As far as commitments go, few are as daunting as a brand new tattoo—especially if it’s your very first. For one thing, tattoos are informed by taste, and, as anyone who’s looked back at old iTunes playlists can attest, tastes change like the tides. For another, tattoos are more permanent than even “till death do us part” (you can’t divorce your own biology, after all). Oh, and getting inked up hurts. A lot.
Still, though they were once culturally relegated to the back rooms of 19th-century brothels and 20th-century biker bars, tattoos are experiencing a surge in popularity. According to a 2012 Harris poll, 21 percent of American adults sport tattoos. When you refine the data to apply only to the much-vaunted millennial demographic, that number leaps to 40 percent (per additional research from the Pew Research Center).
They’re also experiencing a surge in acceptance. For instance, the U.S. Air Force, an organization not known for its lax dress code, recently abolished its so-called “25 percent rule,” wherein enlisted members can’t have more than 25 percent of their skin covered in ink, and also loosened up restrictions on sleeves (a type of tattoo that covers the majority or entirety of one’s arm, hence, “sleeve”). And Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, which had a long-held no-visible-ink clause on the books, recently amended their dress code to allow for tattoos, so long as designs couldn’t conceivably frighten or offend children.
In short, we’re in the throes of a full-blown tattoo renaissance. And if you’re not yet part of the party, there’s no better time to join than now. The only question: What in the world are you going to get?
Technically, you’re only limited by your imagination and the amount of untampered skin on your body. Still, there are some guidelines to keep in mind.
“We generally recommend starting small, and placing the tattoo somewhere that’s not highly visible, just so [newcomers] are able to get used to it before jumping into anything larger,” says Jessica Jones, of Red Rocket Tattoo, in New York City. You’ll also want to avoid getting anything on your hands or face. Since those parts of your body are more exposed to sunlight than clothed regions, the ink tends to fade faster. In fact, some artists will outright refuse to do work on your hands and face because of this.
Finally, you’ll want to earmark a not-insignificant amount of money. Many shops have dollar-amount minimums. At Red Rocket, for instance, the minimum is $100, though Rusty Thornhill, a tattoo apprentice at Hollywood Stars Tattoo, in Los Angeles, recommends setting aside double that. That way, he says, “you’re well above the minimum for most shops—and it doesn’t break the bank.” (Also, tip your artists! If you’re happy with the work, 20 to 25 percent is a good amount.)
After that, all you need to figure out is the artwork. And we’re here to help. We’ve pored over hundreds of social media accounts, talked to experts from across the industry, chatted with inked-up friends and colleagues, and consulted our own personal experience (between the two of us, we have more than half a dozen tattoos). Herein, you’ll find 100 of the coolest, chicest, most tasteful ideas for first-time tattoos. Who knows: Maybe you’ll find the one for you—or at least the inspiration for one. And for more ways to refine your body to total perfection, learn the 100 Best Motivational Weight-Loss Tips.
1. A rose
Flowers—specifically, roses—rank among the most timeless designs in tattooing. As revealed in a recent exhibition at the New York Historical Society, you can trace the trend back to high-society women in the Victorian era, who used to discreetly get the design in easy-to-hide places, like under the wrist (so it could be concealed by a bracelet). If you want to play it safe, go this direction.
2. A bouquet
Or, work with an artist on a custom-designed bouquet of all your favorite flowers. And for more great ways to put your best look forward, don’t miss the 15 Best Haircuts for Looking Instantly Younger.
As far as house plants go, orchids, if taken care of properly, are among the longest-lasting (and, if you ask most tastemakers, the prettiest, too). Get one that lasts forever.
Succulents, too, carry on seemingly endless lives. This minimalist piece—which belongs to and was designed by Best Life editor Ashley Moor—is an example of how to design them right. And if you’d rather have some less-permanent plants, learn why you should keep some real-life ones in your bedroom.
Cut out the flowers but stick with the greenery. Wrap your wrist, forearm, or even your entire thigh with some nimble, elegant vines.
6. A willow tree
The contemplative nature of the willow tree is fit for a contemplative soul. To achieve this enviable state of being yourself, learn the 32 Secrets of a Stress-Proof Life.
