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Bringing Art to Life: An In-Depth Look into Realistic Tattoos

An in-depth interview with our lead tattoo artist, Andrei Catalin.

A tattoo artist tattooing a realistic tattoo showing a butterfly on the back of a client

Realistic tattoos have long captivated the world of body art, standing the test of time with their compelling allure. This tattoo style strives to emulate lifelike images, ranging from evocative portraits to breathtaking natural landscapes and the delicate detailing of flora and fauna. Each piece shows the artist's skill, meticulously crafted to mirror the real world.

For years, the art of realistic tattoos has continually evolved, at the same time with advancements in technology. These innovations have enabled tattoo artists to explore and refine new techniques and textures and use different needle types, all in pursuit of perfection in their craft.

Under the broad umbrella of realistic tattooing, a variety of distinctive techniques have emerged:

  • Photo-realism: Capturing the essence of a photograph in ink.

  • Hyper-realism: Going beyond reality to create an illusion of depth and detail that surpasses the original image.

  • Portraiture: Bringing to life the faces of loved ones and icons with stunning accuracy.

  • Black and Grey Realism: Utilizing shades of black and grey to create a striking, timeless effect.

  • Colour Realism: Employing vibrant colors to breathe life into tattoos.

  • Trendy: Micro-Realism The rising popularity of micro-realism, where small-scale tattoos boast an astonishing level of detail.

In this blog post, we delve deep into the world of realistic tattoos through an exclusive interview with an experienced tattoo artist. Specialising also in realistic tattoos, our featured artist has honed his craft over more than 12 years, witnessing firsthand the evolution and growing sophistication of this art form.

A realistic rose tattoo, using a special techinque for the shadings in the flower
A realistic rose tattoo, using a special techinque for the shadings in the flower

What makes a realistic tattoo different from other forms of tattooing? Tell me about skills, machines, techniques, and colours.

Andrei: First of all, you need to know how to draw. You must understand volumes, shapes, and the difference between sharp and blurred aspects and consider contrasts. Contrasts are very important; a good tattoo has 30% black, 30% shadows, and 30% skin/highlights. This ensures that a healed, realistic tattoo will look good. Also, the machines used should be much softer to better preserve the skin and minimize trauma. The needles should be thinner, and the technique must be very fine, meaning you have to be gentle and soft in tattooing. To summarise, the working process is quite different from other forms of tattooing.

Should you go to school? Do you need more advanced drawing skills than for other tattoos? Why?

Andrei: Yes, because it helps you interpret what you have to do more easily, and you don't rely only on the reference picture. If you don't know what you're doing, you can't interpret the reference image, and the result will be a flat tattoo, without the necessary contrast ratios. Interpretation means knowing how much black to use, where to put it, and how to interpret shapes, for example a nose in a portrait, even if it's not very visible in the reference picture. Understanding the image and what's happening in it makes the tattoo and the end result far better. It's also important to know how ink heals in the skin because the outcome of the tattoo is seen after healing, not when it's fresh. That's why correct interpretation is essential.

Is there a difference between realistic black/white tattoos and realistic color tattoos?

Andrei: Yes, with black and white, you have to consider fewer aspects than with coloured tattoos - here, you need to be more aware of the skin color, contrasts, and know each ink and brand, including the ink's viscosity. You have to be more technical - for instance, you can't go over the same spot too many times, but at the same time, you need to ensure that the color is saturated in the skin. If you don't do this, the tattoo may heal very faded or unevenly. Like with realistic black and grey tattoos, you need to be gentle and try to complete the tattoo with as few passovers as possible. A main difference is that in realistic black and grey tattoos, the skin is used for highlights, whereas in realistic color tattoos, all the skin is tattooed with ink.

How about portraits? What is important to know about this?

Andrei: The most important thing is the reference photo. When doing a portrait, you need a photo of at least medium clarity, but the clearer, the better. Ideally, the photos should have one, maximum two light sources on the portrait. More than that, and the photo becomes too complicated for a tattoo with too many details for a clean tattoo. So, the photo must be chosen carefully to ensure the best result.

