Exercise 26

Tattoo and Greeting Card

Exercise 26 – Tattoo with the word ‘Mum’

Brief:  Create a tattoo and greeting card with the word Mum.

Responding to words:  Keyword – MUM, mother, goddess, nurture, love, support, strength, simplicity, constant.

Generating Ideas:  

  • Simple tattoo with word ‘Mum’ and images of words associated with it.
  • Minimalist approach or traditional approach is to be considered.
  • Small tattoo that would go on your arm or shoulder – discreet and not super detailed.
  • Reference back to the history of tattoos by including some ancient ornamentation.


According to (1)Bob Baxter, a good tattoo has the following: balance, shape, symmetry, colour, techniques, placement and other subtle or not so subtle artistic criteria.

It seems that many people who get a tattoo, choose to remove it later as the design didn’t last the test of time or the choice made wasn’t the right one.  There is much to consider when designing a tattoo and many people don’t seem to take the time or effort to explore these aspects.  Instead they go for the image that appeals most at the time, not taking into consideration if they will enjoy the same design 5 or 10 years down the road.

(2)Donald Richie, the author of ‘The Japanese Tattoo’, explains that a good design will consider valid import and good technical ability.  These are lacking in many designs and as such tattoo removals do a tidy business in the trade.

Having meaning in your tattoo is important according to Richie, to avoid the pattern breeding contempt for the fact that it is a permanent mark on your body.  Having meaning to it provides you with a back story that has positive associations with the image.

David Beckham has over 40 tattoos and each has a meaning to him.  The Mail(3) online carried an article outlining the special meanings behind each tattoo, from script and san script, to numbers.

sourced from google

On researching the history of tattoos(4), they go back as far as before the Egyptian period.  People would mark their body as a way of distinguishing themselves and determine power, status and achievements.  It was also used as a communication tool between spies in ancient Greece while later tattooing became a way of marking criminals and slaves.

The word itself comes from the Tahitian word ‘tatu’ which means to mark something.  As such, a tattoo had meaning and was not simply an adornment for the body.  Tattooing also became part of a ritual is some cultures.  In Aztec, Inca and Mayan cultures it was prevalent while in Japan it was used to mark those that had committed crimes by tattooing a strike on the offenders face.  Three strikes indicated the symbol for dog.

The art of tattooing in the West had been widely frowned upon during the 12 – 16th centuries so it only took off in the West when various expeditions brought back people to England adorned in tattoos.  This was unfamiliar and unique so people began to get discrete tattoos as a way of distinguishing themselves in society and appearing fashionable.

However, when the tattoo application developed into using an electronic needle, it became more widespread and so was not deemed as fashionable with the upper classes.

What is very interesting is how popular tattooing was amongst those in the military and sailors.  It was a postcard version of where they had been.  This made it very popular.  It only became unpopular in the early 60s when the spread of hepatitis was linked to unclean needles.  The whole art form went underground when that occurred as it simply wasn’t popular any more.  It was considered an outsiders art as stating your beliefs and values on your body was a commitment and clear statement of your intent. It went against many people’s standards of what a citizen should be in ‘normal’ society.

More recently however, there has been a significant increase in the art of tattooing.  It has become acceptable again and many people use various forms of inspiration to inject meaning into their body marks, even the really bad ones!

There are even minimalist tattoos and sound bar tattoos, where you can scan the image and hear the voice of the person recorded.

Technology and tattooing have become a very sophisticated art form but the fact that you’re marking your skin permanently may still prevent many from getting one.

The classic ‘Mum’ tattoo that springs to mind is often the one projected by Hollywood as being that on a sailors arm or soldiers back as they go off to war.

Sailor Jerry(5), real name Norman Keith Collins, was a well known American Tattooist who tattooed sailors.  His tattoos are commonly associated with the 50s and 60s idea of a tattoo.  According to his website it was the first sailors that popularized tattooing as a means of stamping their bodies with images representing places they had been.  They brought the artform back to Western society.  This was back in the 1700s.

For this exercise the history of tattooing was really interesting to read up on.  From learning about how it was used for different purposes throughout time, to how radicalised it became in the late 70s and 80s in punk culture and outsider gangs.

My own association with tattoos has always been mixed.  I love the idea of art on skin but the permanent nature of it is too big a commitment.  Preferences in art can change over the years.  So a tattoo of ‘Mum’ will be something that represents the important woman in your life and if following the true form a tattoo, should represent aspects of her that are important to you.

This is where the personalized version of a tattoo comes in.  It will always be something unique to the wearer.  So how do you create something unique?

I think the aim or approach for me on this occasion was to create an image that could be adapted for use in any situation, to be made more personal.  The lettering would have to remain clean and legible, but leave room for additional add-ins according to the wearer.

From the thumbnails drawn up I felt that two of designs could be flexible.  I was also going to explore a minimalist tattoo as a third option, to see how that would turn out.

My own Mum loves nature and gardening, so this would be something that I would draft into my own tattoo.  However, I wondered if it might look better on a greetings card instead, while a simpler design for the tattoo with some light references to nature might suit the body tattoo better.


