The personal tasks that ChatGPT and generative AI can do are seemingly endless, from calendar-keeping to writing essays or resumes. Now, some people are using it to come up with ideas for their next tattoo: According to Google, searches for “AI tattoo generator” are at an all-time high in the U.S. and globally.
Through paid sites like BlackInk AI and InkTune, users set the parameters for what they want out of their dream tattoo ― the objects and colors they want featured, the style they’re going for ― and AI spits out something that fits the bill. If you’re looking to get a sense of how these bots work, BuzzFeed, HuffPost’s parent company, has a basic version of an AI-assisted tattoo generator. (The trend is not to be confused with industrial robots that can ink ― one of those came out in 2016 with some fanfare.)
Tattoo artists we spoke to said the AI-created requests are slowly starting to trickle in.
Daniel Meyer, a tattoo artist on Hawaii Island, said he’s received various email requests from clients who attached AI-generated pictures to illustrate the idea they had in mind. So far, he hasn’t minded.
“It helped the client to give me a rough idea of what they had in mind regarding the general elements without them having to create matchstick-figure-like drawings to explain their vision,” he said.
Luckily, Meyer hasn’t had any clients who were dead set on their tattoos being identical to their AI-generated image. “It been more of a starting point to open up a conversation about their particular tattoo design,” he said.
That’s good, because from his experiences, the designs AI whips up are pretty generic. “They might be ‘good enough’ for many tattoo designs that are bought off the rack, but they have a distinct digital-art kinda flair but lacks the most essential component: a design that tells a story, a piece of art that has a ‘soul,’” Meyer said.
Soulless and maybe a little ethically dicey, too. A rising number of artists (as well as authors) are suing tech companies that have used their copyrighted works to train artificial intelligence programs without paying the creators. AI art replicates patterns and styles learned from existing artwork, which some consider plagiarism.
“I agree that AI-generated ‘art’ is really just a pictorial fruit salad based on the works of countless humans, which feed the algorithm with information,” Meyer said.
Still, though technically AI art “might be the biggest copyright infringement in history,” he doesn’t think art should have any copyrights to begin with.
“I myself love to incorporate elements or styles I’ve seen from other artists who work with entirely different media ― sculpturing, for example ― to bring completely new ideas to the table and to enrich my toolbox to express a particular meaning in the design,” Meyer said.
Missing A ‘Human Touch’
That said, a situation where a client requests an AI-created tattoo wholesale would be depressing.
“If clients feed a machine with prompts, they will miss out on a completely different dimension and perspective only an artist can have when they talk to them and get a feel for them,” Meyer said.
Steve Byrne, a tattoo artist who’s been in the industry for 27 years and works at Rock Of Ages Tattooing in Austin, Texas, hasn’t had any AI-inspired requests yet; he thinks his reputation alone will stop any new customers from bringing them in.
He worries about up-and-coming tattoo artists, though.
“Personally I feel like the human touch that is missing from AI-generated images makes it a very sad situation for less experienced or lesser-known tattooers, who may not be in the position to say no in the current economic climate,” Byrne said.
Christy Fish, the owner of Hard Case Tattoo in Portland, Oregon, thinks it all boils down to what kind of relationship the client wants to have with their tattoo artist.
“AI could diminish the value of the artist’s role in the process: The human touch, intuition and creativity that they bring to the table,” she said. “It disrespects the human connection between client and artist and substitutes true innovation with imitation.”
“Authenticity cannot be replicated by algorithms,” she added.
Fish could think of one perk of AI when it comes to tattoos: “I will admit that some of the generated art is unique and can offer options outside of the box,” she said. “But a computer doesn’t necessarily know what is tattoo-able and what is not, which will inevitably mislead clients into unreasonable expectations from their human artist.”
The Elephant In The Room
Of course, the elephant in the room here is that tattoo artists are used to clients coming in looking to crib something they found online.
“Most folks are still walking in with photos of real tattoos from Google or Pinterest as their go-to tat references,” said Charles Huurman, a tattoo artist in Austin, Texas. “I seriously cringe when they want an exact copy.”
The images are just reference points for most clients, though; they want Huurman’s human touch and to have something that feels more authentic to them.
Huurman said he’s fine with AI assisting at the ideation stage, but to truly nail the design, it’s all about refining those prompts, which takes practice.
“And even when you’re like it, ‘Ah, that’s almost it,’ you’ll probably still need to whip out trusty tools like Photoshop, Procreate or the good old-fashioned pencils for that final finesse,” Huurman said. “When it’s going to be on you forever, it’s gotta be spot-on.”
Like Huurman, Martin Devlin Kelly, a tattoo artist who works in Ex Machina Tattoo in London, isn’t a fan of doing exact copies of tattoos. Spotting them in the wild or on Instagram posts has become something of a pastime for him.
“My absolute favorite is when tattoo artists trace a picture of a tattoo directly without taking into account the design curving over the body,” he said. “Then the next artist traces a picture of that iteration and the distortion gets more and more pronounced each time until finally the design collapses into itself in a black hole of infinite density.”
As for AI, Devlin Kelly agrees that ultimately nothing can really substitute human creativity. He’s yet to receive such a request but given AI’s unwieldy grasp of some design elements and features ― human hands, for instance― he’s actually looking forward to it.
“I eagerly await the day someone comes in with a seven-fingered abomination,” he said. “Tattoo artists are notoriously bad at drawing hands so maybe now, finally they can say truthfully, ‘I was just following the reference!’”