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Hyperrealism: A Great Tattoo vs a Great Photograph

You’ve seen hyper realistic tattoos — tattoos that look exactly like photographs, right down to the beads of sweat highlighted on the brow and each pore in the skin. These tattoos are powerful and absolutely beautiful... but are we going too far? Can this style of tattooing heal the way it looks when it’s fresh, or are we tattooing just for that one initial photograph for our portfolio?

The style of hyperrealism typically takes 8-16 hours or more on an 8” area of skin. The process involves slowly building up layers of colour to create smooth blends, then going over these areas with tiny details to sharpen everything up and create the appearance of a photograph.

Typically, artists offering this style of tattooing are priced in the higher percentages per hour (e.g. $200+ per hour); so for a 16-hour session, the average piece will cost around $2000–$3000.

tattoo by Nikko Hurtado
tattoo by Nikko Hurtado

Older tattooers and traditional tattoo artists have all said it for years: “Bold will hold.” This old saying refers to the traditional tattoo principle that thick black lines surrounding large basic-coloured areas in simplistic designs tend to heal better and last longer. Tattoo artists have been pushing the boundaries, adding to the amount of detail they include in a tattoo and experimenting with how realistic a custom piece can be. Hyperrealism goes against all the rules of the industry, and there hasn’t been enough time between the inception of this style and present day to know just how these tattoos will heal.

Unfortunately, many hyper realistic tattoos you see on social media or in digital portfolios are Photoshopped. A lot of tattooers edit their photos to bump contrast, sharpen details, change colour, and remove redness. For these reasons, the blacks and whites in a photographed tattoo online, especially when fresh, rarely look like that in person.

From what we do know, the concept of “bold will hold” has been proven correct. Artists like Nikko Hurtado have come up with a way of bringing this logic into hyperrealism without the use of bold lines by using dark colours (blacks, purples, blues, reds, browns, etc.) to frame the lighter colours; but, again, we won’t know for a few years how these tattoos will look in the long-run.

The issue many artists see when it comes to this style is taking the realism too far. Adding excessive detail typically leads to longer tattooing sessions. Our bodies can only take so much trauma to the skin before we start to become overtired; we sweat more, bleed more, and, consequently, push more ink out of our skin. These symptoms typically occur once a client surpasses the 6–8 hour mark. In a nutshell, when a tattooer doing a hyper realistic portrait starts adding tiny details to traumatized skin that is rejecting the ink, it is very likely these tiny details will disappear after the healing process. Basically, the client ends up having paid for hours of tattooing and tiny details that they don’t get to keep in the long-run.

Many of the best realism artists typically work in smaller areas, preferring multiple sittings and capping the length of the tattoo session. They also take the piece as a whole into consideration and strategize how to incorporate all the necessary details without adding time (and unnecessary skin trauma) to the procedure without reason.

So, as a client, is is worth it to pay $2000+ for a hyper realistic tattoo?

Well, yes and no.

As a client, it’s important that you research tattoo artists, set up consultations, and speak to the artist about their process. Ask questions when you’re unsure, like “How do you make sure this tattoo heals to look as good in the long term?” Look for healed photos in the artists’ portfolios and don’t always believe that spending more money on a tattoo means it’s going to be better than one that costs less.

When in doubt, simplify the design. Go for something you know will heal well, or set realistic expectations about what your tattoo will look like in the future. If you’re okay with a tattoo that looks incredible for the initial photograph and heals decently, but not necessarily the same as it looked when it was fresh, then by all means —find an artist that loves to go crazy with tiny details.

tattoo by Steve Butcher
tattoo by Steve Butcher

Our professional opinion is as follows: it’s your body! Get what you want, but do your research; at the end of the day, your choices are on you.

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