Would You Let AI Design Your Tattoo?


When I was a little kid I used to watch “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons” nearly every morning. I don’t recall particularly liking either one that much, they were just on while I ate my breakfast, so I would just sit and marinate in the technicolor glow while scarfing down Rice Krispies. It would be decades before I had an actual job, but the thing that appealed to me most about both programs was that the humans had dinosaurs or robots to do almost all of the work. It was so sick. Sure, a pterodactyl garbage disposal or a robot masseuse may not be the most practical, but they certainly seemed cool to a 10 year old. 

The thing that resonated most with me was how the jobs the dinosaurs and robots (but not dinobots) were doing tended to be menial labor, the kind of jobs nobody really wants to do in the first place. Having machines available to do the stuff we all hate doing sounds pretty chill, so I was excited about the prospect. Instead, like with so many other things to come out of Silicon Valley, the reality of AI is pretty bleak. 

I thought the robots were going to be digging ditches or cleaning bathrooms, instead they’ve decided they’d rather be artists and writers. Which, honestly, can’t blame them. Writing is cool. Making art is cool. But I thought the whole point of technology was to make our lives better, and in my opinion, letting the computers do the fun stuff certainly isn’t that. 

That being said, my mind isn’t completely closed to the idea of AI getting worked into certain industries as a helpful tool. Access to the internet completely changed how tattooers went about finding references and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who disapproves of that. Although, this being the tattoo industry, I can guarantee there’s an old timer with no fingerprints from years of soldering his own needles who thinks the internet is the devil, but you get the point. 

In order to get a tattooer’s perspective, I texted Friend of the Magazine, Pony Lawson, for his thoughts. And while I’m all fire and brimstone yelling at the robots to get off of my lawn, Lawson brought up a couple of good points. Specifically, how is that all that different from grabbing images from Pinterest or reproducing flash? 

“Modern day tattooers steal more than AI,” Lawson says. “If a tattooer traces everything, isn’t that more theft than AI generating from multiple images?” 

On the surface I agree with Lawson, but the Pandora’s box that has been opened by AI being rushed into widespread use is that there simply aren’t any ethics. If an image exists online, AI can pull it. Traditionally, if a tattoo artist creates a flash sheet, they are compensated. Either people purchase the flash or it’s just put up in the shop, where the tattooer who created it will often end up making tattoos from it. There’s also a level of consent—when flash goes on the wall the creator expects tattoos to be made from it. That level of expectation isn’t there when posting a tattoo online. This is why artists get really prickly when they see their tattoos being replicated by other tattooers. 

Lawson brought up this point in our conversation, hoping for a form of ethical AI. “There should be an ability to opt in or out,” he explains. “People tend to lean toward more ethical practices. So if we all jumped on that bandwagon, then AI would be using any images that would be considered theft. Tattooers/artists can upload their art for compensation.” 

That seems like a fantastic idea… in theory. It’s going to be hard to go back to an idea like that once we’ve already had the free-for-all that is happening currently. It’s a little like how people didn’t mind paying for downloading music until Napster showed up and almost overnight everybody expected to be able to download any song they could think of for free. There have been a ton of attempts to get people back to paying directly for music since and they’ve all failed. [Note: I don’t consider something like Spotify Premium to be a direct correlation since it isn’t on a song by song, artist by artist basis. Spotify Premium is pretty much just paying to not hear ads]

As cynical as I am, I’m sure there is some sort of app that could make a run at doing what Lawson suggested and do pretty well for itself. But I don’t believe an app that gave proper compensation to artists would end up being the norm. 

After reading this article, I decided to explore the three Tattoo/AI sites mentioned. To summarize what I found: all three are pretty bleak. As far as I can tell, the technology isn’t there yet, at least not in a tattoo specific way. If you wanted to use OpenAI’s Dale to create a wacky image and then have it tattooed, that could work. But the tattoo-specific sites seem to be well behind. 


I’m going to be honest, I chose this one first because of the name and the name alone. I always like when tech tries to make it seem like you’re dealing with a person as opposed to a machine, this is why I was an Ask Jeeves guy until the end. And the pun of using Jenny to stand in for “Generator,” *chef’s kiss*. 

The problem with TattooJenny is it doesn’t work. At all. Every idea I gave it—from “dog with cheese” to “Darth Vader body slamming an ewok” to “anchor and fish”—died on the vine. Either it told me the idea was too complicated or it simply timed out. The only thing that seemed to work on the site was buying more credits. So this one was a total failure… although I might just rip off the sick sleeve Jenny’s got… 


This site was able to actually produce images, which is a step up from TattooJenny. This now ends the praise segment of the review. The tattoo ideas it comes up with are vague and while they offer a ton of different styles to choose from, they don’t seem to differ from each other much at all.

Here’s an owl done in surrealism:

Here’s an owl done in American traditional: 

Here’s an owl done in “sketch” style: 

And then, oddly, a second owl done in “sketch” ended up being a much better depiction of surrealism than the surreal one: 

Right now, BlackInk.Ai isn’t doing anything very interesting. It offers up a bunch of tattoo style options, but then produces images that don’t really pull from the styles at all. I do think that with enough tinkering with the programming that this could end up being interesting eventually, but right now, not so much. 



This one wants to charge me money. I’m a lowly journalist, $9 for a week of access is far too steep of a price for my blood. The little video I can watch for free looks semi-promising. I’d actually go and get a tattoo of this double fish fella. 

Other than that, I have no idea if TattoosAI is any good. Maybe I’ll get a raise and be able to tell you in the future. 

I don’t consider myself to be a luddite, and I’m not afraid of change, but I think we need to pull back the reins a bit with AI. Of the two I could afford to try, there were exactly zero designs I’d want to get tattooed. But when I told my favorite artist that I wanted a tattoo of a fat demon cat drinking vodka (a nod to “The Master and Margarita”), she drew it up in an hour and it was beyond words. She probably looked at some images from the internet, maybe an actual cat, but it wasn’t thrown together by a machine. A smart artist used her immense skill to create a piece of art, and it was beautiful. For now, I’m going to put my trust in artists, not computers. In the future, I’m willing to bet that AI will be a helpful tool for those artists to create amazing work. 

In conclusion, AI is a land of contrasts.

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