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The Right Artist For You

Any permanent decision should not be taken lightly; whether it is buying a home, starting a business, getting married, reproducing, or permanently altering any physical appearance.  Of these different choices, many people take the process of getting a new tattoo much more lightly than I would personally recommend.  Basing one’s decision of a new tattoo on price alone may not be the best approach.  People who do the most research when deciding on their personal artist have a tendency to get the best tattoo for them. 

The first thing to look for when seeking out a new tattoo is the portfolio.  Any professional tattooer should have a portfolio, and if they do not, I personally would feel extremely hesitant about getting a tattooing from them.  It would be the equivalent of exploring a system of caves without a flashlight, or getting a liver transplant from a guy with no degree.  It also expresses a tattooer’s pride.  A portfolio not only reveals what a tattoo artist is capable of, but also what that tattoo artist is proud of.  It expresses the types of tattoos the artist is more inclined to enjoy and be good at. 

How to decide an artist based on his/her portfolio:

The first thing to look at is style.  A tattoo artist whose portfolio has nothing but American Traditional in it may not be the best artist to get a portrait from.   Alternatively, a realist artist may not be the best artist for American Traditional.   Different skill sets and knowledge are required for each different tattoo style, and an artist’s portfolio reflects that.  What to look for in an American Traditional tattoo in regard to technical ability is different than Realism.   Black and gray vs color is another thing to look for.  Someone with nothing but black and gray work in their portfolio may not be the best person for color tattoos.  Different skills and technical considerations are required to do color than black and gray, and vice versa. 

Different styles and what to look for in those styles:

       Classical Realism vs. Hyper-Realism (Photo-Realism):

                Classical realism is the style of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and their contemporaries.  The idea behind Classical Realism is to create a depiction of an object within a setting in such a way as to make it appear as though it is existing in a real life 3 dimensional space, where light plays on the object creating shadow, depth, and form.  Believability is important for this style, if an object is properly rendered with mastery, it will resemble the real world.  Illustrative designs are often done in the Classical Realism style.   

                Hyper-Realism, also called Photo-Realism, or Neo Classical, is a more modern style of realism.  The goal for the Hyper-Realism artist is to render a design that is “More real than real” where the object being tattooed is meant to appear as though it is “coming off the skin.”   These artists create a super focused look to their designs with the extreme 3 dimensional illusion.

      Traditional styles:

                Japanese traditional:   Should be easily recognizable from a distance, and bold.  The Japanese tattoo flows with the contours of the body, and utilizes a high degree of contrast for easy recognition at a distance.  There is a lot of symbolism in traditional Japanese tattooing, a lot of rules.  It is wrong in traditional Japanese to incorporate certain elements together, and is often based on the season.   I strongly recommend seeking out a true Japanese traditional artist if you want this style.  Even if an artist’s portfolio has Japanese inspired tattoos in it, I would still recommend interviewing them to see the scope of their knowledge on the subject.   To me, what makes Traditional Japanese so beautiful is the amount of thought, natural observance, symbolic meaning, and physiological fluidity that goes into their designs, and it does a disservice to this style and its traditions to get such a piece from an ignorant tattooer. 

                American Traditional:  The American Traditional design is identified by bold lines, and bold shading/coloring.  It was inspired by early to mid-20th century pop art, and has a limited color palette, and often simple, cartoony imagery.  What to look for in traditional tattoos is nice black solid and consistent lines, a smooth blend between black and the colors, and an easily readable design.

                Neo Traditional:  Utilizes the same principles governing the American Traditional style with the bold lines and colors, but often incorporates aspects of the Japanese Traditional aesthetics, and uses a larger color palette and more complex designs.  This is one of the more popular styles of tattooing in America. 

                Islander tribal:  Extremely symbolic in nature and utilizes simple shapes to represent an overarching theme.  I don’t know a whole lot about these kinds of tattoos or their symbols.  I have come to understand that the Maori and the Samoans both try to protect their symbols and meanings as these tattoos are considered part of their heritage.  I have heard through the grape-vine that those two groups of people are known to get aggressive toward outsiders duplicating the tattoos of their tribal identity.  I would recommend seeking out the tattooers of these tribes if you wish to get a traditional tribal tattoo to avoid offending them, and also to make sure your design has an appropriate symbolic meaning. 

      Modern styles:

                Tribal:  The tribal tattoo as known in America at large is large black shapes designed to accentuate the form of the body.  Many Tribal designs are likened to pin striping seen on cars and motorcycles.  Though traditionally Tribal is solid black, it can be seen in various colors, shaded, made to depict stone or carved skin etc. The important aspect of the Tribal design is that is accentuates the contours of the body using simple shapes. 

                New School:  I relate New School with the artwork of the pop surrealists. These bold cartoony figures are rendered with realistic shading, often utilizing depth of field and a bright, bold (and oftentimes extensive) color palette to create dynamic, “in your face” tattoos.  This style utilizes elements from nearly all the other styles of tattooing, borrowing the boldness of American Traditional, the flow and readability of the Japanese, the color palette and shading techniques from Realism.  This style is often a light hearted and “fun” style, often using humorous tongue-in-cheek themes.    If a New School design doesn’t reach out and grab your attention, then it didn’t really hit the mark. 