7. A palm tree
“You won’t be able to go to the beach for two weeks after you get your tattoo,” says Jones. Excess exposure to sun and sand can cause irreparable damage to your skin—or worse: the artwork.
8. A pine tree
“Color tends to be more harsh on the skin, because the ink has to be well-saturated,” says Thornhill. In other words: More needlework than a traditional black-ink tattoo requires.
9. A maple tree
If you’re going to get a colored tattoo, consider going for a design done up in the watercolor style that’s all the rage these days. When your tattoo fades—and make no mistake, it will—muted, splashy ink tends to age better than more vividly colored pieces.
10. An entire forest
“Many people these days don’t realize that most artists have a book full of original designs they’ve drawn—and want to tattoo,” says Jones. “Pick an artist whose style you like. Then, choose from their book. That way, you’ll have something special that no one else has.”
11. A lion
Another fount of inspiration from nature: the animal kingdom. “The first step is having the idea,” says Thornhill. “If you’ve made it to the shop and are having trouble thinking what to get, the artists can help you out. We’ll ask clients what means the most to them and where they’re thinking of getting the tattoo. Then, we work our magic to design something special they can enjoy—forever.”
12. A wolf
Something along the lines of this fierce wolf—which was meticulously done up by Dan Bythewood, at New York Adorned—courtesy of our colleague, Tyler Stewart, is a great way to pay homage to man’s best friend’s Darwinian ancestor.
Human relationships might wax and wane, but a dog’s love stays the same. Memorialize your pup. (Also, speaking from personal experience—the design above, by the artist Ok, is Morgan’s—having a dog tattoo is an excellent conversation starter.)
Align yourself with Best Life‘s official stance on the cats versus dogs debate.
15. A paw print
Getting a paw print is an abstract way to commemorate your furriest, sweetest family member.
16. A butterfly
Float like one of these.
17. A bee
Or sting like one of these. (Though not as much as, you know, getting a tattoo.)
You’ll see a whole lot of these at Coachella and Burning Man.
19. A dove
Some consider bird tattoos basic. But if you buck trends and get a stylized, geometric design, your bird will be anything but.
C’mon. Everyone loves chocolate.
21. A slice of cake
Yes, you can have your cake and eat it too. (You’ll have to provide the edible version yourself, though.)
22. A cupcake
With a cherry on top.
23. A sentimental baked good
Not all tattoos have to have meaning, says Jones, but “some people prefer meaningful tattoos!” If you grew up in, say, New York City, a bagel is one way to carry your hometown with you no matter where you go in life.
24. A city skyline
Or, get even more literal: A city skyline tattoo pays homage to the city where it all started—and first-timers will be happy to learn that a design like this simple outline tattoo doesn’t require more than an hour under the gun, at the absolute most.
25. Your home-state silhouette
A recent trend in tattooing is opting to get an outline of your home state. That way, you can wait and ruminate; if you want to fill it in at a later date—with coloring, topography, roadways, townships, geometric design, or even just all-black shading—you can. Or, you can leave it as the sparse piece of art it is.
The coordinates of a special place, says Jones, rank among the most common first-time tattoo requests at Red Rocket. You know: something like the exact location of your birthplace, or your kid’s birthplace.
27. A map of the world
You could also go macro.
29. The moon
Any tattoo you get can serve as an anchor to an eventually larger, more elaborate piece. Take this crescent moon, for example. It was a launching pad for a sleeve done by three separate artists—mostly by Nicolas Gualteros, at Sena Tattoo—and is a prime example of how you can blend more than one style into something inimitably unique.
30. A planet
Often, tattoo artists and studios will offer “flash tattoos” in one-day events. A flash tattoo is a pre-designed, pre-priced piece of art that’s available on a walk-in, first-come-first-serve basis. They’re generally small, and generally require less than an hour of work—hence, flash. The magical take on Jupiter above (Ari’s), done by Baris Yesilbas, at Gristle Tattoo in Brooklyn, is one such flash tattoo.
31. The sun
If it’s good enough for our solar system to revolve around it, then it’s good enough to earn a place on your skin.
32. The whole solar system
Star light, star bright, this could be the first tattoo you get tonight. (You’d be following in the footsteps of Dorothy Parker, who had a clandestine tiny blue star on the inside of her bicep.)
