Ento-musings from the University of Kentucky Department of Entomology

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tattoo Taboo: Insect body art

by Andy Boring, UK Entomology Graduate Student

I find tattoos intrinsically interesting. As an Entomologist, I find insect tattoos compelling for a number of reasons. I cannot think of a more difficult subject - there are legs and antennae, and sometimes mouthparts - these features can get all jumbled up to make the tattoo seem uninterpretable. Insect anatomy is also something that needs to be researched in order to get all the body parts correct (the number of legs, the legs should come from the thorax, ect). Also, to do an insect tattoo well it probably needs to be a bit large. The difficulty this presents is that any background or additional subjects can be disproportional. There is also a good bit of technical skill required - it is not easy to have a fuzzy bee that doesn't come across as blurry instead.

With this in mind I found a few images that illustrate what I mentioned above. I write this to point out details that might otherwise go unnoticed, and to share my appreciation for skilled art.

The first thing I noticed about this tattoo is the quality and accuracy of the spider anatomy. Yeah, I know this isn't an insect, but it has two more notable features. First, there is a shadow given to the legs. Insect macrophotographers go to great length to reduce shadows in their images, but here the shadow gives a three dimensional effect to make this pop out. Also notice that the legs do not have a solid line around them - this is a really good example of making something fuzzy not look blurry. The shadow helps distinguish the legs from the skin in some areas.

I picked this image to contrast the one above. Note the solid black outline of the beetle. Also, to separate the beetle from the shadow, there is a thin break of "white" between the beetle and shadow (the white here is probably skin tone).

Something about this just catches my eye. The foreground is outlined in black, and the background is not. Notice the fly has ocelli! Also, I like how the closed fly-trap has the shadow of a fly within it. The colors are vivid, and contrast so that there is no doubt what you are looking at.

This is from the same artist as above, and the composition is fantastic. The arrangement of the legs keep it from looking crowded. There are probably some liberties taken with the green stripes and legs, but the overall anatomy is good even though stylized a bit. The petals near the head are not outlined, and that helps make the head stand out as a focus. The whole piece seems to blend with the background and separate equally well.

The attention to detail here is second to no other tattoo I've seen. It helps that the tattoo is big, and that the entire insects are not in it.

Nick Baxter is one of few artists I know by name and admire. His overall compositions are some of best. He uses the background to contrast the subjects, and does a good job of making the bee appear fuzzy without being blurry. The background is detailed, but doesn't take over the subjects.

Well, I hope that you enjoyed reading this and maybe picked a thing or two to notice about any tattoos you encounter in the future.


  1. This is great stuff, Andy. I remember that a current grad student in the Biology Dept here at UK has a tattoo of the damselfly species (in the immature stage) that he works with. I don't know his name. Does anyone know this person? I would like him to submit a picture of his tattoo so that we can post it here!

  2. Makes me want a cool tattoo... maybe a Gomphid bursting out of the stream bottom like a monster from a sci-fi movie!

  3. Josh, how about a human-sized adult dragonfly emerging from your back?

  4. Could you please post the information for the artists who did these tattoos? Names, website addresses, etc.?