Most tattoo designs are 2D (2-dimensional). This means that they are flat images, with no depth in the tattoo design. The terms “3D tattoo” or “3-dimensional tattoo” refer to tattoos that have an extra dimension, a third dimension. These tattoos interact with the skin, giving the illusion of being above the skin or within the body.
What is a 3D Tattoo?
In animation, 2-D animation is also known as traditional animation. Most people know traditional animation as the flat cartoons used in popular kids’ animations like The Smurfs and Garfield and Friends. 2D animation uses thousands of drawings, shown quickly and in sequence to simulate a moving, living character. The name “2-dimensional” is given to this form of animation because of the drawings used; flat, 2-dimensional art works. These drawings have two dimensions; height and width. 3-D is a term used to describe art and animation that uses a third dimension; depth.
Depth can also be thought of as distance. This third dimension tells the eye how much space exists between an object that is close to the viewer, and an object that is further away. It is this dimension that gives 3D animated characters their “rounded” look. 3D art uses lighting and shading, shadows and blur to create the life-like effect. Shadows haven’t been used in tattoo designs for long; it’s only been in the last few decades that tattoo artist have taken tattoos into this third dimension.
To create a 3D effect, tattoo artists need to add highlights to the design. These are areas of “high light” or shine. Shading is used to create a rounded effect, and shadows are added to add depth and distance to the tattoo design. This is how 3D tattoos can look like they are inside the body, part of the body or sitting on top of the skin.
3-D tattoos don’t necessarily need to be photorealistic. As long as they have convincing lighting, shading and shadows, a 3D tattoo can be a cartoon or fantasy character. This 3D effect can even be used in artistic tattoos, to give a sketched design the appearance of being shaded with a pencil, or a painted tattoo design the effect of shadows being added with a paint brush.
Do 3D Tattoos Mean Anything?
The subject of a 3D tattoo has as much meaning as it would if it were depicted in 2D. For example, a 2-dimensional design of the Mayan calender would have as much meaning as a 3D tattoo design of the Mayan calender. The only real difference in the symbolism is that because of the life-like effect of 3D, the 3D design would have the added symbolism of being more “real” to the tattoo owner. This is because 3D tattoo designs defy the traditional ink-on-skin effect of tattoos, instead giving the illusion of being a part of the human body.
3D tattoos are great for creating optical illusions. A tattoo artist can use 3D techniques to “remove” part of the skin, revealing the muscles and tendons that lie within. This same technique can be used to reveal an alien interior or robot insides. These tattoos aren’t just cool to look at. They also have a deeper meaning. To reveal the muscle within is a symbol of inner strength. To reveal a robot within hints that a person either questions their own humanity or thinks of themselves as being like a machine. Alien innards could symbolize a sense of detachment to the world or a feeling of not being the same as other people.
A popular technique for 3D tattoos is to create the illusion that something is sitting on top of the skin. Tattoo artists create this effect by “rounding” the subject of the design with highlights and shading and then adding shadows, not only to the subject, but to the skin. Shadows convince the brain that space exists between the skin and the subject, creating the illusion that the subject is sitting on top of the skin.
Another clever 3D tattoo technique is one that uses red and blue ink to create a design that appears messy to the naked eye, but becomes 3-dimensional with the use of 3D glasses. These glasses are the same as those used in movie theaters to watch 3D movies. The same effect used in the film to create the 3-dimensional effect is used in the tattoo design. These designs are taking the art of tattoos into a new dimension.