34. A galaxy
Carry with you a healthy reminder that, no matter what you’re feeling or facing, existence is vast.
35. Your zodiac sign
One thing you can guarantee will never change is your zodiac sign. And for more on your sign and what it secretly means, learn the 50 Most Mind-Blowing Horoscope Facts.
36. An infinity symbol
Or, just capture the celestial essence of the universe in its entirety with a sleek and simple infinity sign.
37. An equation
There’s no shame in letting the world world know about your fondness for history’s most notably frizzly physicist.
38. A date
Maybe it’s the date of your wedding anniversary. Maybe it’s the day your first child was born. Or maybe it’s April 27, 2018 (the day Avengers: Infinity War hit theaters, for those who somehow haven’t committed the occasion to memory). Whichever day you choose, remember that you’re going to see it on all of the other days of your life, so it should be of seismically life-changing importance, like those three examples.
39. A time
One idea: find out the exact time you were born and memorialize the importance of your whole being. (Your birth certificate should have the info you’re looking for.)
40. A clock
Consider getting that time in analog. It’s a timeless style!
41. A compass
Yes, all time-tested, circle-shaped tools of the trade work just as well as tattoos as they do in real life.
42. A sailboat
Pirate-skull-and-crossbones: out. The vessels pirates road in on: in.
43. Or just a sail
And no, we aren’t referring to the how-did-this-get-popular Awolnation song. (Though, yes, people have gotten that tattooed.)
44. A lighthouse
Fans of stories like The Great Gatsby or Bioshock Infinite can show their appreciate for landmark works of fiction with a well-designed, minimalist lighthouse.
Like Thomas Jefferson once said: “The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.”
46. A nautilus
The ne plus ultra of nautical-inspired tattoos. (And this piece is proof that, yes, some artists will tattoo your hand.)
Though common, seashell tattoos are actually quite poetic. A real seashell serves to protect the marine mollusk that takes shelter in it, and so a tattoo of one can symbolize your fortitude and tenacity. Or, it can quite literally just mean that you really like going to the beach.
48. A starfish
Fun fact: Starfish are technically living creatures, but they have no brain—and no blood.
49. A lobster
In the midst of midwinter blizzards, let your lobster tattoo take you back to sunny Saturdays on the beach—toes in the sand (and a lobster roll in your hand).
50. One fish
If you’re in the mindset for an aquatic tattoo, you’ll find few shapes more graceful than the willowy wisps of a Siamese fighting fish.
51. Two fish
Double down on a trend and double up.
52. Red fish
Red is well-known as the most, um, carnally evocative color. (A recent study by OkCupid found that men and women who wear red received more messages than those who wear any other color.)
53. Blue fish
For more ideas on wacky fish to tattoo, check out the 20 Bizarre Sea Creatures That Look Like They’re Not Real.
54. Nursery rhyme-inspired artwork
(See what we did there?)
55. A line of text
“When it comes to writing, just make sure it’s [in a] clear and legible [font],” says Thornhill. To browse typefaces, check out dafont.com. It’s an invaluable database, full of nearly 40,000 free fonts to choose from.
56. Handwriting from a loved one
The most unique font of all, though, is personal handwriting. An example: Our colleague, Madeline Purdue, got a note from her grandmother permanently etched on her side. It’s a carbon copy and permanently etched memory of the card she received from nana for her 18th birthday—the last birthday card
57. Just a word or two
From your favorite novel, poem, song—whatever!
We’re partial to the mild intricacy and simple elegance of the ampersand.
59. A semicolon
Semicolon tattoos have gained popularity over the years as a symbol of hope and perseverance for people struggling with mental illness. “A semicolon represents a sentence the author could have ended, but chose not to,” explain the folks at Project Semicolon. “The sentence is your life and the author is you.” If you are worried that someone close to you is suffering from depression but aren’t sure, check the signs against these Ways Your Loved Ones May Be Hiding Their Depression.
60. A matching or aligning tattoo
“We get a lot of matching tattoo [requests] between family members and friends, which is always cute,” says Jones. It also works for couples, too.
61. A heart
As a piece of art, it works equally well either broken, intact, or anywhere in between.
