Tattoo Artist Mastery: Part Six

Tattoo Artist Mastery

Part 6: Building Your Portfolio

Tattoo PortfolioYou can be the most skilled tattoo artist in the world, with the very best tools, and it will not matter if you can’t show potential studios and clients examples of your ability, and perhaps just as importantly, your artistic vision. That is the purpose of the portfolio, a collection of art, using designs appropriate for tattoos, as a display of your vision and ability. It must be professional and inspired, if you really want to attract business and make being a tattoo artist your career.

The kind of portfolio you should build is based on the kind of tattoo you want to make.  Most tattoo artists are willing to do more than one kind of art, but if there’s an style you really like, it’s fine to focus on that, including a few others to prove your flexibility. There are a few general  styles to be aware of, if you aren’t already:

  • Old-school:  The classic style with a selection of classic designs that are usually used, this style uses simple outlines, low detail, and bold primary colors, with simple or no shading. While it may sound unexciting, this is a bold style that many people find appealing as a tattoo, especially with the old-fashioned look they give.
  • New-school: With more complex designs and more variation than old-school, new-school tattoos are the most common today. The generally have very bold outlines and a large variation of colors.
  • Bio-mechanical: This style of tattoo does not consist of images of animals or flowers or the like, but rather realistic images of mechanical parts integrated with what looks like the client’s flesh. While it may seem strange to give this particular style its own category in this list, it is a popular and different enough style to warrant it. Related are styles which show revealed the muscle tissue or bones of the client.
  • Realism: One of the more difficult forms of tattoo art, often used for portraits, realism is often used for bio-mechanical art as well. Realism can be used to make almost any kind of image, but in general it will be for real-life objects where the artist can use a photo as the example. Unlike the more common styles, realism doesn’t use outlines at all, since real objects don’t actually have them. They are constructed entirely by shading and coloration. Often, they have soft-edged drop shadows as well, so they give a convincing impression of being three-dimensional images coming off the skin.

Any style of art you decide to include will require a lot of practice to get to the point that you’re ready to work on people…

Anything you include in your portfolio should be the result of long practice to perfect your technique and designs. It is good to practice with a ballpoint pen, one which is not erasable. This is so you have to get your drawing right the first time, just like with a tattoo machine, and also because the width of the pen markings is difficult to control. While you can switch out needle sets, any particular one has only one width to work with.

Your portfolio needs to not only be filled with excellent examples of your art, but it itself must be professionally put together and displayed…

Three-ring binders tend to look too cheap, and are not appropriate for this purpose. A professional portfolio book is what you’ll need. There’s no one right way to arrange the art within your profile. You could arrange it by style, subject matter, chronologically, or whatever you prefer.

The most important person you’re likely to show your portfolio to is not a client…

The real reason it’s important is for potential apprenticeships. When you find a tattoo studio you want to work with, the only real evidence you can show them of your potential is your portfolio. That is the first real step toward becoming a professional tattoo artist, and the subject of the next and final part of this series.


Brendan Jackson

Brendan Jackson is not only a fine tattoo artist, but is also a huge lover of everything to do with the art and history of tattoos. He is the founder of, and also the creator of the bestselling  tattooing course, Elite Tattoo Pro.

P.S. Did you miss a part of this series? You can read them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6