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Realism in Tattoos: Bringing Life to Skin

Tattoos have long been a form of artistic expression, but with advancements in technology and techniques, the world of tattooing has evolved into a realm where art truly comes to life on skin. One of the most captivating styles within this spectrum is realism. Realism tattoos, with their intricate detail and lifelike representation, have gained immense popularity, captivating both tattoo enthusiasts and art aficionados alike. In this blog, we delve into the captivating world of realism tattoos, exploring their origins, techniques, and our studio artists who breathe life into them.

The emergence of realism in tattooing has given rise to a new generation of artists who specialize in this enthralling  style. These artists, with their unparalleled talent and dedication, are pushing the boundaries of what is possible in tattooing, creating breathtaking works of art that rival their counterparts in traditional mediums.

Our artists Pablo Mire and Gifford Kasen have very different tattoo styles and we interviewed them to find out more about their ideas behind realism.

First, let’s take a look at a bit of history, shall we? The roots of realism in tattoos can be traced back to the  70’s and 80’s in western tattooing, with the development of fineline tattooing from artists like Jack Rudy which gave the ability to focus on  more detail in tattoos. That later paved the way for more soft focus black and grey representational tattoos from artists like Tom Renshaw in the 90’s and later, Bob Tyrell in the 2000’s.  In tandem with the black and grey realism movement of the 90s and 2000s, color realism started to emerge as a style as well.  With the mass production and better standardized quality of color tattoo ink and other equipment, as well as an ever growing palette of colors, realism tattooing was able to start replicating the look of photographs or oil paintings.  Artists like Nikko Hurtado and Bob Tyrrell played pivotal roles in pushing the boundaries of realism, pioneering techniques that would elevate the art form to new heights.

Before we go any further though, let’s do a quick rundown of what we mean when we say “realism”.  Realism is a type of representational art where the subject is rendered in a way that is similar to how we would see the subject in real life.  Within that explanation however, is a whole world of editorial choices an artist must make!  Photorealism refers to something that looks like a photograph.  What’s more real than a photograph, right?  Well, if you were to actually hold up a photograph next to the subject from which it’s taken, you’ll notice quite  a lot.  The way a camera interprets an image is very different from how our human eyes and brains interpret an image.  There’s things like lense distortion, and viewing something through a mono-lense (camera) vs stereoscopic vision (our two eyes) that make life appear very different.  How about hyperrealism?  That’s where a subject appears almost cartoonishly vibrant and detailed.  Like it could almost jump off the skin!  But on close inspection you’ll see that it doesn’t really look that close to how something looks in real life.  Color, light, sharpness of edges… All of these are editorial choices that go into a realism tattoo, and all of these provide a unique interpretation of the subject.  What I’m getting at, is although realism's goal is to portray a likeness to the subject, the editorial choices, and sometimes straying from how something actually looks, is what gives the piece life.  

Before and After, left is an original design by Pablo and right is the finished tattoo.

Realism tattoos have evolved significantly over the years, with recent trends and innovations pushing the boundaries of the style. Many artists, including our owner and tattoo artist Gifford Kasen, are now incorporating the skills they've honed in replicating or life drawing into more complex compositions, blending realism with other styles in creative ways. This approach allows for endless possibilities in tattoo design, moving beyond simple portraits to create visually stunning and dynamic pieces. Gifford finds these trends inspiring and has begun incorporating elements of realism into his own work. While he enjoys the contrast between realism and illustrative styles, he's also exploring ways to merge the two in his paintings, seeking to bridge the gap between his tattooing and painting styles for a more cohesive artistic expression.

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding realism tattoos, according to Gifford, is the belief that the primary goal is to replicate the reference image exactly. This misconception can limit creative opportunities and hinder the design process. While accuracy is important, especially for portraits, there is room for interpretation and artistic license. Gifford emphasizes the importance of making compositional choices to ensure the tattoo works well on the body. Additionally, many clients do not provide professionally shot reference images, requiring adjustments and edits to enhance the overall design. When both the client and artist are open to collaboration and creativity, there is ample room for editing to strengthen the final piece

Creating a realistic tattoo requires a unique set of skills and techniques. Unlike traditional tattooing, where bold lines and vibrant colors dominate, realism tattoos rely on shading, depth, and intricate detail to achieve their lifelike appearance. Artists often employ techniques such as stippling, blending, and layering to capture the nuances of light and shadow, bringing dimension and likeness to their designs.

One of the greatest challenges faced by any tattoo artists is translating a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional canvas. Realism has the added requirements of a keen understanding of anatomy, perspective, and light, as well as impeccable precision and attention to detail. Additionally, realism tattoos often require multiple sessions to complete, as the intricate nature of the designs necessitates careful planning and sometimes slow execution. 

Let’s dive into some challenges and techniques used by our artists, Gifford and Pablo. 

In Pablo's perspective, realism in tattooing presents a formidable challenge, requiring not only technical proficiency but also a keen observational eye. Translating two-dimensional images into three-dimensional skin art adds an extra layer of complexity to the process which Pablo finds both daunting and invigorating.  It demands continual learning and growth Pablo prioritizes creative expression and embraces the freedom each client provides, seeking to deliver visually striking pieces that capture attention while incorporating elements from various tattooing techniques. 

While Pablo enjoys practicing realism tattooing, he doesn't exclusively identify as a realism tattoo artist. Instead, he leans towards a more surreal artistic style, which he hopes to explore further in the future. Pablo's preference for color is evident in his work, as he strives to incorporate it whenever possible, unless specifically requested for black and gray pieces. He finds joy in blending different styles, creating a fusion that adds depth and uniqueness to his tattoos. When selecting and applying colors, Pablo takes into account the theme and intention provided by the client, utilizing various visual techniques such as contrasts and brightness to bring their vision to life on the skin. While realism tattooing aims for perfection, Pablo acknowledges the evolution of this art form over the years, thanks to advancements in tools and the accessibility of knowledge through the internet and seminars. These developments have made realistic tattooing more approachable and less secretive, allowing artists like Pablo to expand their skills and creativity. 