                Geometric:  Utilizes geometric designs to create larger more impressive patterns.  The use of sacred geometry in this style is common.  These shapes are often shaded using a stippling technique, though not always.  They are often designed to create a 3d illusion in the skin with the patterns through shading.  Though this style is simple in nature, I would like to warn anyone seeking this style out to look at their potential artist’s portfolio carefully, as simple patterns plus the curvature of the human form makes the simplicity more of a challenge that it appears for the artist.  Seeking out someone experienced in this style is highly recommended if you would like a large scale Geometric design. 

                Stippling: Though often seen with the Geometric design, is a method of using dots to create shading, depth, and contrast in a piece of artwork.  Stippling can be used in any style of tattooing, but because I have noticed a marked growth in its popularity as of late with some artists specializing in it, I thought I’d include it as its own style.  What to look for is consistency in the dot patterns making up the shade, each element being shaded with the stippling style should be seamless and smooth. 

                Trash Polka:  The founding fathers of this style vehemently preach against it being a style, but when others use the same elements and design principles in unique pieces of their own, it is hard to argue against it being a stand-alone style.   Trash Polka is usually seen with a chaotic mesh of elements joined together to make a brilliant cohesion.   Often using patterns that overlay another pattern (patch, brushstroke etc.)  to create a negative space of the same pattern.  Circle patterns, flat, or perspective based.  Realistic images are often tied into the design along with lettering.  The most common aspect of this style is the use of overlaying objects, and negative space, while maintaining balance despite the chaos of the interacting design elements. 


Now that you have a decent understanding of the different styles, you would ponder which style best suits your own aesthetics, and those of your desired piece.  Once you have those two elements together you can seek out that artist.  One good rule of thumb:  Only get tattooed by an artist you trust completely.  If you don’t trust your artist, then you haven’t done enough research, or haven’t found the artist for you.  


To Embark on a New Path

               For much of my career I have done very little in the way of reaching out to others.  This goes both toward seeking advice from the more experienced and skilled, and reaching out for clients in a proactive way.  Tattooing was a means to release my need for creative expression and make enough money to party all night.   The last few years have changed my mentality and me in a very profound way. 

                I quit drinking, not because I felt I had a problem, or because friends and family were harassing me to do so because I had a problem, but because I came to realize how much of a waste of time partying can be.  Maybe I was just getting older, and having a more difficult time recovering from the side effects of alcohol consumption on a large scale.  Maybe I was getting older and the drinking crowd remained the same age.   Maybe my priorities shifted. 

                I realized not long before I stopped drinking that I wanted more out of life than just passing time.  I was seeing people who have been tattooing as long (in many cases less time) as me surpassing me in skill. Seeing myself be passed by, often by leaps and bounds was a painful experience, and for a while I was resentful, but got over that.  It was time for a change.  I decided that what I was doing to improve my skills as an artist wasn’t doing me any justice.  Practice just for practice’s sake though helpful is not the direct path to improve artistic skill.  I needed direction, and spending six hours a night drinking and acting stupid, though tremendously fun, wasn’t the direction for artistic self-actualization.  

                As luck would have it, two very talented artists began working with me and I was able to pick their brains.  They introduced me to several skill building sources outside the tattoo industry, and working with them improved my skills and knowledge through proverbial osmosis simply by watching them work.  During this time I was dedicated to building myself as a professional and as a creative artist.  I went to seminars at conventions and took classes and practiced the skills learned from these sources….and practiced the skills learned from these sources.  I felt the need to repeat that last part because practicing to build up skills based on already learned knowledge is a slow and painstaking process.  Practicing to build skills based on newly learned knowledge, though still slow and painstaking, is light-years faster, and improves on both the foundational knowledge already learned and the developed knowledge newly learned. 

                I have heard over the years that an integral part of becoming successful is attaching one’s self to an already successful mentor.  Keep in mind I am not referring to the mentor who teaches you the craft of tattooing, though this person can be the mentor of both the craft and career, but I understand that many of us accept the first apprenticeship we can get a hold of, just to get our foot in the door.  I didn’t understand the difference between the two until I was exposed to two people who (though not officially) assumed that role for me.  My skills and my methods for improving my skills improved tremendously through that experience.  In fact, if you would look at tattoos I was doing four years ago, you might wonder if they were done by the same person as those I am doing now.      

                Now, I am not the renaissance master tattooer or artist, nor am I any sort of guru, there is still much to do and much more practice and directed skill building to apply for me to get near any of those titles if ever I do.  I am closer to reaching that sort of apex now, than before I embarked on this new path though.  The reasons for this are:  1. I chose to prioritize my time more centered on improving the skills relevant to my trade, 2. I came (admittedly by accident, or maybe by providence) in contact with the right people to help push me in the right direction, and 3. I actively pursued advanced knowledge, spending a lot of money, time, and miles on my car to seek it out.

                To summarize the points:

1. Prioritize your time
2. Seek out a mentor
3. Practice new knowledge

                I felt this information is applicable to any trade or vocation, and thus decided it would make for a good article.  I sincerely hope this information helps any and all who read it, or at the very least, helps other tradesmen avoid falling into the same complacency I found myself in.  


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