Abstract Tattoo Designs

Benna Crawford
girl tattoo

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

There's nothing new about abstraction. Artists painted bison on cave walls as the essence of bison, Celtic warriors adorned themselves with gold engraved in geometric patterns that were beautifully worked but nonpictorial, and nineteenth-century Art Nouveau is all patterns. Twentieth-century Picasso was a Cubist, Pollack was an Abstract Expressionist. Frank Stella and Agnes Martin were Minimalists. All of them embraced the freedom of the unfettered imagination. Art that is not strictly representational maintains its appeal when it is inked on the body. Give flight to your imagination when designing an abstract tattoo.

Bushman cave painting

Free Form

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?

Ethnic eye

Fantasy Creatures

Animals are shape shifters when it comes to abstract tattoos. A red fox is your power animal, energetic and smart, impressive to behold and quick to disappear. Tattoo yours as a living flame with a face, a hint of ears, an indication of paws but mostly a flash and scatter of red-orange that disintegrates into spatters or flickers of color, erasing the outline of fox.

splash fox

Save the whales, on your skin, with a couple of behemoths barely sketched in delicate gray. Suspend them over blobs and splashes of translucent blue and purple -- this design might be ocean, might be clouds, or might be dream whales that conjure up your love for the ocean or your concern about the environment.

Hand drawn whales

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.

blue bird

A Sense of Place

Life is disorienting. Your go-to places shift and blur in memory -- just like your souvenir tattoo. The skyline of your favorite city is magical when a Big Ben or an Eiffel Tower pokes up from blobs and swirls of watercolor that could be skyscrapers, could be a river or its bridge, or could be the building that houses the restaurant where you fell in love. Choose a hand-drawn, very fanciful, or simple black map for your tat. Precise coordinates are not important -- you know the way.

Watercolor London Skyline

The Geometry of Culture

Maori tribal tattoos are masterpieces of abstraction -- the bold, sinuous shapes tell a story to the Maori people, not pictures, not words, but ideas. The symbolism isn't lost on you. Your shoulders, arms, back and legs are the canvas for abstract tribal ink that flows over your form. Mix tribal with pure line repetition that emphasizes a curve of calf or ankle to create your own tradition.

Invent a symbol with a secret meaning and share the view on your mid-back, upper chest or calf. You can just tell people you like the shape when they ask you what it means if you choose to keep the symbolism personal. Choosing an abstract figure is a public-private gesture that relies strictly on the design for its impact.

Abandon shape all together and give free rein to your fine-artist tattooist who will cover an appendage or your entire back in smears, blocks, lines, and spatters of shadow and color -- or no pattern at all. With an abstract design, you can show off art for art's sake in a tattoo you'll never see coming and going.

Woman With Tattoos

Abstract Tattoo Design Considerations

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.
    Young man with tattoo

Under the Umbrella

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.

student in Computer Lab
Abstract Tattoo Designs