Abstract Tattoo Designs

Abstract tattoos are art-to-wear, permanently inked into your skin. They’re a new-old style that relies on shape and symbolism rather than traditional illustration. Go for a trend that’s eye-catching and unscripted for your next tattoo adventure.

The Art in the Abstract

Abstraction is nothing new. Artists painted bison on cave walls as the essence of the bison. Celtic warriors adorned themselves with gold engraved in geometric patterns that were beautifully crafted but not pictorial, and 19th century Art Nouveau is all a pattern. 

For many people the term “abstract art” is a bit off-putting because it is hard to know exactly what abstract art is, especially since the idea at the heart of this art is, well, abstract. Abstract art can be found in ancient art works, in the form of tribal designs of animals and the use of patterns to represent elements and places such as squiggly lines for water and triangles for mountains.

In the western world, art transformed over the centuries, becoming more and more realistic, until most 15th-18th century artists were producing paintings that hinted at photorealism. Paintings of the Renaissance and the Classical eras were highly realistic with an attention to minute details. In the 19th century, artists began to slowly turn away from the “what” that they were representing in the painting, focusing more on the “how” they felt about the subject or “how” they expressed their idea of the subject. This led to an age of experimentation and innovation – an creative period now referred to as the abstract art movement.

Before abstract art came into fashion, artists had tried to hide their brush strokes in the image to achieve a smooth finish. As artists started experimenting with more and more abstract ideas, brushstrokes and even bare portions of the canvas were included as part of the final painting. These techniques may not seem unusual to the modern eye, but such misuse of the medium of art was delightful and shocking for 19th century art lovers. The experience for the art viewer changed along with the changing experiences of the artists, who felt daring and risky and crossed the boundaries of art in a way that was previously prohibited by governments and religions.

Picasso from the 20th century was a cubist, Pollack was an abstract expressionist. Frank Stella and Agnes Martin were minimalists. They all accepted the freedom of unlimited imagination. Art that is not strictly figurative retains its appeal when printed on the body. Let your imagination run wild when designing an abstract tattoo.

Free Form (Abstract Tattoos Rise in Popularity)

Ironically, tattoo design styles seem to have followed the same path of development as the visual arts. Old tattoos consisted of patterns and iconic representations of totems or symbols of animals. 19th century tattoos were generally a representation of a symbol or animal; simple designs whose structure and detail became boldly outlined areas of color. In recent decades, tattooists have been able to create photo-realistic tattoos with the introduction of tattoo devices such as white inks and better tattoo machines. These hyper-realistic tattoos are still popular, but abstract tattoo designs are becoming increasingly popular.

Although the paintings of famous abstract artists are very popular, there are some abstract tattoo artists who offer complete works of art of their own design. This means that the customer can wear an original piece of art on his body and the tattoo artist is given the freedom to express himself through his preferred artistic medium.

Tattoos in the abstract style are open to interpretation. The single curving line down your spine might signify life’s journey to you, but without a point of reference, your tat may be a sexy squiggle to an observer, designed to focus attention on your beautiful back. A melange of shapes that overlap and wash out to a field of color could contain a flock of birds, or just represent the reflection of a rainbow in a puddle. A black line drawing of an eye-like shape might be the Eye of Horus, the ancient Egyptian symbol for pharaohs, robust health and protection. Float it on a purple, blue and red watercolor background and it’s suddenly modern, maybe primitive. If you’re not the type to be pinned down, why should your ink be unmistakable?

An abstract tattoo can represent a physical object, animal, place, or person, but it can also be used to express emotional and spiritual ideas. The use of color and shape defines the emotions or ideas within the painting. For example, if the artist wants to express a feeling of depressed cabin fever, he can squeeze a stick man under swirls and shapes of dark and dull colors, all of which are trapped in a box. What makes a work of art like the “abstract” just described is that it does not correspond to life – the emotional forms do not exist and there would be no depth, perspective or proportions within the painting. The stick figure would be a representation of the artist, but would not look like a human (ie without details like hair and skin).

What is the Meaning of Abstract Tattoos?

When designing an abstract tattoo, there are many different aspects to consider. When you are considering your design:

  • Look for an artist that specializes in or has experience with abstract designs to help you bring your vision to life.
  • While you can get ideas from pre-made designs, you may want to add in specific aspects that speak to your own experiences and personality.
  • Take the time to ensure you are creating a design that you are happy with both in terms of aesthetics and meaning.
  • Shapes are often found in abstract designs, but keep in mind these won’t be static once they are on your skin.
  • Consider that the shape(s) will be subject to twisting or turning due to natural movement.

Abstract tattoos can use abstract art styles to represent a symbolic object or animal, which means that the tattoo would contain the symbolism of that subject. Being represented as an abstraction gives the tattoo motif a second meaning – that the person feels detached from the motif or cannot fully understand it.

Abstract art often consists of shapes and lines. Simple geometric shapes have a lot more meaning than most people know. For example, it is assumed that the circle is a representation of eternity and the cyclical nature of life. A single line can represent a space in time or life is finite (with birth at one end and death at the other). A triangle with the top up is a symbol for masculinity, while an “upside down” triangle is a cup shape and a symbol for femininity. What is difficult about the symbolism of geometric shapes is that a single shape can have very different meanings for different people. That is why paintings made of geometric shapes and patterns often appear nonsensical. The translation of the “formal language” by the viewer in the picture can result in a meaning that makes no sense, since the forms have a different meaning for the viewer than for the artist.

Color plays an important role in abstract art. The artist uses a combination of shape and color to express an idea, and emotion is at the center of every idea. Abstract tattoos can have a meaning for the owner and can have a completely different meaning for someone looking at the tattoo, because each person’s mind interprets the lines, shapes and colors differently. For example, an abstract tattoo that seems like chaos to one person may turn out to be another symbolic story in the eyes of another person about the life of the tattoo owner.

Animals are shapeshifters when it comes to abstract tattoos. A red fox is your power animal, energetic and smart, impressive to look at and quickly disappear. Tattoo yours as a living flame with a face, a hint of ears, a hint of paws, but mostly a flash and a scatter of red-orange, which dissolve in splashes or color flickers and erase the outline of the fox.

Save the whales on your skin with a few giants that are barely painted in soft gray. Hang them over blobs and splashes of translucent blue and purple – this design can be oceans, clouds, or dream whales that evoke your love for the ocean or your concern for the environment.

Fly a bluebird on your shoulder, the top of your foot, the back of your hand. Maybe it’s a hawk, maybe it’s a phoenix, or maybe it’s the bluebird of happiness, dissolved into ribbons of color along with sponges and spatters of different blues that swirl over your skin.

Abstract art is an umbrella term that takes in all types of non-objective drawing, painting and sculpture — even when the art does resemble or partly portray an actual thing. So you are free to find inspiration in your modern art museum, the graffiti on the walls of your city, the squiggles of your talented preschooler, or the grid of your town’s streets. Start with a real form and turn it into something only you can recognize. Choose no form at all and just commission your tattoo artist to paint an emotion or an expression on your skin. No matter what you choose, abstract tattoos can be meaningful and beautiful.