The Portraiture Tattoo
Memorial Portrait (deceased)
There are many types of portraits, but perhaps the most frequently seen type is the memorial portrait. These are portraits of a loved one who has passed on—typically taken from the client’s favorite photograph of their beloved lost one. In most cases, the subject matter is often the wearer’s mother or father, a grandparent, or a child. Of course, it’s not unheard of to see a portrait of a celebrity actress, singer, rapper, or TV personality that has passed on suddenly. With today’s impressive skill levels available in the tattoo industry, these memorial portrait tattoos are often photo-realistic and replace the need to carry a photograph of the deceased entirely.
Honoring Loved Ones Portrait (alive: i.e. kids)
Portrait tattoos are a beautiful way to honor a family member or loved one, particularly after they have passed on. However, they’re not solely reserved for those who are gone before their time. In fact, as portrait tattoos have begun to grow in popularity (and skill level), many people are using them to show their love and dedication to their loved ones while they’re very much still alive. If you scour the internet, you’ll find parents tattooing their favorite photographs of their children on their skin, capturing their cutest moments indelibly. Husbands and wives are showing their dedication to their marriage through body art—replicating their wedding photo upon their physique.
Fanbase Recognition (movie characters, etc)
We all know how fan-groups can be… we’ve seen the droves of fans outside of meet and greets for actors at conventions across the world—but the “fangirling” doesn’t stop there. Today, portrait tattoos have become another way to idolize those characters who command our attention in the fictional world. Whether it’s a book, graphic novel, movie, or television show, portrait tattoos have become another unique way for fans to carry their favorite character with them indefinitely—long after they close the book or finish the series.
Do you remember back in your teens when you would plaster posters of celebrities you idolized across your bedroom walls? Well, portrait tattoos have become an adult-way to honor a celebrity you truly look up to. These incredible images painted on skin create a permanent reminder of the person you’ve admired throughout your life—right where the world can see them. In most cases, celebrity portrait tattoos are actors, musicians, and tv personalities but it’s not unheard of to see celebrity animals, royal family members, or even radio hosts from across the world.
Artwork (not real people, etc)
Portrait tattoos don’t always have to be a person you know—in fact, they can be simply artwork. Characters of fiction, people of unknown origin, the limit is the imagination. In many cases, people use portrait tattooing to depict images of people, pets, or other living beings in an artistic but realistic format. Others use this style of tattooing to display their heritage or honor a group of people they admire from history.
For some people, they wouldn’t consider tattooing a person on their body—but tattooing their pet? Oh, game on! Pet portraits have become infinitely more popular over the last decade, especially as tattoo artists have become more proficient with photo-realism. Today, you can find all kinds of unique pet portrait tattoos across the internet. Typically, you’ll see dogs and cats but everything from horses, birds, to ferrets have been seen in portrait form. To these clients, these fur-babies are just like family and equally deserve a special place on their skin.
If you were to ask most artists what they say is the hardest tattoo style, you’re likely to hear—portrait tattooing. This is because, when working on a portrait tattoo, there is no room for error. A small mistake can turn a portrait into a disaster faster than the artist can realize they’re making it. Portrait tattoos are often time-consuming for the artist, too—requiring many practice sketches long before the tattoo even begins so the artist can become familiar with the subject’s features, curves, and nuances.
The first step to a good portrait, for any artist, is a good reference image. The higher quality the photo, the higher quality the stencil… which ultimately is the foundation of a high-quality portrait tattoo. Having a copy of the reference image directly next to the area being tattooed is vital as well. You’ll notice most artists keep the image close by, even sometimes taping it to the client directly. This is because it helps to keep the brain from playing tricks on them—and it’s easier on the eyes, as well. Some artists will actually flip the portrait upside down, stating that it is easier to tattoo it when you’re merely looking at shapes versus someone’s face.
Tattooing a portrait requires a different method than general tattooing. Artists have to be cautious during the process not to wipe away the stencil – which is why most artists will work from the bottom upwards to protect the stencil throughout the tattoo. Unlike other styles, the artist doesn’t begin by tattooing the linework first. Doing so would make the tattoo look cold and unrealistic, as there aren’t hard lines in the human (or animal) face. Instead, they sculpt the tattoo with shading—starting with the lighter tones and developing into the darker tones, tightening up fine details toward the end of the session. You’ll also notice seasoned artists will avoid using too much white in their highlighting, as this too can create an unrealistic appearance.
When it comes to getting a great portrait tattoo—the most important step is to be patient. Portrait tattoos are not something to just jump into. Unlike a simple arrow or a flash design plucked off the wall, you shouldn’t just walk into any old shop and ask for a portrait. The word shouldn’t is the key point in that sentence. While you shouldn’t walk into any shop and get a portrait tattoo, that’s not to say you can’t. You could very well stroll into any shop you come across and request a portrait tattoo—and you’re likely to find an artist that will jump at that… but it doesn’t mean that the portrait you requested is the portrait you’ll end up with. Afterall, minor alterations to someone’s replica image can turn them into someone completely different.
Patience may be the first step in getting a great portrait tattoo, but the second step is research. When you consider getting a portrait tattoo, you’ll need to decide whether you’re going to want to travel for your tattoo or if you’re going to be staying local. Tattoo artists specializing in portrait tattoos are often in high demand—they can have waiting lists and sometimes, will only open to new clients once or twice a year. Research artists that specialize in portrait tattooing, look at their portfolios. Do they tend to tattoo the same type of subject matter your tattoo will feature (ie: pets, children, elderly)? Do they prefer black and grey or full-color portraits? These are all things you need to consider when selecting a tattoo artist for your portrait work.
When you’ve decided on an artist, you’ll want to reach out to them directly. Do they have a waitlist? Do they prefer in-person consultations or do they handle their consults via email? What do they prefer as a medium to study for the portrait–a digital photo or a printed copy? Most artists are going to want to have the reference image for some time before the appointment as they’ll need to get a few practices sketches in first. These are details you’ll need to plan out with the artist before scheduling the appointment.
Once you’ve selected your reference image, researched your artist, and contacted and booked your artist of choice, the next step is deciding on placement. While your artist will most likely guide you on the placement decision, it is important to keep in mind that flat, larger areas are better for portrait work. Select an area that doesn’t have many creases or bends as these are not only easier for the tattoo artist to work on, but they hold up better over time and keep the image intact no matter what position you’re in.
When it comes time for the appointment, you’ll have to revert to the patience step again—it comes full circle. When you’re getting a portrait tattoo, these can often take many hours. A small portrait can take approximately four hours, with medium to large portraits taking between six to twelve hours. Portrait tattoos cannot be rushed. Capturing a “life essence” in a flat image is extremely difficult. These tattoos also have to be completed in one sitting or you risk losing the integrity of the image.