Portrait Tattoos and Their Meanings

The portrait tattoo has really exploded in popularity in recent years. There are so many possibilities that it can be hard to choose. A well-done portrait tattoo can look almost three dimensional and really make for an eye-catching design.

On the other hand, one that has been rushed or has been inked by someone without the requisite skill can look quite appalling and embarrassing.

Realism Right on Your Skin

The compelling qualities of portrait tattoos are in their sense of realism. Unlike many other tattoo styles that go for an abstract look, the whole idea of the portrait tattoo is to create a realistic head design that looks complex, sophisticated, and draws in the eye.

In this sense, a great portrait tattoo can truly look like a real work of art, and that’s the whole goal that you should have in mind when considering one.

Though portrait tattoo styles adhere to the style of realism, there are a pretty wide range of renderings. For example, careful line work and shading can render a portrait that looks realistic, but some styles take a so-called hyper-realistic approach.

This is where the tattoo looks like it is jumping right out of the skin at you. This style emphasizes the use of shading, angles, and realistic perspective to create a truly eye-catching design.

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What Does the Portrait Tattoo Style Involve?

One of the most impressive features of good portrait tattooing is how sophisticated the look is. For the tattooist, there is an intense focus on detailed shading and lighting. This creates a portrait that looks as realistic as possible. Some are almost like photos.

Should You Consider a Portrait Tattoo?

There are plenty of reasons why you should consider getting a portrait style tattoo. They represent a unique look in the world of tattoos, so they are great for people who are not new to inking their body.

Here are some of the most compelling reasons why a portrait tattoo might appeal to you.


Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for getting a portrait tattoo is to pay homage to an important family member. Perhaps you want to get one of a relative that has recently passed away. Or, perhaps you want to preserve the memory of your son or daughter just as they used to be.

If there is one thing that tattoos can do for us, it’s to help us tell a story. A portrait tattoo can be an amazing homage to someone close to you and help you to remember them. In this way, it can be an intimate part of your life every day and remind you of how things used to be.

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Make a Bold Statement

Make no mistake, there are just as many portraits as there are tattoo artists, and probably many more. A portrait tattoo is not just restricted to a family member. You can make a very bold statement about your own personal interests in life and even have your favorite Marvel comics superhero inked on your body.

The great thing about portrait tattoos is that they can be a huge amount of fun. A hyper-realistic portrait can look like it’s jumping right off your skin and can really help you to connect with people who appreciate great tattoo art.

In this context, portrait tattoos are a bold statement about who you are and tell others about your interests and your soul.

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Paying Respect to a Great Tattooist

Not every tattoo artist has the skill to do great portrait ink work. If you happen to find a great tattooist who can render a portrait in a style that really speaks to you, it can also be your way of paying your respect to their art.

Tattoo enthusiasts know that there are no great tattoos without great tattoo artists to ink them and a great looking portrait can be your way of respecting the art.

In this sense, such a tattoo also pays respect to the art of tattooing in general and shows just how advanced it can be. The portrait style really does express a love for the art.

Additionally, never underestimate how honored a good tattoo artist may feel as well. You are allowing them the chance to express themselves through their own art and making it a permanent part of who you are. In this way, portrait ink work can create an interesting link between the tattoo artist and the customer.

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An Iconic Display

Have you ever been personally drawn to a celebrity, character in a book or movie, or a historical icon? Perhaps their values align closely with your own or you idealize them for what they have achieved.

A portrait tattoo can express your deep admiration for an iconic character in real life or fiction. It allows you to express your alignment with them and their value system at a philosophical level.

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Some Solid Portrait Tattoo Style Advice

If you’ve decided that you want to have a portrait tattoo done, there are some things you should definitely think about:

Get to Know Their Portfolio

A great portrait tattoo can be compelling to look at, but one that has been rushed or done badly can be a real disaster. The problem is that even small mistakes in portrait tattoos can be very visible.

This is because the human brain is so attuned to recognizing and parsing human faces that small mistakes are easily noticed.

You should definitely choose a tattoo artist who knows what they are doing. Look through their portfolio of work. Do they specialize in portrait work? Do they do the kind of portrait work you are interested in, such as hyper realistic?

