The practice of inserting pigment into skin started a long time ago. Somewhere along the way, tattoos became associated with gangs, violence, crime, or sexual promiscuity. 

Today, tattoos still aren’t entirely acceptable in the eyes of society, but luckily, they’ve taken another form of meaning and garnered more admiration and appreciation in the past several decades. 

With that being said, tattoos are glorious and deserve every bit of attention to be seen and photographed. Here are some of the best ways to capture the beauty of inked skin:

1. Use contrasting backgrounds

Woman with tattoos against black background by belchonock on 123RF.

What’s in the background can make or break your image. A good background can dramatically enhance your photo, while a photo with a distracting background tends to look amateur and messy. 

Woman with tattooed arm by vadymvdrobot on 123RF.

As unique as tattoos can be, the ink can sometimes get lost in the noise. So it would be best if you had something that contrasts the tattoos and is unobtrusive. One great way to do this is to use a dark-colored background for a simple yet powerful composition that will be sure to draw eyes to your subject’s ink.

2. A pop of color

Woman with bright pink hair and man with blue hair and colorful tattoos by Prometeus on 123RF.

We’ve seen images using a monotone look to showcase tattoos, but have you seen a more modern, vibrant pop of colors to add visual interest? 

Close up portrait of tattooed young woman on purple studio background in neon light by melnyk58 on 123RF.

Experiment with neon colors to add a different perspective and dimension to something traditionally intimidating and bold. This method of capturing tattoos is slightly more unconventional but speaks to younger generations like Gen Z as it can add character and personality to the subject.

3. Meaningful ink is powerful

Back view portrait of bald woman with head tattoo posing against beige background by seventyfour74 on 123RF.

There’s a story behind every tattoo. If a person has their entire body covered in tattoos, chances are, a few of them have a deeply personal story to tell. Whether it be a symbol for a cause they are passionate about or a reminder of something or someone in their life.

Survivor tattoos

Many get tattoos to represent their battle or survival against an illness. For example, the semicolon tattoo is universally recognized as an important badge of pride for those who struggle with depression, suicide, addiction, or anxiety. In the context of grammar, semicolons are used to connect two complete sentences that are related. In other words, the semicolon tattoo is a permanent reminder that there is more to come in life, no matter what you’re going through.

Portraits of loved ones and pets

Photo of woman holding python which is the sample for her tattoo by christefme on 123RF.

Another popular tattoo that acts as a window into someone is if they have portraits of their loved ones. This can mean loved ones and their pets – any relationship that means a lot to them. The photograph of their tattoo can tell the story of who are the most important relationships in their life and how they chose to honor and remember their loved ones. 

4. Cultural and religious ties

Thai traditional tattoo (Yantra) on body during Memorial ceremony in Wat Bang Pra in Nakhon Prathom, Thailand by iamlukyeee on 123RF.

Tattoos that have meaning or symbolism tied to a culture, religion, or its teaching often hold a much deeper meaning. While many who get these tattoos do them purely for aesthetic reasons, many have colorful stories hidden behind their ink. For example;

Buddhist tattoos

Buddhist mandala tattoos – beautiful, detailed tattoos that depict the eternity and cyclical nature of the universe. Another example of a Buddhist tattoo is the laughing Buddha tattoo, commonly believed to bring happiness and prosperity to eliminate sorrow. Or, the lotus flower tattoos signify rebirth or being unapologetically yourself and rising above temptations.

A monk pouring water a man for remove one’s bad luck with a ceremony. by mudkung on 123RF.

Māori tattoos

In the past, Māori people without tattoos were seen as people of no social status; tattoos almost functioned as identification for a person’s rank, status, power, and lineage. Different designs also represented different things. For example, spirals represented new beginnings and growth, while the fish hook design symbolized strength and determination.  

Even the method of tattooing differs from culture to culture and religion to religion. Where possible, photograph the different methods used for tattooing. For example, some cultures value using a stick and ink to tattoo instead of a modern machine, which adds another level of depth and meaning. 

5. Don’t be shy, get up close

A professional tattoo artist introduces black ink into the skin using a needle from a tattoo machine by grafvision on 123RF.

Tattoos are glorious and deserve full attention. Fill the frame with the tattoo and show them off! It’s a great way to avoid any unnecessary elements and distractions in the image and highlight the detailed artwork. Just make sure you do not forget to include any crucial part of the tattoo. 

Don’t be shy; get up close. Some of the greatest photographs of tattoos are close-ups that zoom into the art.

6. It’s all in the pose

Image of young woman with tattoo looking upwards on black background by vadymvdrobot on 123RF.

You’ve got limbs for days; use them! Poses are essential when it comes to photographing tattoos. Direct your subject to show off the tattoo without trying too hard. For example, if they have a large piece on their back that starts from the top of their spine all the way down to their tailbone, a top with a cut out in the back will help accentuate the tattoo without it being over the top.

Young black women showing legs featuring foot tattoo by vadymvdrobot on 123RF.

If the subject has a tattoo on the upper back, have the subject turn around and look over their shoulder to draw the viewer’s eyes to the shoulder and tattoo. Don’t be afraid to take multiple shots from different angles to get different perspectives while trying many poses using the rest of your body as a guide.

7. Flaunt it day-to-day

Shot of cheerful mixed race family inside bedroom posing together on camera in sunny day by fxquadro on 123RF.

Stories of people with tattoos being shunned from society aren’t shocking. It happens. This is why photographing tattoos can show those who have a negative impression of body art that it’s not what they think it is.

Shot of a young woman relaxing on the floor of her living room at home by peopleimages12 on 123RF.

The notion that only criminals or high-school dropouts have tattoos is far from the truth. Let’s break the stereotype, humanize these tattoos and show the story behind them. Capture inked human beings’ everyday lives and that their lives are no different from non-tattooed people.


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