Gunnar Gaylord: How to Create an Individual Tattoo Style
By Gunnar Gaylord
I decided to write a blog a bit different from the earlier ones. I thought maybe I would touch on a topic that may help aspiring tattoo artists. I am often asked in interviews and by individuals, how I created a unique style. So here is a concise breakdown.
As a disclaimer I will inform you that the information I am going to share is based not on what may be deemed “correct,” it is however the way in which I formed my style. I hasten to say that at times I fall short on artistic academic knowledge. However, as an artist, I know that the style I created is unique and hence feel that this is something I have the knowledge to discuss…
Ironically, my art as well as style was not born from academia or knowledge but of ignorance and desire. My artistic knowledge grew from a desire to improve on my art, because I knew I could only get better with knowledge. there are rules and foundations one must observe in order to create a style that has plausibility. Yet, knowledge initially had very little to do with how I became a stylized artist.
The process I am going to share is not exactly the path I took, but a reflection of my past, coupled with the knowledge I now have. I know it works, because I have redefined my art many times at this point , albeit subtly as to not push away fans of my early work.
First, let me stress the importance of a solid foundation in your craft. It seems very instinctive for tattooist to want to go above and beyond their natural ability and talent to try and “stand out” or do “cool work.” This is not just a terrible idea, it is very selfish and damaging to your growth as a tattooist and as an artist.
The best place to begin is at the basics. I am a huge fan of traditional work for one reason in general; it showcases technique and knowledge of craft over shear artistic imagination. Imagination is wonderful, however we often have the ability to cover flaws in craft with “artistic expression.” I believe traditional tattoos are the foundation of where all tattoo artist should begin. Why?
Because a good traditional tattoo is easily recognizable… as are bad ones. A traditional tattoo requires clean solid line-work, shading, coloring and the ability to heal and hold up on the body for a lifetime. With the onslaught of new-school and color-realism these ideas are often lost or forgotten. I say this from my own sheer ignorance at times. However, without this foundation it is easy to hide ones’ mistakes in what one may deem “style.”
All tattoo artists should have to master three basic skills before moving forward in tattooing and designing their own original images. LINE-WORK, SHADING and COLORING. (Coloring is not the same as blending, that comes later.) Once a clear understanding and application of craft is reached, then the ability to manipulate artistic style becomes reasonable. Also, please note that if you can’t do it on paper, it should not be attempted on skin and you should know your artistic limits.
During the process of honing your tattoo skills. Drawing should be an everyday task. I can not stress the importance of drawing. It is the foundation of most mediums and the more your drawing skills improve the more your artistic vision and style will.
With that said, this is the process of developing unique style:
STEP 1: IMAGINATION
Imagination is an important factor in creating unique style. But let me say it is not the most important factor. Detroit tattoo artists Bob Tyrrell and Tom Renshaw are both black-and-gray masters and have made a career replicating exactly what they see into skin without overly interpreting and they both do it beautifully. Yet, both are very different and can easily be recognized by distinct style. Unique style is created more from practice and application than from imagination.
However, I do believe it is important to develop your imagination. I believe imagination is not just a natural occurrence but something that we can learn. I know that all people have the gift of imagination, I believe some people are just more in tune with their imagination. How do you know you have imagination? If you dream, then you have an imagination.
But a good way to hone your imagination is to turn off the tv and computer and read a book. Read something that is descriptive and that you understand and have visual reference to. You can not visualize something mentally if you have never seen it before in life. It is like trying to describe in words something that you have never seen. Choose a story you comprehend and try to visualize it. Try and put images to words. This, like any skill, requires time and practice, but will increase with both.
JACK AND JILL (re-imagined)
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water, Jill fell down, Jack tossed his crown and neither lived happily ever after.
STEP 2: MIMIC
It is a common practice to replicate the work of ones favorite artist. It is actually a great way to learn and has been used historically by academic artist for centuries. By studying the work of people we admire we can begin to analyze the aspects of the image that we are drawn to. There is a reason we are drawn to certain images and understanding what draws us will help us create art worth viewing.
These are the items in which we should be focusing are attention and understanding. If you like the line-work of a certain artist, don’t just mimic it, but try to figure out why it works and what attract you to it. This will help in your artistic understanding and also help you form a style that you can define and defend.
It is very important to note is that it is better to have a lot of influences rather than a small handful. The larger the amount of influences you have, the better chance you have of being influenced rather than mimicking them.
ETHICAL INTERJECTION: PLEASE READ
Replicating a favorite tattoo in skin is deemed poor ethical practice and is seen as the exact opposite of flattering. This practice is highly frowned down upon. this practice does have it place and that place is on paper. Also it is in poor taste to post images of work you have replicated without giving the artist you replicated credit and allowing people to know that this is a replicated image. Even my children know what plagiarism is. In the days of cowboy justice…. you’d catch a hammer to hand for this.
STEP 3: ANALYZE AND UNDERSTAND
ONCE AGAIN, I can not emphasize the importance of drawing enough. The more often you draw the more natural the process of drawing will become. Also do not just trace the art of someone you admire, but understand it. Understand why something is done and you will better comprehend how to do it.
Start to study and breakdown the objects you would like to draw. At this point we should be moving away from mimicking. We should begin to refer to real life images and breaking them down to simplistic shapes. Understanding the structure of items allows us the ability to manipulate items. (I discuss this in far more depth in my seminar.) Drawing from life rather than drawing from a preexisting drawing will force you to figure out how you would draw it, rather than how another artist has drawn it. It is ok to refer to work to, but a better idea not to. WE ARE NOW ON THE PATH TO CREATING A UNIQUE STYLE.
STEP 4: CREATING YOUR OWN VISUAL LANGUAGE
Visual language is how you as an artist describes an image visually. The more language you learn, the more unique your style will become. Creating a unique visual language requires you as an artist to be able to breakdown objects to their simplest form and then draw them in a way that becomes a signature to you.
NOW at this point your drawing should be improving as well as your ability as a tattoo artist, simultaneously. WIN. WIN.
STEP 5: DRAW MORE!
The more you draw from your own skills and imagination and move away from mimicking/copying the art of others the more your style will become unique.
DRAW, DRAW, DRAW…
In closing I want to say this, it is important to admire and understand the work of great tattoo artists, but it is more important to open your minds to inspiration outside of tattooing and even art. Art can become stale and repetitious when our points of reference and influence are so limited. Art born from small thinking and inspiration risks the same outcome as a child born of incest. It is the like the fourth Steve in Multiplicity. Be original and best of luck.
Gunnar is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. Gunnar can be found at: