So you want a tattoo but you don’t know what tattoo to get. You’re in the same boat as many people who have thought about it for years, but never quite got one done. As you consider your myriad choices, start with the top ten and see if something here catches your eye.
What is it? Sailor tattoos call to mind a number of stereotypical images, but the bluebird isn’t usually among them. Yet, when a sailor had traveled 5,000 miles at sea, he got a bluebird on his chest. When he had gone 10,000 miles, he got a second on the other side. Done typically in blue and facing one another, variations on the theme include one blue and one red, or the two birds holding a scrolling banner between them.
Who gets it? Helped along by the popularity of the Nautical Star, this is a tattoo design that is increasingly popular among young and trendy body art enthusiasts who enjoy harkening back to the roots of tattooing.
Who has it? A. Jay Popoff (frontman for Lit); Shifty Shellshock (of Crazytown) on the left and right hip.
Where should you get it? The left and right chest placement is classic, with chest defined loosely and extending up to collar bone area near the shoulder. Even left and right forearm or left and right lower leg have carried out this twin design.
Why should you get it? You’ll be able to sing those seaboard shanties with authenticity.
What is it? Of all the skeletal parts, the skull is uniquely and immediately identifiable as human, and it is specifically representative of human death. Despite the grim grin, however, these tattoos are not always about death and destruction. They are also part of a suite of tattoo images that capitalize on the spirit of memento mori (Latin for “remember you must die”), and serve to remind us that life is to be cherished precisely because it is so fleeting.
Who gets it? Fans of the macabre gravitate to skull imagery, as well as people who have suffered loss, but also those who simply understand the message that life is short.
Who has it? Eminem has the face of skull on a mushroom on his left shoulder; Brian Setzer has the venerable skull with crossbones on his forearm.
Where should you get it? If this tattoo symbol is your reminder that all things must end, then put it somewhere that you can see it (forearm, lower leg, even upper arm or chest). Really, people get this tattoo almost anywhere–anywhere except the head though. That might seem a little eerie.
Why should you get it? You’ll be perfectly dressed for Halloween, Goth parties and wakes.
What is it? The Oriental dragon, unlike it’s counterpart in the west, is a mythical creature of great good will, power and wisdom. Equally at home in the sky or the ocean, it has come to symbolize a union of opposites. This tattoo symbol can be one of the ultimate tattoo statements, especially when done on a grand scale.
Who gets it? Guys who get this tattoo symbol, particularly when it’s more than a small icon, are projecting some of the power and fierceness of the dragon. It is definitely a more “walk-on-the-wild-side” type of image. Plus, when people ask what tattoo symbol you’ve got and you say “a dragon”, there’s nothing more satisfying than to hear them say “wow!”
Who has it? Rocker Lenny Kravitz has one that begins with the head of the dragon on the upper left chest, the body continuing over to the shoulder, and the rest finishing down the arm.
Where should you get it? This a serious tattoo that needs a goodly amount of real estate to realize the intricacies of the design–an entire arm, leg, or even a back would be best.
Why should you get it? You’ll be able to tell people that if they rub it, it’ll bring good luck.
What is it? Oh, the name game! Tattoo artists will tell you that this tattoo, while very popular on Valentine’s Day, also tends to come at the beginning or end of a relationship. Nothing says more about permanence and commitment than a guy getting the name of his significant other tattooed on his body. However, while permanence in relationships might be relative, permanence in tattoos is not.
Who gets it? The name of your girlfriend or wife is one of the most popular tattoo choices for guys who have unabashedly shown the world that they are, in fact, and, more importantly, in deed, hopeless romantics.
Who has it? Johnny Depp had “Winona Forever” on his right arm, and had it changed to “Wino Forever”; Billy Bob Thornton recently had “Angelina” on his left forearm covered by an angel and the word “peace”; actor Jude Law is scheduled to have “Sadie” removed from his arm.
Where should you get it? The name game is almost always played somewhere on the arm, so that it can be seen.
Why should you get it? Once you’ve separated, you’ll have a great excuse for an even bigger and more elaborate tattoo to cover it up, the proverbial win-win.
What is it? The heart, from ancient Egyptian tomb paintings to the cards at the Hallmark store, is traditionally the seat of emotions, the very core of our being. It has become the preeminent symbol, in the west, of one emotion over all others–love–to the extent that a simple red heart is actually read for the word “love.” The heart combined with a flowing scroll in the foreground and “mom” in a graceful font expresses a timeless and gentle sentiment.
Who gets it? It’s a sweet tattoo for a sensitive guy but is it stereotypical and overdone? Maybe. Then again, who doesn’t like a guy who likes his mom. It’s not a a classic tattoo symbol for nothing.
Who has it? Johnny Depp has Betty Sue (his mom’s name) in a heart on his left arm.
Where should you get it? A sentimental tattoo is sometimes placed over the heart, especially a memorial tattoo.