Any portrait tattoo has to face intense scrutiny. A portrait tattoo that is just okay will always look a little bit “off”. Take your time to find a solid portrait tattoo artist and you’ll be rewarded.

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Take a Photo

Due to the fact that tattoo artists go into great detail with their portrait work, you should bring in a high resolution photo of what you want. This is especially true of family members. You want the artist to be able to capture their likeness as closely as possible.

A good photo will help the tattoo artist to single out and render details correctly. A good rule of thumb here: make sure the photo is big enough for the tattoo artist to see all of the detail so they can render it correctly.

Color Choice Is Crucial

Even though many portrait style tattoos are rendered in black ink, there are times when color is going to enhance the result. A great monochrome portrait tattoo can look absolutely amazing when done by the right hands, but there are certainly times when color portraits can create a look that nothing else can match.

Color is a good call when it comes to superhero portraits, for example. It can also enhance a portrait that is on a monochrome background. The only problem is that black ink will stand the test of time, whereas color inks will fade or discolor over time.

On a related note, many portrait tattoo artists will use a monochrome or faded background for their portrait. This allows the head of the subject to really pop and stand out.

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Be Prepared

A portrait tattoo is something that you really don’t want to rush. Those small mistakes can really stand out, and the last thing you want is for a job to be done quickly.

Consequently, you should be prepared for the tattoo to take up to eight hours in many cases. But this will depend largely on the complexity of the piece. Some pieces can take up to 12 hours in total, and this may mean that it needs to be completed over several inking sessions.

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Place That Tattoo Properly

Portrait tattoos are not just your everyday tattoos. You need to ensure that you choose the right placement for them. A portrait tattoo tends not to look good when it’s too small, so you should be prepared to give up a sizable area for one.

Make sure you choose a body part without creases. The back can be a great location for especially large portraits. However, the biceps, the calves, and the chest also work very well. Given the amount of detailed inking involved, it’s definitely always best to choose an area that is easier to work on, such as a crease-free zone.

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Some Portrait Tattoo Ideas

If you’re committed to the idea of getting a portrait tattoo, but you’re not entirely sure what to get, here are some ideas:

A Family Member: If a loved one in the family has recently passed away, having a small portrait done on the arm can be a fitting tribute that will last for a lifetime. Just make sure that you bring a high resolution large photo with you so that the tattoo artist has something solid to work with when they render the likeness.

The Surreal Tattoo: If you have a flair for art or you want something truly unique, why not opt for a portrait in the surreal style? Salvador Dali was a proponent of the surreal movement in art, and his likeness is ideal for this. Otherwise, get some ideas from art history books and use your imagination.

Movie or TV Series Character: Whether you love superheroes from DC or Marvel, or you have an affinity for the character of Walter White in Breaking Bad, having your favorite character inked somewhere on your body can make a statement about who you are and your character. You can really express what you’re into through a great portrait tattoo.

Music Icon: Likewise, having a favorite music artist inked on your body can also speak volumes about your own interests. Just make sure you find a good photo of them so that the tattoo artist has something to work with. Imagine a hyper-realistic three-dimensional rendering of an artist such as Madonna or Pink, for example.


Portrait tattoos have really become very sophisticated in recent years. More and more tattoo artists are willing to express themselves through this intense style of tattoo. The question is this: should you get one for yourself?

Every tattoo requires a commitment, but portrait tattoos require intense focus and concentration from the tattoo artist. In this sense, there is a commitment from both parties during the process.

But the results can truly speak for themselves. A portrait tattoo that has been rendered wonderfully can really look amazing and capture the eye.

Whether you want to honor a deceased member of your family or pay homage to a historical icon, a portrait tattoo is a great choice. Just make sure that you’re prepared for the time and level of focus that it will take to render all of the details necessary.

If you’re ready to take the plunge, make sure you find a skilled tattoo artist for the job. Look through their portfolio, sit down and chat with them about what you want, and do everything that you need to do to prepare. The portrait tattoo is unlike other kinds of tattoos, and you want to get it right.

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