Evolution of a Tattoo

For the longest time, I wanted to design a tattoo.  I strongly believed my style would lend itself well to the medium, with its heavy use of black and mystical imagery.  I finally got my chance!  Those of you following me on Twitter or Facebook know that I started 2014 with multiple art commissions.  One of these was for a tattoo design.

The client wanted me to use my black-figure / white-line style, so that some skin would be left open to form the lines.  (Incidentally, that’s the same way I draw — I ink around the lines  I want to see, so that the white of the paper forms “lines.”)  He wanted me to include the Greek gamma symbol, an association of which is maleness.  The tattoo would be an affirmation of male-identified people in a world that has become increasingly cynical.  I got to work thinking of figurative elements that would correspond with the message he had in mind.

Of the three concepts I proposed, the two that spoke to him most profoundly were Horned God and Wotan Hanging on the World Tree.  Horned God is one of the oldest representations of maleness, found throughout paleolithic Europe and India.  He is so old, we don’t have a reliable name for him.  Wotan, on the other hand, is the famous king-god of the Germanic pantheon.  I chose to depict the scene in which Wotan hangs himself on the world-tree in order to gain supernatural knowledge.  It is one of those classic transformation-through-sacrifice scenarios.

WotanHorned God


The client liked Wotan’s story, but preferred Horned God’s basic design.  He also liked the idea of the horns “breaking out” of the panel, as if to defy conventional definitions of maleness.  So I decided to combine Horned God with the world tree.  Here are the first two complete drawings:

Horned God on World Tree

Horned God Hanging on World Tree

I really got into the complexities of the world tree, which are composed of repeating forms.  I decided to treat HG’s anatomy like stained glass panes, as if to suggest that we are looking at a sacred image in a cathedral.  This is especially apparent in the chest area.

Horned God Leaping

Horned God Leaping

The Hanging image had a static line throughout to go with the meditative quality of the concept.  In contrast, I brought in a dynamic line for the Leaping image.  I wanted to echo the dynamic nature of the character’s movement.  I liked the idea of HG thrusting above and beyond the roots of tradition.  Altogether a more active image.

The client preferred the Leaping version to Hanging, but we agreed on a few tweaks.  Mainly, he wanted the character to be less muscular.  Here is the revised image:

Horned God Revisions

Horned God Leaping 2

As I said, the major change was to simplify the anatomy.  As much as I loved the Kirby-esque shapes in version 1’s muscles, the simplified anatomy makes for a better composition.  The black-to-white ratio looks more balanced, because the solid black areas are more akin to the solid white forms of the world-tree. The client also asked that I bring in the two ravens from the Wotan concept.  They add a dark atmosphere and help make the “limbs” read as organic.

My client carried a print-out of this design in his pocket for a couple of weeks to make sure it was the right image to put on his body.  After this trial period, he asked to see one small change: second thumbs added to HG’s hands as a reference to Hunter S. Thompson’s Freak Power Party.  I thought this would be a nice touch, as there wasn’t anything to make the character’s hands particularly unique.

Horned God Leaping 3

Horned God Leaping 3

The client loved the double-thumbs!  It was time now to finalize the design.  The pose was feeling slightly too active, too angry-looking, and my client is intent on establishing a serene life-path for himself.  So we tried a few calmer poses, ones that hearken back to the original sketch and the classic depictions of the character.

Horned God Variations

Horned God Crouching 1Horned God Crouching 2Horned God Crouching 3Horned God Crossed LegsHorned God Levitating

And the winning tattoo design is….

Horned God Crouching

Horned God Crouching

Tattoo 6Tattoo 7


Getting Inked

Tattoo 18

Tattoo 8

Tattoo 3

Tattoo 12

Tattoo 10

Tattoo 13

Front View

Left Side

Right Side

Tattoo 19

Photos by Ben Blodgett

This commission got me thinking about the power of revision to propel an idea beyond its initial stages.  When I was at art school, my teachers would always encourage me to work in series.  I never wanted to comply, because my short attention span prefers to hit it and quit it.  (No wonder I prefer quick-drying acrylics to slow-drying oils!)  But with this commission, I got to see the idea morph, evolve and frankly improve.  My client’s feedback was a blessing and a learning experience.

If I had come up with the initial Horned God idea on my own, I would have made the first image and then dropped the ball….  Not any more.  I am pushing myself to work in series, not just in my commissioned work, but in personal work as well.  I have a special Series page set up for these projects under the Gallery drop-down.

In my effort to understand the function of series, I have spent a good deal of time analyzing famous works that exist as series.  Monet’s haystacks.  Van Gogh’s sunflowers.  Warhol’s Marilyns.  They represent ideas that mutated and evolved with each iteration.  This is a topic we will explore in my upcoming class, Art With a Curveball.  I hope you can join us May 13.  Bring in old projects, especially abandoned ones, and we will brainstorm new directions for them.  An idea is never finished, just abandoned….

Art With a Curveball flyer