister had produced drawings of various subject matter, that are in keeping with conventional visual attributes and naivety of child-like drawings. The client sought out a tattoo of his sisters drawing to be produced above his knee cap, with as little deviation from the original image in the tattoo as possible. This meant overlapping broken lines, varied line thickness and depth, and many other factors that would no doubt make countless of our tattooing forefathers turn in their graves.

In the example given above, it can be argued that the finished article, the tattoo itself, is not necessarily as important as the process of obtaining it for the client. Had the source image of the tattoo above not been produced by the client’s sister, and instead by someone with whom he was unfamiliar, the significance of the piece would shift. Rather than be indicative of the clients sincere and sentimental appreciation of his relationship with his sister at a particular moment in time, so much so that he is willing to honor for the remainder of his embodied existence, the tattoo may simply be a weird talking point, devoid of context or significance. Had the image been drawn by me, a supplemental figure in the process, rather than his sister, the client’s relationship with the piece would be very different.

In both cases, it is not the tattoo as a piece of well executed visual art that the client desires, but rather the utilization of the unique properties of tattooing to take something outside of the world, and bring it into material embodied form. Discussion of ‘meaningful tattoos’ is common, but as Sullivan (2009) points out, “there is no 'objective meaning': the tattoo will generate different meanings depending on a range of factors…” (p. 132). 

The tattoos discussed are rich with meaning and symbolism, but not in the same way that a semi colon tattoo reportedly symbolizes the wearers solidarity against suicide and depression, or that the Scorpio Zodiac symbol might mean the wearer is ‘a bit mysterious’. The tattoo I created for my client can’t be read in such objective terms, as the meaning is generated on a subjective and personal level. Rather than communicate something specific and articulate outwardly, they are the physical result of something disarticulate and abstract that has been partially manifested materially – the relationship between the client and their loved ones that has been expressed at a particular moment in time, but is always contingent. 

Some of the tattoos discussed or displayed here may not be the kind of work that tattooists might typically include in their portfolio to show off their skills, while others may utilize the style to embody the same sort of significance. But as mentioned earlier, that’s not always the point, as the tattooist’s role is to serve the client, not the self. As tattooing’s clientele expands, the demand for different kinds of work changes too, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  

One of tattooing’s unique properties is its permanence which can be explored in ways such as those discussed, and may attract a different sort of clientele to those seeking out beautiful visuals alone. What’s exciting, romantic, and exhilarating about tattooing is that, as a medium, it is accessible to all and can be manifested for a plethora of purposes to a variety of people. Tattooing being adopted in the mainstream might mean that it’s “not what it used to be”, but perhaps rather than that meaning it having been spoiled, perhaps it just makes it more special.

Written by Adam McDade, Junior Tattooist at Triplesix Studios and a AHRC NPIF Funded PhD Student in Design at the University of Sunderland, UK. Edited and curated by Justine Morrow.


Cawley, L. (2014) ‘People always say the same thing about tattoos’, BBC News, 3 February. Available at: (Accessed: 6 December 2017).

Friedman, A. F., Elkins, J., Krutak, L., Lodder, M., Schonberger, N., Galliot, S. and Wittmann, O. (2015) The World Atlas of Tattoo. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lodder, M. (2010) ‘Televising the Tattoo’, Paperweight Screens.

Sanders, C. and Vail, D. A. (2008) Customizing the body: the art and culture of tattooing. Rev. and expanded ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman. London: Allen Lane.

Simply Business (2012) Sharp rise in the number of tattoo parlours launching across the UK, Simply Business. Available at: (Accessed: 10 December 2017).

Sullivan, N. (2009) ‘The Somatechnics of Bodily Inscription: Tattooing’, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 10(3), pp. 129–141. doi: 10.1080/15240650902979210.

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