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Beyond Butterflies & Barbed Wire: Tattoo Designs That Stand Out

Mary McCoy, Senior Librarian, Art, Music, & Recreation Department,
Arm with a tattoo on it

Instagram is a perfectly good place to research tattoo designs, or to find an artist whose work you admire, but it can quickly become a sea of interchangeable infinity symbols, feathers, skulls, anchors, cheesy inspirational quotes, and mistranslated Kanji. And we all deserve better than that, right?

Perhaps you would be surprised to learn that tattoo design research is one of the many services librarians can provide! In addition to compilations of tattoo designs, the Art, Music, & Recreation Department has collections of illustrations, historical clip art, and graphic design, and other inspirational sources to help you design a tattoo that’s unique, beautiful, and perfect for you.

If you’re looking for a few off the beaten path ideas right now, here are some librarian-recommended and librarian-approved design ideas.

Floral tattoos never go out of style, but you can freshen up those motifs by looking to the source for material that’s unique. One such source for precise yet phantasmagorical plantlife designs is the 1696 Accurate Description of Terrestrial Plants. Art Nouveau florals, in the style of Will Bradley’s Victor Bicycle posters, are breathtaking as well.

floral ink drawings from art books

Pages from Decorative Floral Engravings: 118 Plates from the 1696 Accurate Description of Terrestrial Plants, and Will Bradley: His Graphic Art; a Collection of His Posters, Illustrations, Typographic Designs & Decorations

Animal designs are also extremely popular, especially cephalopods, birds, and butterflies. You can find many reference drawings of these and other inkable critters in the library’s collections of 18th-century and 19th-century animal illustrations, as meticulous as they are beautiful. And if you feel like strolling from the beaten path, may we suggest a Malayan sun bear, a Blood pheasant, or a skate or ray.

animals etchings from a design book

Pages from Cuvier's Animals: 867 Illustrations from the Classic Nineteenth-Century Work, and Treasury of Animal Illustrations: From Eighteenth-Century Sources

I love a sexy devil or a rockabilly pinup as much as the next person, but nothing says timeless like an Alphonse Mucha beauty. Look to work from the Golden Age of Illustration as well—the enchanted wonderlands and fairytale dreamscapes of Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen, and Edmund Dulac will hold you spellbound.

color illustrations from art books

Pages from Dulac by Edward Dulac and Alphonse Mucha by Patrick Bade & Victoria Charles

Skulls and angels are two more perennial favorites, and you can find unusual variations on those themes in medieval and Renaissance illustrations. This cupid, holding a cup of tears in one hand and a spit full of hearts in the other, is crying out to be tattooed on someone’s forearm. Aubrey Beardsley’s saucy and subversive illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome are similarly inkable.

images from tattoo books

Pages from The Best of Beardsley, edited by R.A. Walker and Bizarreries and Fantasies of Grandville: 266 Illustrations from "un Autre Monde" and "Les Animaux" Introduction by Stanley Appelbaum

The barbed wire armband is another common tattoo. If you’re interested in a pattern that’s more unique, consider a pattern motif from ancient Egyptian or Mesopotamian art.

Egyptian border patterns from a book

Pages from Pattern Motifs: A Sourcebook by Graham Leslie McCallum and Art Nouveau & Early Art Deco Type & Design edited by Theodore Menten

If it’s going to be inked on your body for the rest of your life, you owe it to yourself to do a little research. Don’t be afraid to ask a librarian for help tracking down the right source material. Clearly, we have strong opinions about this.

Suggested Reading

DIY Temporary Tattoo Art: Easy Step-By-Step Instructions for Watercolor, Henna, Flash Tattoos, and More!
Cao, K. L.,

DIY Temporary Tattoos: Draw It, Print It, Ink It
Baldwin, Pepper,

The Tattoo Dictionary: An A-Z Guide to Choosing Your Tattoo
Aitken-Smith, Trent,

The Tattoorialist: Tattoo Street Style
Brulez, Nicolas.

Geek Ink: The World's Smartest Tattoos for Rebels, Nerds, Scientists, and Intellectuals

100 Years of Tattoos
McComb, David,

Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed
Zimmer, Carl, 1966-

Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them
Fitzgerald, Isaac.