Portrait Tattoos: The Ultimate Guide

Portrait Tattoos: The Ultimate Guide

Oct 20, 2023 | Bridget Reed

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There are dozens of tattoo art styles and dozens of artists. Each artist has their own strength, and each type of art has its own place in the world. 

Portrait tattoos are a highly specialized art form that is the ultimate way to memorialize or pay homage to a person, a pet, or an existing work of art. They’re a big commitment, and there are several important things you should consider before you book your appointment.

What Makes Portrait Tattoos Different?

The world needs a wide variety of artists. The artist who draws your favorite breathtakingly beautiful anime is wildly skilled. So is the artist who paints hyperrealistic portraits of real people. They may not always share the same skillset.

The technique of creating a realistic portrait is very different from the technique of creating an artful fantasy work. You may be absolutely smitten with a tattoo artist’s flowers or new school surreal art, but that doesn’t mean you should pitch your portrait tattoo idea to them.

It’s important to choose an artist with a substantial amount of experience in portrait tattooing. The goal of a portrait tattoo is to exhibit a mastery of the technique — not to lend a stylistic interpretation that may significantly change the portrait unless you specifically ask them to do so. 

Choose an artist with a huge portrait portfolio — bonus points if they show the portrait tattoo beside the image that inspired the ink. If their replications of the source material are spot on, they’re likely the right choice. 

Portrait Tattoos Take a Lot Longer

Portrait tattoos have a lot of small details and require a lot of blending and shading. Your artist will have to swap needle cartridges several times throughout the process because each grouping of needles acts like a different type of paintbrush. Color portraits will take much longer than black and white portraits. 

It’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to complete a medium or large-sized portrait tattoo in a single sitting. You’ll want a break, and your artist will want a break. 

You may be unable to scale down the size to complete it all at once. Small pet portraits can sometimes be done in a single sitting, but a talented artist will be understandably reluctant to scale down a portrait that needs to be a little bigger to showcase all the details.

Portrait Tattoos Need Help To Age Well

Portrait tattoos feature a lot of fine details. It’s normal for tattoos to lose a little bit of definition and detail as they age, especially by the time they reach a decade old. Properly caring for your tattoo is the key to helping it retain those tiny details for much longer. 

Aftercare begins the second the tattoo finishes and continues for the rest of your life. The first few weeks are make-or-break moments for the way your tattoo will heal. 

Proper aftercare seals the deal, and listening to your tattoo artist’s every word during the early stages is important. Don’t be afraid to call or text your artist if you have a question. They’d rather get a phone call for clarification than a phone call to schedule a touch-up appointment if you get tripped up on the instructions.

Long-term tattoo care is much less intensive. Sunscreen is your most important weapon. Applying sunscreen to your tattoo can protect it (and the rest of your skin) from the dangerous effects of UV light. 

UV light damage and sunburn can wreck the small details of a great tattoo. It’s worth taking an extra minute or two to slather it on before you leave the house during the daytime.

A Good Portrait Tattoo Is Kind of Expensive (But Worth It)

You won’t get a portrait tattoo at a discount or from a tattoo flash sheet. Your artist has to perfectly recreate a portrait, turn it into a stencil, and permanently etch it into your body. All tattoos take a lot of time and effort, but portrait tattoos often take the most time and effort. 

It’s worth the splurge for a piece you’ll love forever, especially with such a specialized tattoo design. Don’t freak out when you get the quote. 

Think of it like this: you’re buying a wearable masterpiece portrait. High art painted on a canvas is pricey. It’s only reasonable to expect the same type of art inked onto your body would fetch a similar price tag.

Portrait Tattoos Kinda Hurt

Portrait tattoos involve several layers of shading and blending, just like an oil painting. Do you know what sucks worse than the first pass of a cluster of tattoo needles on a tender spot? The second pass. You know what sucks even worse than that? The third pass. It’s going to happen a lot. 

If a simple black linework tattoo was easy peasy for you, you can’t reasonably expect the same experience from a portrait tattoo. The numbing gel and soothing spray in our session bundle can help keep the pain down to a dull roar, making it a little easier to sit through an intense portrait tattoo session.

The Big Takeaway

You should get one if you have your heart sold on a portrait tattoo. Just don’t let your heart make the big decisions about how to prepare, which artist to choose, and how much you should spend. Those decisions are definitely brain decisions. 

You also need to remember that your portrait tattoo will need a lot of aftercare if you want it to age well. If you don’t regularly moisturize your skin or apply sunscreen, now is the time to start.


Portraiture in Renaissance and Baroque Europe | Essay | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

 Tattoo Machines, Needles and Utilities | Karger

UV Radiation | The Skin Cancer Foundation

Body Art | Sutter Health

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