Pablo says,  “Today's realistic tattoo is much better than 10 years ago, there are many more artists practicing it and it is very interesting how each one gives their own stamp to their work. One of the trends that marks realistic tattoos today is the mix with other styles. There are many artists incorporating traditional or new school elements to a realistic portrait or artists who make portraits but with the hand poke or pointillism technique, it gives a lot of what is expected. can create and this is the most valuable thing about art in general, we can always surprise ourselves with something new. Personally, I am trying to develop a more conceptual line of work, where realism and full color impressions dialogue in surreal compositions. I always have designs available with proposals like this in case anyone is interested in this, I really like to take realistic elements such as faces, body parts, objects, animals, flowers and almost anything and immerse them in a psychedelic context of colors and shapes that spread fluidly throughout the body. I can work any concept with this.”

From Gifford’s perspective, when it comes to color selection and application to enhance the realism of his tattoos, he takes a client-centric approach. He considers factors such as the client's desired aesthetic, skin tone, and sun exposure in the tattooed area. Gifford typically begins by discussing whether the client wants color and, if so, whether they prefer vibrant or muted tones. From there, they explore different color schemes, drawing inspiration from his previous work, art or photo books, and color swatch references. To maintain cohesion and avoid overwhelming the design, he limits his color palette, preferring a more refined approach. By understanding the client's preferences and desired atmosphere for the tattoo, Gifford can tailor the color selection to achieve a realistic and visually appealing result. 

He has developed a technique that combines elements of illustrative and realism tattooing, particularly when clients request realism. This approach reflects his personal preference, aiming for tattoos that maintain longevity while also being efficient to execute. In his illustrative style, Gifford incorporates black outlines around the main objects, even while rendering them realistically. This use of black lines helps to define foreground elements and prevent them from blending into the background over time, especially in compositions with multiple layers and depths. However, for black and grey portraits, Gifford opts for a softer edge without the black line, allowing the focus to stand alone and age gracefully without competing with background elements.

When asked, “How do you approach capturing the essence and details of your subject?” Gifford replied, “Great question! This is where the artist part comes in.  It’s easy (relatively) to just copy a picture exactly as it is.  But this rarely makes the best piece. Especially if you are pulling different reference images off of google or whatever image sites.  All of those images are going to have different lighting and have been shot with different camera settings and are most likely compressed images that are not showing great detail of the subject.  So here we have to be able to invent or edit information to make the entire piece make sense together and harmonize.  There are endless ways to approach this.  My background as a still life painter is helpful in approaching composition and learning how to prioritize certain elements.  Drawing from life has also helped me hone my decision making process in how to approach things like edges, where to have lots of detail and where to not, shifts in value and color.  What I want to do is tell a story visually, not just impress you with my ability to replicate a picture. So I want to direct your eye with the arrangement of the piece, and where the high levels of detail are, and the bright pops of color that are offset by more muted tones around them.  All these tools help explain the piece to the viewer whether or not the viewer has knowledge of this.  Much more so than just copying a photograph or whatever.”

Gifford acknowledges that while he doesn't delve deeply into realism as much as before, he still finds joy in painting that style. His appreciation for good design extends beyond tattoos, drawing inspiration from various sources such as furniture, clothing, and architecture. Gifford sees drawing from life as a tactile experience, allowing him to intimately understand and capture the essence of the subject matter. He enjoys juxtaposing man-made objects with natural forms in his compositions, adding a touch of chaos to the precision of industrial design. This approach stems from his background in life drawing, where he learned to understand form and spatial placement. Ultimately, Gifford's inspiration comes from observation, preferring to immerse himself in the real world rather than relying solely on photographs or books. He believes that by experiencing things firsthand, one can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation that translates into his artistry. 

Are you as surprised as I am writing this blog that there is so much information, time, work and contemplation when it comes to realism tattooing. We won’t exhaust you much more, but there was a sweet moment during the interview when I  asked Pablo  share a memorable experience.

“It is always shocking what a tattoo with great meaning can generate in a person. On one occasion I had to tattoo a lady who came to get a portrait of her kitten who had already died. While I was tattooing her, she told me how important that kitten was to her and how the cat had saved her from dying alone during the Covid pandemic. I was doing the portrait of the cat as a cover up of an old tattoo of an initial from a former partner who had been very abusive to her, so when we finished and she saw her kitten tattooed on her skin and covering a mark that affected her very psychologically, he started crying and was in shock for a long time before thanking me for my work.I was like wow!I am very amazed and happy to have helped this person with something so important to her. It is a great satisfaction when you see that you made someone very happy with your work. The bodies house discourses and we are there to give them shape through art, it is wonderful.”

Three available designs by Pablo

On that note, to wrap up a conversation that could last forever, realism tattoos represent a high point of craft and technical ability in the world of tattooing and opens the door to new levels of artistic expression. With their unparalleled attention to detail and lifelike representation, they blur the line between art and reality, captivating viewers and leaving a lasting impression. As the popularity of realism continues to grow, so too does the talent and innovation within the tattooing community, ensuring that this captivating style will continue to evolve and inspire for years to come.

Keep your eyes peeled for realism work from our artists Jeremy Golden and Flanlo and some upcoming guest artists with other amazing approaches to realism style tattooing! Next month, we have an interview with the fabulous Killian Moon and he will join us in the studio in June! 

*All Oil Paintings shown done by Gifford Kasen. All tattoos and tattoo designs by Pablo Mire. All Designs are currently available.

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