Wait! Stop! Read This Before You Wind Up with a Crappy Pet Tribute Tattoo

Tattoo artist David Bruehl schools us on pet tribute ink. Also, he really doesn’t recommend taking your dog to the tattoo parlor.


If you need a reason to drop by Norman, Oklahoma, outside visiting your salt-of-the-earth relatives and you have a penchant for having needles jabbed into your arm for long stretches of time, look no further than David Bruehl, who is one of the best tattoo artists in the country today — especially when it comes to making animal subjects come alive on a skin canvas.

I came across David’s work while browsing Tumblr a few years back, and was instantly smitten with his clean lines, vibrant colors, and the way his designs were so clearly his own. To make a long story short, I found myself on a plane to Oklahoma, where I sat in a chair at Think Ink for five hours getting the most beautiful tea-drinking owl installed on my arm. On the flight home, strangers kept stopping me at the airport to take photos of my arm. It was awkward and awesome at the same time.

Now, you might be thinking, what the heck does this have to do with dogs?! Absolutely everything if you, like so many dog-obsessed people I know, are considering getting your dog’s sweet likeness immortalized on some fleshy part of you. There is a right way to do this and a horridly wrong “DO NOT WANT” way, and given the number of tragic pet tribute tattoos I’ve seen on the Internet, it would seem the majority of dog people with tattoos of their pup got them done in the dark. This is a serious head-scratcher considering the blood and cash that you have to spill for the pleasure.

If you’re considering getting a pet tribute tattoo, please read our interview with Mr. Bruehl below. We know not everyone can make it out to Norman, but hopefully David’s advice will prepare you for that tattoo consultation with that local artist you’ve been eyeing. (And please, please research your artist before setting up a consultation! Those of us with eyeballs thank you.)

Dogster: When someone asks you to do a tattoo based on a photo of their pet, do you groan a little inside or think of it as an opportunity to do something cool?

David: It’s usually an opportunity to do something cool. If my client is open to suggestions in regards to how it would best work as a tattoo, a pet portrait has a lot of potential to be very fun.

Has anyone ever brought their pet in and asked you to draw him/her from life?

No. Pets and tattoo studios don’t mix.

Is it just us, or have pet tattoos (tribute or not) surged in popularity over the last few years? What do you think might have contributed to this?

I think it’s social networking, particularly photo-based sites. People are putting a lot of ideas out there that some may not have considered on their own in the past.

There are so very many tacky pet tattoos out there. What advice would you give someone who really wants to display her dog on her arm for the rest of her days?

If you’re going for realism, please have clear, good-sized photographs. That’s the most important thing. Also, be open to your artist’s suggestions about what would make this a good tattoo. The immediate idea that comes to mind when someone says “pet tattoo” is a random floating animal head on a person’s body. I like incorporating floral elements or other decorative motifs to flesh it out as a full tattoo.

Can you describe some of the best and worst pet tattoos you’ve seen?

The worst ones are simply tattoos that were done without forethought or skill on behalf of the artist. They’re essentially just the animal’s face, done badly, awkwardly placed on the skin, perhaps with their name in a font obviously direct off of a computer incorporated.

My favorite ones are where people get creative, but have gone to a good artist and given him or her enough room in the design to do a great job. One popular one that comes to mind are where people have gotten their animals as busts, wearing clothing, done in more of an illustrative rather than photorealistic style. They look like old photographs or cameos.

Does the tackiness factor seen in many pet tattoos have more to do with the concept of pet tats in general, or the artist tasked with putting needle to skin?

It’s definitely between the artist and the client. Anything has potential to be awesome as a tattoo. However, not all artists are skilled and engaged. Also, many clients have hangups with wanting something a very exact way, not expecting the artist to have any input.

The ideal situation is to research an artist you like based on their portfolio or work you’ve seen from them, then come to them with reference and a basic idea. Trust that your artist will create something you’ll ultimately love. Give them the freedom to do so.

What advice would you give a fairly new tattoo artist on guiding the creative direction of a pet tribute tattoo?

I would just tell them to hold it to the same standards as any other tattoo. Make it work with the body and the existing work on the client. Design it so that it’s visually clear and built to stay nice for decades to come.

Here’s a more general question: What are some areas of the body you’d generally tell folks to refrain from tattooing (lest they sag with age, etc.)?

Provided that your tattoo is designed well, anywhere is appropriate. The only exception I would make is if you’re a female planning to get pregnant in your lifetime — you probably don’t want your stomach tattooed.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Having tattoos is both profound and fun. Be lighthearted about it, and enjoy the process.

Photos: David with Conan by Alina Marcet; All other photos courtesy David Bruehl

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