No, fellow editors, we didn’t forget an entry here. (“TK,” for those not in the know, is writer-ese for “to come,” as in, “text to come.”) If you’re wondering why the skin in this picture looks so raw, by the way, it’s because Morgan got the tattoo while we were in the middle of writing.
Diehard fans of Rent know this number (and phrase) by heart.
64. Roman numerals
One idea: If your team ever won a Super Bowl, get that.
65. Atomic symbol
There are 118 elements on the period table, each with its own intricate structure. Choose one.
66. Chemical formulas
Or combine a bunch. Pick a compound that means a lot to you—if you’re a painter, for instance, maybe you’d get the chemical compound for paint—and spring for that.
67. A merc (with a mouth)
“I [recently] did Deadpool riding a unicorn,” says Rusty Thornhill. “That was really fun.”
68. The Avengers
69. A hero you deserve.
But not one you need.
70. A Skywalker
Choose the light side or the dark side—or both!
71. A Poké Ball
Even if you missed the Game Boy games or trading cards of late-’90s elementary school, there’s a good bet you’ve played some iteration of the game. After all, Pokémon Go has been downloaded nearly half a billion times, and, after its 2016 release, topped both the iTunes and Google Play app stores for months on-end.
72. A Master Ball
For those unaware, the Master Ball is to Poké Balls as what the lion is to the jungle: King.
73. Your favorite Pokémon
With more than 800 Pokémon in the Pokédex, you’re bound to find one that’s the best there ever was. (The correct answer: Jolteon.)
74. A dragon
Of all the mythical creatures, few are more majestic or mighty than the
75. Game of Thrones house crest
“A Lannister always pays his debts.”
76. The Deathly Hallows
A minimalistic homage to a body of fiction that inspired millions of lives (and still regularly draws real-world comparisons on social media to this day).
77. An airplane window
Few experiences are more transformative than your first flight in a window seat, looking at topographical expanse at 35,000 feet.
78. An airplane
The view from the outside ain’t bad, either.
79. Mountain range
Especially if you’re flying over the Rockies.
80. Rosie the Riveter
No, she didn’t technically exist—but she was a tectonically powerful icon nonetheless. And for folks in a similar vein, check out these 50 Famous People Who Never Existed.
81. Musical Notes
Think of your favorite tune, track down the sheet music of your favorite part, and get it permanently etched.
82. A gramophone
Hey, you’ll need something to broadcast that favorite tune of yours.
Though you may want to keep it to yourself…
84. Your heartbeat
The beat of the music is one thing. The beat of you is another (better) thing.
85. Something from this guy
Traveling tattooer Georgie Williams custom-designs individual pieces in his unique, high-tech, machine-inspired, Tron-like style.
86. Or this gal
87. Or this guy
The rich, moody sleeves from Ryan Flaherty, whose home base is Pioneer Tattoo, in Chicago, are the type of artworks you’d expect to see enmeshed in a high-quality frame—only, instead of brushed brass, the frame is your skin.
88. Or this gal
The modern, deconstructed pinups from Diana Felix are among the only tattoos of the type (sultry, scandalous) with such inimitable class.
89. A ferris wheel
We’ve all had fun on ferris wheels. Let a ferris wheel have fun on you.
90. A merry-go-round
Same goes for merry-go-rounds.
91. A red balloon
92. A snowflake
You know what they say: every snowflake is 100 percent unique.
93. A snow globe
So get a bunch of them!
94. A parasol
From Mary Poppins to Galahad from Kingsman, you can’t go wrong with this timeless accessory.
95. Company logo
Sometimes, companies offer a literal tit-for-tat. If you get their logo inked, you get free stuff. For instance, the folks at &pizza offered free pizza for a year for the first 20 or so people to show up at a new store’s opening—if they got the tattoo. (That &pizza’s logo is an ampersand, a design we’re, again, enamored with, makes the decision here kind of a no-brainer.)
96. An arrow
For an incredibly niche joke, get it inked on your knee.
You’ll feel free as a bird.
Can’t go wrong with a classic.
But you can update it for equality-minded 21st-century life.
100. Your wedding ring (one of the most thoughtful tattoos)
Well, look at that. It turns out you can make “till death do us part” as permanent as a tattoo (or a pair of tattoos).
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