Why should you get it? This is the one tattoo design that stands a chance of getting mom’s approval.
What is it? She is the woman who needs no introduction and only a little explanation. The hallmark of the pinup girl, who truly came into her own in World War II when GIs “pinned up” pictures in their lockers to remind them of home, is sex appeal. But it is a sex appeal that completely skips the tease or any sense of pretense, going instead for the kind of obvious and guiltless flirtation that makes her so attractive.
Who gets it? Today this tattoo symbol is having a renaissance, infused with an “Old School” and “Rockabilly” look that perhaps reminds us of dad (or especially granddad).
Who has it? Travis Barker (of Blink-182) has the trucker girls (from the mud flaps) on each side of his chest.
Where should you get it? If you’ve got the muscle flexing that can make Betty Boop, Betty Grable or Bettie Page dance, then place it on the upper arm, the forearm or chest.
Why should you get it? For a tattoo the other guys are going to like, the pinup girl can’t be beat; and if it turns off the girls, then you won’t waste your time with them, since girls who like it are the ones you want anyway.
What is it? The ultimate symbol of Christianity is also one of the most prevalent symbols in tattooing. They come in all shapes and sizes, from simple crossed lines to intricate Celtic knotwork versions, but they all refer to the wooden cross on which Jesus was crucified by the Romans.
Who gets it? The cross is a tattoo symbol that is, obviously, for the Christian guy but equally obviously not for the typical one. Instead, men with cross tattoos are putting one foot in the rebellious world of tattooing and keeping the other in the religious world of spirituality. It’s also the type of tattoo symbol that stands a good chance of being relevant for the wearer’s lifetime.
Who has it? Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake (on the shoulder), Moby (on the back of the neck).
Where should you get it? The more straight lines there are in a tattoo, the better off you are on a relatively flat place on the body so that the lines have some chance of being straight–back of the shoulder and lower back are nice areas for this, although the upper arm is probably the most popular of placement for the cross.
Why should you get it? It simultaneously works to repel vampires and evangelize unbelievers (who may or may not be vampires).
What is it? Because the Japanese and Chinese writing systems are based on ideograms (small pictures that actually represent things), the modern characters still retain visual interest and the ability sometimes to express complex thoughts in a just a few symbols. Generally, people pick kanji characters (Japanese) that spell something desired, such as “strength”, “love”, or “luck.”
Who gets it? Men who are getting this tattoo are capturing something of the exotic in their skin and also something with hidden meaning and a bit of mystery. They’re also conversationalists since they are inevitably asked what their tattoos mean.
Who has it? David Boreanaz (star of Angel) has some on the inside of both wrists; Johnny Rzeznik (of the Goo Goo Dolls) has kanji for love, dreams, discipline, faith, truth, and greatness!
Where should you get it? These symbols are typically done on a smaller scale and can fit as easily on the back of the neck as they do on the lower back.
Why should you get it? You can change what your tattoo means from time to time since most people won’t be able to read it.
What is it? Everyone has seen the tribal style of tattooing, where they know it or not. Done in solid black with curves that end in points and sometimes interlock in complex patterns, the favorite placement is an armband. These tattoos are founded in Polynesian tattooing traditions where the different peoples of the region all ascribed various meanings to them (rank, achievement, high status, as a few examples).
Who gets it? Men today who are getting this style of tattooing are projecting not just cool, but also tough and a even a bit of intimidation, with their wickedly curving and boldly black abstract designs.
Who has it? WWF Wrestler, The Rock, has tribal tattoo work on his shoulder and arm; Rapper Eminem has a small wrist band design.
Where should you get it? The armband placement, while not traditional in Polynesia, looks particularly nice around a well-muscled arm.
Why should you get it? It keeps other guys from messing with you.
What is it? The five-pointed Nautical Star of mariner’s charts is found on the compass rose, straight up, at the North position. Somewhere back in the salty mists of time it represented the North Star, also known as Polaris, which was so crucial to navigation. Today it is a tattoo symbol that harkens back to finding one’s way home and the luck that it sometimes takes to get there. The Nautical Star tattoo can be big, small, two colors, one color–pretty versatile really.
Who gets it? This is a tattoo symbol that is absolutely raging in popularity right now, especially among young hipsters who dig the nautical/retro feel.
Who has it? Mark McGrath (lead singer of Sugar Ray) has a blue one on his left elbow.
Where should you get it? The elbow is a classic placement of the Nautical Star, like Mark McGrath, but they also tend to occur in pairs, on either side of the chest or the insides of the forearms. Because it’s a essentially a bunch of straight lines though, it lies and looks best on relatively flat areas.
Why should you get it? You’ll never have to pull over and ask for directions again.
Although you might not have found your perfect tattoo in the list above, you are no doubt starting to visualize one. As you continue on your journey to that final result, make your own top ten list of the greatest tattoos and keep revising it. In time, you may find that you’ll have a tattoo, one that’s just right for you, instead of just thinking about it for another decade.