Friday, November 1, 2013

How to Build a Portfolio

 A tattoo artist's portfolio is the primary means of presenting examples of his or her work to the public.  The construction and presentation of a good portfolio helps drive interest in your work and highlights your style and areas of expertise.  A poorly constructed portfolio, even one containing amazing work, can diminish your client's confidence in your skill and professionalism.  With the advent of digital media, it behooves the tattoo artist to maintain both a physical and digital portfolio.

 A physical portfolio should be contained in a binder, photo album, or book.  A binder offers the greatest flexibility as you can select different sleeves formatted for various photo sizes.  Binders, however, often suggest either cheapness or a lack of professionalism.  Photo albums are far more common among shop-based tattoo artists, offering a more professional appearance.  Generally, photo albums are limited to one photo format, such as 4X6", and tend to be more costly than a binder.  Digital printing has made creating a photo book a feasible possibility.  Artists simply upload their photo to a web-based printing service, select the format and text, and print their portfolio in book form.  This portfolio has the greatest professional appearance, but is also the most costly.  Updating your binder or photo album portfolio with a new tattoo is simply a matter of printing a new photo and inserting the photo into the portfolio.  Adding new work to a book means reprinting the entire book.  Outside of your portfolio, you should include your name, logo, or photo.  

 Along with selecting the type of physical portfolio you will have, you must also select the tattoo images you will place in it.  Quality is far more important than quantity.  You want to feature your best tattoos, the ones you feel were executed well and are the best representation of your work.  You also want to display the best photos of your work, avoiding low-resolution photos (300 dpi or larger is best), blurry images, or images with poor lighting.  While photo manipulation software such as Photoshop can help overcome some issues with a photo, it is preferred that the photo be presented with minimal alteration.  While this should go without saying, your portfolio should contain strictly your own work, not the work of others of a style you feel you would like to pursue. 

Another question that arises during the tattoo selection process is what tattoos to feature.  Should an artist display those tattoos that represent his style and interest exclusively, or should a variety of tattoos be displayed?  For example, an artist who has a passion for portraiture may elect to display only portrait tattoos.  The results is that a client who views that portfolio may assume that the artist cannot or will not tattoo script or symbols, and that may mean that the artist loses that business.  Some artists would be happy to let that business go as they are earning what they want working exclusively in their preferred genre, while others want the challenge of doing a range of tattoo types and welcome all clients. 

 Some portfolios are chronological in nature, displaying the bulk of the tattooist's work from the beginning of their careers to the present, beginning with the most recent tattoos first.  This is a good way to add bulk to your portfolio, but is generally unnecessary.  Most clients do not look beyond the first few pages of the portfolio, and those that do reach the last few pages may assume that older works are representative of the tattooist's current abilities.  

 The images selected for your physical portfolio should also be included in your digital portfolio and the same criteria apply.  When applying for a position at a tattoo studio, a physical portfolio is preferred (though this trend is shifting).  Clients may find the digital portfolio more convenient and accessible.  Images in digital format (and possibility physical as well) should include a "watermark", a design or logo which indicates that the image is owned by the artist in order to make things more difficult for those who might wish to pirate the image.  Some artists go as far as to include their shop contact information in the hopes that the image is shared on various sites driving new clients to their shop.  You may wish to upload your portfolio to a variety of sites for this reason.  Also, it may be fruitful to keep a copy of your portfolio on your smart-phone for those occasions when someone you are speaking with wishes to see your work outside the shop.

  Maintenance of your portfolio includes both upkeep of the physical book and regularly adding new images.  Walk-in clients can be particularly hard on a physical portfolio, forcibly flipping pages resulting in tears, damage to the photos, and even damage to the book itself.  It is a good idea to have a back-up portfolio on hand, either just a second set of photos or a completely new book.  Unfortunately, good portfolios have been known to leave a tattoo shop, often to be used by less experienced artists elsewhere as "samples of their work".  It never hurts to be prepared.  Including a water-mark, logo, or even your studio name and address in your images, both the physical and digital portfolios, can help prevent someone from claiming your work as their own.

 A good portfolio is a tattooist's best sales tool.  Good photos of great tattoos in a professional format will showcase your skills and make your clients more confident about your work.  Like everything you may do as a tattooist, paying attention to all the little details will carry you a long way and be well worth the investment.

Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at


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