Moni: I understand that photos taken with newer technology, cameras, or the phones we use now produce better results for reference photos. But what do we do when we have an old photo, for example, of a pet that's no longer with us, and we don't have as good photos?

Andrei: This is where the artist's ability to interpret the image comes in, to preserve the characteristics of the portrait, but also to add elements that might be missing from the image. Editing the images in Photoshop also helps, highlighting the shadow and highlight areas, which again aids in interpreting the tattoo.

Apart from the reference photo, what else is important in a portrait tattoo?

Andrei: The placement and size. The location on the body should preferably be a flat one, so that the face or portrait doesn't become distorted. Flat areas on the body include the shoulder, inner forearm, thigh, back, chest, and stomach. Size is also important. A portrait can't be too large because it will become distorted. It can't be too small either, because you can't include and interpret enough details. So the recommendation to clients would be to rely on the experience and recommendation of the artist, and what they feel comfortable with.

What should a customer keep in mind when choosing an artist for their realistic tattoo?

Andrei: First and foremost, the portfolio. Look at the artist's works, preferably, if possible, see healed tattoos. Ideally directly on the skin, not in photos, but photos can be quite telling as well.

Anything else? How about the experience or art training?

Andrei: Official art training doesn't matter if the tattoo artist can draw and interpret such designs. An official course doesn't make someone good or bad. It depends a lot on their desire to draw and learn how it works. Drawing, on the other hand, and practice in drawing is crucial. This ensures the artist knows what they're doing. The experience is usually directly shown in their artwork. There's no chance to see a good portrait or realistic tattoo artist with less than two years of tattooing. For example, a beginner tattoo artist will try to capture all the small details in a picture, every strand of hair, without understanding that such an approach works against a good result in tattooing. This is because, over time, a tattoo becomes more blurry due to how our bodies work. This can be avoided if the artist maintains good, simple, but effective contrast in the tattoo design.

Can you give us some advice on how to plan tattoo sessions for realistic tattoos?

Andrei: Depending on the complexity of the tattoo, the artist needs enough time to do mapping for the entire design so that they can continue the tattoo in a future session. This means a stencil on the skin with which they can work comfortably. Mapping takes different amounts of time, depending on the complexity of the tattoo. For example, it might take longer for landscapes, while for portraits it's different because at least one major element must be finished before you can realign the stencil. For portraits, longer sessions or a maximum of two sessions are recommended, so the artist has enough time to finish a main element, like the face, and then focus on the hair or head and then the body in the next session. Ideally, the client should have as long sessions as possible to give the artist the necessary time for such work. This also depends a lot on the artist's experience and comfort level, so it's important to communicate these things from the beginning. Each artist works differently, and trust in what the artist says is needed.

Some tips on how to take care of and preserve the tattoo for a longer time?

Andrei: First and foremost, avoid sun and tanning beds. Use sun protection. Use body lotion. If possible, daily. Keep the skin soft and hydrated. The sun is the biggest enemy of realistic tattoos. Sun acts like a laser, breaking the ink particles in the skin, rendering the tattoo blurry earlier than the body naturally does. This naturally leads to a loss of details and contrasts in the tattoo. It also intensifies this process. Also, the brown tone of the skin after sun exposure makes the tattoo less contrasty, making it look muddy.

What would you advise a beginner tattoo artist to do if they want to pursue realism in tattooing?

Andrei: Study drawing, study the fundamentals of drawing. Do it yourself, take classes, do whatever you feel comfortable doing. Learn how to understand proportions - this is really important. Understand what shadows and highlights mean and how to identify them in the reference picture. After this, learn how to apply them in a tattooing setting, using tattooing techniques to get the same results as in drawing. Keep in mind the medium you are working with. Skin, needles, and ink are not the same as paper oils or pencils. Adapt the knowledge you got from drawing for tattooing.


Realistic tattoos require skill, dedication, and collaboration between the tattoo artist and the customer. Trusting your tattoo artist is especially important for bringing such pieces to life. Work on this project together, and all will come out as you have imagined it!

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