Images and boards: https://www.pinterest.com/Superhilbo/exercise-26-tattoos/

I collected a range of images via pinterest, that included tattoo script and simple images including the word ‘Mum’ as well as symbols for references to Egyptian/Sumerian and Greek possible ornamentation or wording.

From these I came across a lovely creative form in the script.  As a tattoo is something permanent and has meaning attached to it, the image itself should reflect the mood of the intention behind it.

As ‘Mum’ represents caring, love and mother, it was important that the font was soft, feminine but not too romantic as to create an image that wouldn’t appeal to a wider audience.  The image of a tattooed sailor with an anchor or loveheart with the word ‘Mum’ running through it was something that I did think about, but for the image to last and feel relevant in many years to come, it was important that it could age well and still look relevant on the persons body.


I looked for inspiration around town, seeing a few things in buildings and company names before adding some other scripts that I liked. 

The sketches that I did were a wide range but I tried to keep them as simple as possible with few graphics and black ink only.

From the sketches completed I decided to go with the design that was self contained and could be used as a simple decorative feature on the arm, leg or other part of the body, and could be enlarged and colour added or kept small in black only.

As this was also an image that had to translate to a greetings card, it was important that the design reflected some sense of order and would be visually interesting for a card.  There may have to be some consideration of content for a card that would not be visually appropriate for a tattoo on the body.





How do I feel about the design?

I think that despite the good research on this topic, the design itself isn’t something I would want as a tattoo.  It feels more like a logo perhaps or a small image for a card but not a tattoo.  I found it better when the image had not interior drawing in it but in the original thumbnail it felt like there was more energy in the image and it felt more like a tattoo.

From this initial idea to the finished one, some of the energy got lost along the way and the original vision of what I was going for also got lost.  This exercise was one I found very difficult because I was over thinking it.  The images I came up with for the tattoo extended beyond what I originally did.  Halfway through I changed my mind and went for something else!

As a greeting card the image looks okay.  It has a handmade feel to it and the nature and love hearts are relevant to the person.  I like how I integrated the word into a continuous line.

However, overall I think this exercise just didn’t feel complete and although I met the brief I don’t feel I honoured it fully.  Some other ideas that I came up with after felt more real to the name, but again I didn’t really know what to do with them as they felt more relevant but still not fully what I was going for.

With a further brainstorm I tried out a few other thumbnails.


As the first batch of images looked more suited to a greetings card, the St. Brigid’s crosses felt more authentic and relevant perhaps to connecting elements of the past together in a tattoo.  The Egyptian image was a nod to the fertility goddess and a mark of the cross was also present as a form of linking two cultures, respecting the history of tattooing and honouring Irish traditions.

The square was meant to be a mix of Egyptian ornamentation, runes that spell ‘Mum’ and the simplified version of St.Brigid’s 3 legged cross on a background of spirals that would echo back to Newgrange in Louth.

These felt truer to the form of tattooing because they were not simply an image to be worn, but all elements had meaning and reference.

However, I felt that too much time was being spent on where to go with all this, and I found myself doubting my decision making abilities.  So I made the decision to go with the initial form of the word ‘Mum’ in a continuous line with the form of flowers and sunshine through clouds.  It felt like something that could be identified with more generally.

Would I go back to the second batch of ideas?

Perhaps, but I felt it was more important to exercise the ability to finish the job at this moment, as I was getting analysis paralysis.  I had to just go with one idea and follow it through to completion.  It is okay but I had to move on.


This was nagging at me and so I let it sit in my head a little longer and by chance I came across a programme on Channel 4 called ‘Tattoo Artist of the Year’.  I completely soaked up the programme and the inspiration gained from it inspired me to revisit this exercise again.

So equipped with a timer and the intention of running with the idea of a watercolour tattoo, I gave myself 60mins to revisit this.  If the idea was working then I’d give it another 60mins.  If it wasn’t then I would call it quits.

I had been researching for Exercise 22 and following some Skillshare videos on drawing feathers and watercolouring them.  The design seemed like a really good idea for a tattoo.  I threw some water on the paper and went from there, knowing I had done this before so it wouldn’t take long.  The feathers were finished with a white acrylic using a dip pen.  The backgrounds were just watercolour splodges.

These images were scanned in and then adjusted in Photoshop.  From there I messed about with opacity and added text.  The text was really dragging out the time as it was hard to get one that matched the vibe of the image.  I really wanted to honour the watercolour tattoo image while keeping text legible and giving it a bit of a stand out look.

After another 60mins (my trusty chicken timer) I was finished and am really chuffed with the results.  I feel like this image meets the brief much better.  It feels fresher and more vibrant while the first image just felt forced and jaded.

The font could be adjusted to suit the client and the image is very friendly so I think anyone could wear it with confidence.  It’s best suited as part of a sleeve tattoo perhaps or on it’s own anywhere on the body.  The size would be good to keep small to medium, as any bigger and the detail might need a bracelet effect or band or something else woven in to give it more weight.

It also works nicely as a greeting card. 🙂

FinalTattoo_Mum_master_greeting card2
Hilary Lawler – Greeting Card OCA Illustration 
Hilary Lawler – Tattoo OCA Illustration