3D tattoos take tattoo art to another level – or another dimension if we’re being literal. These photorealistic tattoos are one of the more contemporary trends in tattooing, requiring a great deal of creativity, thought, and most importantly talent on the tattoo artist’s part.
What are 3D tattoos?
The term ‘3D tattoo’ refers to any design that looks three-dimensional, rather than two-dimensional (flat) on the skin. The best 3D tattoos will be realistic enough to look like photographs. The 3D technique is used for a number of innovative and creative designs – from simply tattooing hyper-realistic looking objects to crossing into the realm of believable optical illusions.
3D tattoos are likely to take longer to complete than two-dimensional designs and require a huge amount of expertise from the tattoo artist.
If you’re considering getting a 3D tattoo, it’s best to try to find a tattooist who specializes in this aesthetic, even if it means looking outside your area or paying a bit more than expected. 3D tattoos only achieve their purpose – looking realistic – if the artist gets everything 100% right.
Realistic 3D tattoo design ideas
As we’ve already mentioned, creativity is key to creating the very best and most original 3D tattoos. If you’re looking for some inspiration, consider the following ideas – and don’t forget to check out our massive gallery of awesome 3D tattoos!
Animals and objects
This type of 3D tattoos involves simply – though let’s be honest, it’s not that simple – tattooing a photorealistic image of something on your body. Real-looking objects and animals make for striking, eye-catching tattoos.
Some popular choices include:
- Flowers – always a popular tattoo element, flowers look even better when tattooed in 3D. Most people opt for roses since they’re one of the more complex flowers to tattoo and ones with the most depth involved – there’s a lot of light and shadow play on and between the petals, unlike with flowers that are naturally more flat. Drops of water are sometimes added for extra realism. Both color and black options are viable, and each will result in a distinctive style – though of course, the use of color will make the image more lifelike.
- Portraits – portrait tattoos are tough to get right and a major commitment (they’re not as easy to cover up as names!), yet this doesn’t affect their popularity all that much. Plenty of people still get them, and there’s no reason not to if you have the right tattoo artist to help you and the certainty that this is the right choice for you. Portrait tattoos are usually done in black ink. If they were done in color, they’d blend in too much with the color of your own skin.
- Animals – both tattoos of pets and of wild animals are often done in 3D to add depth and heighten the aesthetic value of the design. Usually tattooed in color for maximum realism, these tattoos tend to be quite large in order to preserve all the details and make the design more believable. Tigers, wolves, and lions are common choices, as are snakes and lizards.
- Spiders – from black widows to huge tarantulas, realistic spiders make for awesome-looking 3D tattoos. Though these insects generally cause most people to flinch and many are positively fearful of them (sometimes with good reason, after all), the symbolism of the spider is not altogether negative. They’re associated with power, mystery, and growth. Spiders also represent the concept that our choices construct our lives – likely due to the elaborate webs that spiders gradually build to catch prey.
- Skulls – often combined with other elements, such as flowers or snakes, skulls never seem to lose popularity. In 3D tattoos they’re typically done in black ink, giving them a dark, gothic look. This fits in with the general cultural meanings of death and mortality that skulls bring to mind. Skulls also have some positive meanings, though – they’re sometimes associated with protection and wisdom.
- Eyes – realistic-looking eyes, either single or in a pair, are another 3D tattoo you’ll see a lot of while browsing our gallery. Eyes are symbolic of intelligence and omniscience, as well as morality and truth. In certain cultures, eyes are considered to be gateways into the soul – sometimes associated with the concept of the ‘third eye’. The third eye is supposed to be the eye of the soul – what could simply be called intuition. In Egyptian and Western occult traditions, the left eye symbolizes the moon and the North, while the right eye represents the sun and the South.
This is one of the most popular choices and one of the safest ones where it comes to achieving the desired effect. And the effect you’re aiming for here is to make it look as if an insect, such as a butterfly or a dragonfly, has landed on your skin.
The insect is made to look realistic through painstaking work on the tattoo artist’s part – working with several reference images of real examples of your chosen insect to make sure it looks ‘real’ on your skin. The tattoo is not complete without adding a shadow dropped by the insect – without it, the tattoo could still look somewhat flat.
The placement of a 3D landing insect tattoo is also an important factor to consider. Especially in the case of larger designs, the area can’t be too curved (like the top of your shoulder or your elbow), since this will distort the shape of the tattoo. For lifelike insect tattoos, consider your forearm, the back of your shoulder, or somewhere along your leg – such as your thigh or calf.
The sky’s the limit on what insect you could go with for your tattoo. You could think about what critters visually appeal to you, consider whether you have any personal stories or memories you associate with any particular insect, or take a cultural meaning or value associated with an insect as a starting point.
Butterflies are symbolic of transformation, first and foremost. This is because they start their lives as considerably less attractive caterpillars before transforming themselves into the colorful, beautiful flying insects.
