Is there really such a thing as a timeless tattoo?

I was reading a blog post recently on Bustle that aimed to list ’10 Timeless Tattoos that will be cool your whole life’ – and it made me think about whether there was really such a thing as a timeless tattoo (as well as making me think what a bold claim it was to list them!)

I love a bit of exaggeration on the internet as much as the next person – after all Tatts a Mistake is without a doubt the most awesomely awesome website in the world – but when it comes to giving advice about permanently inking your body I prefer to err on the side of caution. Telling someone ‘you should get this tattoo design because it’ll be cool forever’ – isn’t the type of advice I’d be comfortable giving.

The one line that really stuck with me was “I’ve only started to dig hand artwork…but…a pair of hands….is timeless”

Hmmmm. So the author used to not like hand tattoos, but now she does and now they’re going to be timeless? The definition of timeless is “not affected by the passage of time or changes in fashion.” So if hand tattoos (or any tattoo) are timeless, surely she should have ‘dug’ them the first time she saw them?

Hand tattoos are timeless?
A timeless tattoo?

So is there really such a thing as a timeless tattoo? There’s many reasons to get a tattoo, but if one of your considerations is ‘will I still like this in 10 or 20 years’, getting your head around the concept of a ‘timeless tattoo’ is something you need to think about. So here are some thoughts to help your thinking

Have a look back on tattoo styles that ended up not being timeless.

There’s a tongue-in-cheek article claiming to be able to guess your age by the type of tattoo you have. If you have a dolphin tattoo your probably early 40’s, a barbed wire tattoo means your late 30’s and so on. And the reason you can guess a person’s age by their tattoo is because fashions change – none of those tattoo designs proved to be timeless.

And think about it – would you go out and get a barbed wire tattoo today? Or a dolphin on your bikini line? Chances are the answer is no. But what about the many, many people who did when they were in fashion. Do you think they walked into a tattoo parlour and said ‘give me a tattoo that’s going to go out of fashion’? Of course not. They were getting a tattoo they expected to be timeless.

Barbed wire tattoo
Remember the barded wire tattoo? Of course you do! Photo credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

I have a mate with a tattoo on his lower back he got about 10 years ago and he HATES it. Why? Because it was totally cool until someone came up with ‘that name’ for lower back tattoos, and suddenly it wasn’t timeless, especially for a guy.

Tramp Stamp tattoo
Tatts a Mistake, Not Timeless

But, you say – that was then and it’s obvious those tattoos weren’t timeless. Tattoo designs today are so much cooler – they’ll be timeless.

Beware the ‘end of history’ illusion.

We’ve discussed it here before – but the end of history illusion is a phenomenon we all suffer from. Simply put, it describes the fact that we can look back on our personal history and see that our tastes have changed, but looking forward we have the illusion that our tastes will remain the same – that we’ve reached the end of our (personal) history.

“I’ve changed in the past, but I’ll remain the same in the future.”

And to look back on old tattoo designs and say ‘ fashion has changed since then’ but at the same time look forward and say ‘but these designs will be timeless’ is to fall prey to the ‘end of history’ illusion.

If it’s going to be timeless tomorrow, it has to be timeless yesterday.

A tattoo can’t suddenly become popular and then become timeless. Unless you’re coming up with some totally new design, or a new location to put it on your body, the tattoo you’re getting has history. And if it wasn’t timeless back then, you can’t expect it to become timeless today. So if you’ve always liked Chinese character symbols, and you still like them today, then perhaps they really will be timeless for you. But if you’ve only just warmed to the idea of a full sleeve tattoo (a style that’s been around for a long time), then chances are it isn’t actually timeless

What about things that are personal to me?

Now perhaps we’re getting closer to a timeless tattoo. Fashions change, but something that has personal meaning to you should remain a constant. Except just when you think you’ve found the answer – it’s in this category that the ‘least timeless’ tattoo lurks – the ‘ex’ tattoo. According to one report the average person will fall in love twice before they meet ‘the one’. And then it’s a sad statistic that around 40% of all marriages end in divorce. So getting a tattoo of your soul-mate the first time you fall madly in love is almost guaranteed to not be timeless (sorry!)

What about your BFF? According to Bustle again (which seems to be the spiritual home of timeless tattoo advice), here’s an article listing ’15 Timeless tattoos ideas for you and your best friend’

BFF tattoo
They’ll be in a jam if they ever stop being besties

But I remember my best friend when we were 18. As a sign of our BFF’ness we bought matching leather jackets and gave them to each other as a christmas present (cringe-worthy I know). And now I probably see him once every 2 years – nothing particular happened, we just went our separate ways. Had we decided to get a couple of timeless BFF tattoos instead of leather jackets that have long since been chucked way, I can only imagine how silly I’d feel every time I looked down at that lonely tattoo.

But of course there are things that are personal to you that really should stand the test of time. The love you have for your parents, or for your children should remain a constant. The place where you came from can’t change over time, and I guess the sports team you follow usually remains a constant (although the jury’s out on whether getting a tattoo of your favourite football team has ever been timeless!). Likewise if you’ve had a passion for something for a long time – as long as you can remember (and assuming you’re not a goldfish) – then perhaps you’re close to finding something timeless – like this person who ‘chose two things that have consistently appealed to me all my life: birds and skulls’

brids and skull tattoo

So what’s my pick for a timeless tattoo?

I’m not convinced that there’s really such a thing as a generally accepted timeless tattoo – but then again, that shouldn’t be the criteria for getting one. Striving to get a tattoo just because it’ll be considered timeless by everyone is probably as bad a reason for getting a tattoo as doing it just because everyone else is. It should be meaningful to you – and yes, it’s something that you should genuinely believe will be timeless just for you.

If I had to pick two ‘timeless tattoos’ I’d go with:

  • Tribal Tattoos. I’m not a huge fan of them personally, but my opinion of them has remained constant, so in that respect I guess they’re timeless. I’ve always considered them a safe design and I think the same about them now, so I think it’s fair to say I’ll think the same about them in the future
  • In memory of. I have relatives in Canada whose beautiful mother/grandmother passed away a few years ago. In memory of her – she was born in Ireland and moved to Canada – all the extended family got tattoos of a Gaelic harp tattooed on their shoulders. Now I don’t know if gaelic harp tattoos have even been ‘in’ and I don’t know if they’ll ever been nominated as timeless – but for my money there’s no more perfect example of a timeless tattoo than that.
Gaelic Harp
Timeless because it means something personal and unchanging