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Guen Douglas: How to Properly Examine a Tattoo Portfolio

Guen Douglas: How to Properly Examine a Tattoo Portfolio

By Guen Douglas
A tattoo artist’s portfolio should play a vital role in how you choose your artist. A portfolio is the way we showcase our work. It is not the end-all-be-all… I have met plenty of fantastic tattooers that rely on publications and word of mouth too, and they don’t update their portfolios as methodically as others. There are many factors that should go into choosing your artist and all of them are important, but for today I’m going to explain how a customer should look through a tattoo portfolio…

A portfolio isn’t where you look for your design. It is where you look to see an artist’s quality of work before deciding if they would be the right artist for you.

First, I usually look to see if the book is clean and well kept. Are the photos of good quality? If they are out of focus and badly printed you will not be able to make a clear assessment of quality of the tattoos printed. I feel as though an artist that cares about his or her work puts some effort into the way they present their work. I’d be suspicious of a portfolio that makes it difficult to see the tattoos clearly. The tattoos pictured should be wiped clean and not obscured by Vaseline, plastic wrap, tape, etc…

When looking at the photos you should pay close attention to the following:

At first glance are the designs appealing to you?

This is a question only you can answer, since the art part of tattooing is subjective. What is appealing to you may not be appealing to your partner/mother/friends.

Are the tattoos pictured well placed on the body?

Centered if in the center of a back, or symmetrical, as in matching roses on each shoulder? If they look awkward, crooked or off-center it shows either a lack of competence or a lack of caring. A good tattooer will place a stencil over and over until it looks right and since your tattoo will be there awhile it’s a pretty important step in the process.

Next look at the line-work closely. Are the lines within the tattoo even?

Meaning, one line should not start hair thin and then get fat and blurry and get thin again. When lines are not applied at a consistent depth you get this look, or the lines will look lighter and darker in some areas. Naturally, there are designs that require a mix of thin and thick lines but I am referring specifically to lines that are supposed to be the same thickness throughout.

Are the lines smooth and free of wobbles and kinks? Are curved lines curved consistently and are straight lines straight? Where a design comes to a point is the point sharp? Also look to make sure there is no accidentally overlapping lines. Line-work should look smooth and fluid and not chiseled into the skin. This goes for color and shading too. Freshly tattooed skin is often red and irritated but it shouldn’t look butchered.

When looking at color in a tattoo there are some obvious things to look for first. Does the color stay inside the lines? Are areas that are supposed to be one color, even?

Solid black/black work should be consistently the same color throughout without faded or patchy areas. For areas that blend one color into an other you must look for a smooth consistent fade from one color to another without a light area where the colors meet. For tattoos without outlines (as in color portraits) do the edges of the image look crisp or soft (depending on the design) and purposefully executed?

When looking at black/black and grey shading there are few different techniques that tattooers use.

Whip-shading is mostly used in old school and neo-traditional but can also be used in many other styles of tattooing. It is has a distinctive speckle, peppery almost and you can often see the machine strokes in it. Regular black shading should have a softer speckle and peppered look or should look soft and smudged looking like a pencil drawing. Gradients from dark to light should look smooth and even. Just like color, areas of solid grey should be even and soft and not patchy and uneven (although there is some softening that occurs with grey washes (black ink mixed with water that we use for black and grey) over time. Remember also that the redness often seen in photos of fresh black and grey tattoos is just the irritated skin! It isn’t part of the design and will disappear when healed.

Once you’ve assessed that the artist’s portfolio displays an ability to craft a good tattoo, you must next decide if this artist is the right one for you.

Here are some basic things that one should look for:

  • If you are looking for a pin-up be sure to choose an artist that shows he/she can draw and tattoo the human form, meaning don’t pick a portfolio that has not a single human form in it.
  • If you don’t see the type/style of tattoo you want to get, chances are the artist either hasn’t done it before or doesn’t want to. That’s not to say that an artist wouldn’t take on a challenge and do a great job! Generally if an artist hasn’t done something before and wants to try it out they often put sketches of the types of tattoos they are looking to do into their portfolios so that prospective clients can at least see that they are able to execute them on paper.
  • The same goes for portraits. I would be very wary of an artist that claims to do portraits and yet has none in his/her portfolio. The other thing with portraits in portfolios is I find a lot of artists don’t always put the copied/original photo in with the tattoo photo. With portraits of famous people it’s not always necessary but if you are looking to get a portrait of your mother you want to know that it will look like her! Sometimes a tattooed portrait can be a great looking realistic tattoo without looking anything like the person it was supposed to. So look to see if the original photo of the person is placed next to the finished tattoo.

Most artists fill their portfolios with their best work so if you are seeing a lot of tattoos that concern you; imagine what didn’t make it into the book! Yikes!

It is important that when on the hunt for the right artist you look through portfolios. Not only to find the right artist for you but to see what is available in terms of value. Most artists, including myself, will say that price should be one of the last things you look at and although true, to ignore it as a factor is not realistic.

Just like buying anything else in life, you want to get value for your money when investing in a tattoo. Looking carefully through portfolios allows you see what is available and for what price.

Maybe one artist is too expensive (in your opinion) but when you compare the quality of their work with that of the cheaper artist you see that you get better value for your money because the expensive artist’s work is crafted with more care. That’s not to say that just because one artist is more expensive than another that he/she will automatically be the better artist.

There is a saying in tattooing that “a good tattoo ain’t cheap and a cheap tattoo ain’t good” and generally this statement rings true. However, I have seen this adage used against clients. Just because an artist is expensive doesn’t mean they good. There are swindlers in every profession, tattooing is no exception and with the rise in popularity of this craft we see a rise in a certain type of tattooer trying to cash-in fast by over charging clients, using this adage to their advantage.

So to conclude; look carefully at as many portfolios as you can before making your choice. When making any decision that lasts a lifetime it is best to be well informed.

And remember to ask questions…

He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever… -Chinese proverb

(Guen is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine, and can be found at 25 to Life Tattoos in Rotterdam, Netherlands.)

22 comments

  1. aaron facebook/tattoojunkieink

    very very true

  2. yes, thx for that!
    ….and please, also make sure the pictures in a portfolio is actually the work of the guy you´re talking to!
    We have people coming into our shop everyday with horrible tattoos done by
    some scratchers on a kitchen table. These people will not only f..k with your skin,
    but with your health in general!

  3. Very clear and informative. Hope this will reach a lot of newbie tattooees.
    People need this type of info to make a right decision.

  4. Guen has done it again! Cheers!

  5. will be keeping this on hand in my shop- great educational literature. educating our clients and future clients, hell everyone that comes through the door is so detrimental in these times- thanks for sharing.

  6. Interesting that you should discuss placement,
    ” Are the tattoos pictured well placed on the body?

    Centered if in the center of a back, or symmetrical, as in matching roses on each shoulder? If they look awkward, crooked or off-center it shows either a lack of competence or a lack of caring. A good tattooer will place a stencil over and over until it looks right and since your tattoo will be there awhile it’s a pretty important step in the process. ”
    yet these photos show none of that. Just an observation. Beautiful work though.

  7. Great article! Thanks!

  8. Her works gently and straight!

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