The Hidden Elephant in the Room: Making Tattoos Stand the Test of Time

By Dan Henk

I’m sure some are going to take offense to this, and that is really not my intent. This is just what I have observed to be true over my 15 years of tattooing, and what I think the best options are. So, what am I talking about? The current trend towards, and elevation in public opinion, of so called “hyper realistic tattoos”. I’ll start out by saying, that many look amazing. Some even better than what similarly exalted oil painters produce. I was first offered an apprenticeship at 19, and turned it down because I thought all tattoos were basically old school designs. I liked them, and wanted to be covered, much like some of the rock stars I looked up to, but I really wanted to do comics and book covers. I didn’t think you could do anything nearly as realistic and artistic in tattooing. Fast forward eight years later, and I had attended art school, interviewed with book and comic companies, and was living in NYC cranking out illustrations and paintings on the side while I worked a food service job to pay the bills. Comics paid very little, and were very restrictive about what they wanted you to draw. Book and magazine publishers paid more, but only wanted work very occasionally. I had started to get more heavily tattooed, and I had now seen the work of people like Aaron Caine, Guy Aitchison, and Tom Renshaw. Then a tattoo artist, a friend of my brother’s named Chad Divel, saw my paintings and offered to teach me how to tattoo. I took him up on the offer, and it changed my life. Like many first time tattoo artists, I started out doing flash at a walk-in shop. I was so happy to be finally paying my bills and doing art for a living… Just a clean looking flash tattoo was an accomplishment I was proud of, and I did paintings and illustrations in my downtime. But I always held the ambition of doing way more realistic tattoos. I first started experimenting on them with some very understanding friends. Some worked, some did not, but I was convinced that anything I could draw or paint, I would eventually figure out how to tattoo. Now, fifteen years later, I’ve learned that is not really the case.

Tattoo by Steve Moore.

Tattooing is it’s own medium, with restrictions and advantages, and needs to be addressed as such. You can’t do justice to a watercolor piece by pretending it is an oil painting, and you can’t execute a tattoo that both looks good in the skin, and stands the test of time, unless you conform to the medium. A well done, decently sized, and dark enough to last black and grey tattoo will still look pretty much the same in 10 years. Not quite so with a color tattoo. Colors fade at different rates in the skin, and the more they match skin tones, the more the fading of color really makes them essentially disappear. The faster a tattoo heals, the more ink it keeps. That said, even the best tattoos, that heal the fastest, only keep about 60% of the ink initially put in the skin. Mags seem to put less solid, lasting color in the skin than rounds, and darker colors tend to hold up better. There is also an issue with how deep the ink is injected in the skin. Japanese, hand poked tattoos actually get brighter over time. Some of the realistic pieces, the artists are so afraid of doing skin damage, they run the needle very shallow, and those pieces do not hold up well at all. I’ve seen realistic pieces that looked amazing when done, but were all washed out a few years later.  I was on the judges panel a few years ago at the Boston Tattoo Convention,  and I remember a guy entering his sleeve of portraits done by a well known realistic artist. The faces looked so washed out, you could only really see the eyes and hairline.  I gave the sleeve a 3, and I think I was more generous than the fellow judges. I have seen color portraits that I did, a good eight years later, and they did not look nearly as good as they did when first completed. That really bothered me, and drove me to rethink what I was doing.

Tattoo by Adrian Lee.

So what’s the solution?  I didn’t want to throw a black outline around everything and resort to just simple shading. I actually tried simplifying my tattoos for a while, in an attempt to address the problem, and I wasn’t really happy with the results. I had really grown to appreciate well done traditional tattoos, but they were not what I wanted to do myself. I looked around, and started to appreciate more the work of people like Adrian Lee. I had initially not seen the fascination with his work, but now, with a more informed eye, it really drew me in. I think an appropriate analogy would be music. As a kid, I liked music with more of an immediate punch, and now I appreciate more the skill involved and subtle manipulation of the medium in work that I wrote off as a kid. So, getting back to the point, I looked around further, discovering the likes of Steve Moore, and elevating my opinion of people like Nick Baxter (whose work I already liked). They did a sort of illustrated, structured realism. Not that photo realistic style, but something that seemed specifically contorted to work with the medium. And actually, the fact that the tattoos were obviously drawn up ideas rendered in their style, and not just copies of a photo, made them even better. I noticed that people like Nikko Hurtado started to incorporate more black into their work, strengthening the underlying structure and making the whole piece more saturated with darker tones. I now saw the wisdom of this, and really appreciated what he was doing. I started to try to render my tattoos more in that 70’s horror illustration vein. Dark, gritty, touching on realism, but a bit more illustrated. Tattooing has influenced my other art, and my other art has influenced tattooing, but I’ve grown to realise that each medium has it’s own special requirements, and to really execute a piece of art well, you have to respect the medium it’s rendered in.

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