Tiny tattoos — hyper-minimalist designs that are subtle and discreet — are having a moment, as the trend in body art veers away from loud and elaborate to the kinds of ink prints you’ll only spot if the wearer wants you to.
Model Hailey Baldwin Bieber has 22 tiny tattoos. Her latest additions are the letter J, presumable for husband Justin, and the word beleza, Portuguese for beauty. Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner has about 13 tiny tattoos. And reality star Kendall Jenner is famous, among other things, for having gone to trouble to get a white dot on her middle finger.
Tiny tattoos are having a moment, and it’s not just celebrities that are enamoured by them. As Pinterest and the Gram will show you, tattoo enthusiasts across the world are tipping their hats to the #TinyTattoo trend.
Also called micro, minimalist or line-art tattoos, these are usually made with black ink. Fine lines, dots and white space give them their shape. The most popular forms of the tiny tattoo are alphabets, single words, numbers, glyphs, geometric shapes or the outlines of objects.
It helps that they’re cheaper and less painful. Actor and beauty influencer Malvika Sitlani recently got the outline of a camera on her forearm. “When it comes to tattoos, I like symbols and keywords to tell my story,” she says. “Also, I have a very low tolerance for pain.”
Shubhita Chawla, 25, a Mumbai-based advertising professional got an airplane tattooed to her wrist to celebrate her love of travel. Shreya Mathi, 26, an executive assistant with a software solutions company in Mumbai, got two infinity symbols tattooed on the inside of a finger a few weeks ago. She also has a triangle that marks the passing of a friend a few years ago.
“To me, these tattoos are like the little notes or doodles you find between the pages of one of your old books. You chance upon them unexpectedly and think, ‘This is a nice memory’,” she says.
“It’s a great gateway. A way for people to try out body art without committing to something large and obvious that they’ll spend the rest of their lives explaining,” says Vikas Malani, tattoo artist and founder of BodyCanvas. “A lot of the young people I see also worry they may not want their tattoo in a couple of years and so feel it’s safer not to dedicate too much skin to a single design.”
With tiny tattoos, you can get one or a constellation and still not feel overwhelmed. But the tiny tattoo is really quite ancient.
Some of the earliest known tattoos were small and rudimentary in design, featuring lines, dots or squiggles. These sparse symbols invoked the healing powers of the gods, marked out tribesmen or censured a criminal outlaw. Sixty-one such markings — largely lines, crosses and dots — were found on the mummified remains of Otzi the Iceman, who is believed to have lived around 3000 BC and whose remains were found in the Otztal Alps on the Italian-Austrian border in 1991. His remain the earliest tattoos ever discovered.
Since then, body art has gone from symbol of identity to symbol of rebellion, taken on colours and unexpected ingredients (cremation ashes, diamonds), won people awards and world records. Tattoo artists and their clients have pushed the limits of the art form in explorative journeys together.
“In India, up until recently, you would step into a tattoo parlour and pick a design from a book or copy a design from popular culture,” says Vibhor Pratap Singh Chouhan, creative director at Aliens Tattoo. “Now they are a form of self-expression here too, with requests for customisation and an eagerness on both sides to have the art be distinguishable and stand apart from the crowd.”
This is what drove Amiya Bhanushali, 23, to have a star anise inked on their chest. The artist was Shomil Shah, a self-taught hand-poke proponent who uses natural stencils like shells, leaves and seeds.
“I decided to get the star anise because I connected with its qualities of being versatile and beautiful,” says Bhanushali, creative director with a design firm in Mumbai.
Up next, it would seem, are tattoos that are even tinier. Carson J Bruns, chief of the Emergent Nanomaterials Laboratory at the ATLAS Institute of the University of Colorado Boulder, has been experimenting with smart tattoos by reinventing pigments.
Using nanotechnology, his lab has created an ink that changes colour when exposed to ultraviolet rays. “We call them solar freckles because the ink is best used for tiny dots,” says Bruns. “These tattoos communicate to users when their skin is at risk of UV damage.”
The solar freckles won’t be on the market for a while yet, but Bruns believes this is the future. “A tiny dot or mark could tell you when your blood sugar is low, your blood alcohol high or when your body is dehydrated,” he says.
A tiny heart tattoo could then remind you to love yourself — and that you haven’t put on your sunscreen.