The Best Art Tattoos of All Time

Photo: Courtesy of Ellsworth Kelly and Carter Foster

What was “the first art”? Music? Early humans humming, clucking, and sounding in scales and patterns? Maybe. But my bias makes me vote for drawing. Not just in sand and on trees and walls. But on ourselves. Body adornment and markings must have come early — scarring, scraping, and tattoos of all kinds. Tattoos are primitive, private public advertisements of self, secrets kept from the world and hinted at for all to see, signs with significance for the wearer and sometimes the world, all worn to the grave. Tattoos are tribal, cryptic, sexy, scary, or stupid. Nowadays they’re all but de rigueur for a generation or two.

I love looking at them. It’s like a walking museum. Although, most tattoos strike me as pretty generic with styles, colors, subject matters, scale, and placement all falling within fairly narrow parameters. This is fine. But I bristle a bit at all of them being called art. What I love most are those people who for whatever reason or calling are so moved by an actual known work of art that they appropriate this work of art and reproduce it forever on their own body. That strikes me as more than fandom and something like real art. So, a month ago I took to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, asking people to send in pictures of their tattoos of reproductions of actual works of art. We got hundreds of images — amazing pictures on all parts of the body. There’s a definite canon out there. Pop Art is all the rage; Klimt is big; so is Dalí, Frida Kahlo, Degas, Dürer, and Picasso — every period of Picasso. Ditto Matisse and van Gogh. I love that there are a lot of Bosh tats out there, more than a few Duchamps, and some wonderful cave paintings. Take a trip with these 40 pictures and glean the tip of this skin-deep iceberg. Above is the legendary Ellsworth Kelly working out his tattoo design on Carter Foster’s forearm. Kelly gave Foster’s tattoo, executed by Scott Campbell, an inventory number and considers it one of his works of art. And do send your own pictures to

“I had the idea to ask Ellsworth do design a tattoo a few years ago and did one day, not really expecting him to say yes. But he was happy to do it so I photocopied my right forearm, which is where I wanted it, so he’d have an actual size “image” of my arm. Then a few months later I was up there visiting him and asked him about it again and he said “let’s just do it right now” so he pulled out scissors and colored paper and worked out the design on my arm, and then made a collage of that on the photocopy of my arm. I took that collage to the brilliant and wonderful Scott Campbell and he executed it using the collage as a reference and matching the colors, etc. Ellsworth was so pleased when he finally saw it that he gave it an inventory number and considers it one of his works of art. The whole experience was delightful and I adore Ellsworth, one of the nicest, kindest friends anyone could hope to have. So that’s the story.”
Charles Demuth, The Figure 5 in Gold, 1928 Photo: Courtesy of Ron Ulicny
Josef Albers, Homage to a Square, begun in 1949
Ed Ruscha, OOF, 1963
Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948
Matthew Barney, a drawing from Drawing Restraint 9, 2005
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s iconic Crown motif 
Constantin Brancusi, The Kiss, 1916
Roy Lichtenstein, an interpretation ofYellow Brushstroke
Ellsworth Kelly, An interpretation of Wild Grape Leaves 
Roy Lichtenstein, Drowning Girl, 1963
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
Raphael, Saint Michael, 1504
Homage to Frida Kahlo
Vincent Van Gogh, Van Gogh’s Chair, 1888
Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting: Eight Red Rectangles, 1915
Leonardo daVinci, Mona Lisa, 1503-1517
From a 1996 postcard Martin Kippenberger made of himself in Venice. 
Hiernoymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, 1503-4
Henri Magritte, The Treachery of Image, 1928
Philip Guston, Head and Bottle, 1975
Man Ray, Gift, 1921
One of Edgar Degas’s Blue Dancers
Jack Pierson Last Chance Lost and David Wojnarowicz 
Jasper Johns, Figure 8, 1959
Andy Warhol’s Early Self-Portrait, 1964 and Feliz Gozalez-Torres candies from Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA), 1991
Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q, 1919
Bull painting from the Lascaux Cave, 15,000 BC
Ai Weiwei, Forever Bicycles
Frank Stella, Black Painting series
Pablo Picasso, The Old Guitar Player, 1903
One of Ray Johnson’s signature “bunny” motifs
Pablo Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror, 1932
Alberto Giacometti, a drawing of his brother Diego 
A figure from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1503-4 Correction: The photo in this slide was originally misidentified. 
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633
Salvador Dalí, The Elephants, 1944
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Riding Death, 1988
The Best Art Tattoos of All Time