They’re also associated with hope, change, and life itself. As such, they’re particularly meaningful 3D tattoo design choices if you want to celebrate an important change in your life or overcoming a difficult struggle. Butterflies are also sometimes thought to be symbolic of the passing of a loved one.
In addition to the above, a blue butterfly 3D tattoo generally symbolizes good luck. Yellow butterflies stand for joy, happiness, and positivity. White ones are associated with purity and, in the context of Christianity, salvation.
Dragonflies have many meanings which differ somewhat between cultures. In general, they symbolize change, adaptability, transformation, and self-realization.
In Japanese culture, dragonflies are symbolic of power, victory, and agility. For Native Americans, dragonflies stood for happiness and purity, as well as for protection from ill health and injury. In Buddhist cosmology, dragonflies represent the joining of Heaven and Earth.
In tattoo art, dragonflies are often thought to represent living in the moment – letting go of the past, not worrying too much about the future, and focusing on what’s important to us here and now.
Cracked or ripped skin
These 3D tattoo designs are way less grim than they sound. The 3D effect is achieved here by making it appear as if part of the skin is missing, to reveal something unexpected and unusual beneath. It’s an interesting choice since this type of tattoo blends in perfectly and appears as if it really is a part of the person’s body.
Again, there are plenty of options here, limited only by your creativity and the size you want your tattoo to be.
The biomechanical tattoo style involves designs which represent a seamless blend of human and machine. This means combining bones and tissue with gears, pistons, and other mechanical elements in one design, creating the illusion of a cyborg-like nature.
Though biomechanical designs are sometimes done as traditional, two-dimensional tattoos, the 3D option is far more popular. In order to show the blend of muscle and metal, the muscle must be ‘exposed’ – hence including the illusion of missing skin in the design.
Biomechanical tattoos don’t have any specific meanings in themselves – most of the time they’re purely a form of artistic expression and of decoration.
The biomechanical style in broader art movements originates from the 1970s and is closely associated with Ridley Scott’s 1979 movie Alien. In recent years, the steampunk style has influenced biomechanical tattoos – swapping the steel and cabling of traditional biomech for brass clockwork and gears.
Superheroes and other pop culture elements
A highly popular choice among ‘missing skin’ 3D tattoos, this type is based on the idea of having a costume or a different appearance ‘under’ your skin. Superheroes are a common theme here – you’re bound to have seen 3D tattoo pictures where it seems as if the person’s skin has been torn off to show a Spiderman or Batman costume underneath.
Characteristic, distinctive clothing/costumes, armors, and appearances of characters from movies, comic books, and games, are all great choices for this kind of tattoo. An interesting twist is to have several tattoos with the same theme – a ‘rip’ on the chest is a classic, but you could also get matching tattoos, here and there, on other parts of your body – such as your shoulders, arms, and legs.
Using the 3D technique puts a new spin on the traditional quote tattoo. This kind of design usually involves making it appear as if the writing is under your skin, rather than on it. To achieve this effect, the tattoo artist uses shading to create the illusion of a part of your skin missing, with the letters showing underneath.
There a couple of things to decide on when considering this kind of 3D tattoo. First of all, you need to think about what the writing itself should be – you could opt for a name of a loved one, a quotation that’s important to you, or even a full page of text from a source that has personal meaning to you (e.g. your favorite book or a religious text).
Next up, the shape of the ‘cutout’ – it could look as if the skin is missing in a particular shape, such as a star, heart, or circle, or you could go for a less ordered ‘ripped’ look – as if it’s been scratched or torn off.
The fact that the writing will be ‘under’ your skin suggests that the text is not just important to you, but is a part of you. A 3D under-the-skin writing tattoo is therefore the perfect choice for writing that truly represents who you are, or who you want to be.
An optical illusion uses perspective, shapes, color, and light/shade to create images that are deceptive, confusing, or misleading to our perception. Put simply, optical illusions cause us to see something that either doesn’t exist in reality or actually looks different than what we think it does.
There are many types of optical illusions out there, but the type we’re most interested in is based mostly in an illusion of depth. Think of graffiti art that makes it seem as if an image is ‘floating’ in the air, or of murals that make it look as if there’s a tunnel – when really, it’s just a plain, solid wall.
All 3D tattoos involve some level of illusion – the illusion of realism – but some designs are specifically designed to create extra depth and ‘trick’ the eye. These are specialist tattoos and you may need to put some work into finding the right tattoo artist, but the end result will be totally worth the effort.
Though they’re a relatively recent trend in tattoo art, 3D tattoos have caught on remarkably fast and remain highly popular. With some creativity and the help of an experienced tattoo artist, you can create some truly unique, original designs for your tattoo.
Hopefully, the ideas described above and the 3D tattoo pictures below will give you some inspiration and get you started!