Your favourite tattoos on Instagram are probably faked

Tattoo artists are editing their work, creating an unrealistic standard and setting customers up for disappointment.

by Abby Moss
15 November 2021, 8:15am

Image via Instagram

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with friends about wanting to get another tattoo. And, because we all live in a Black Mirror reality, my phone immediately started showing me sponsored posts on Instagram for some incredible tattoo artists. Most of these accounts were legit, and the artists, when I googled them, were well known and respected in the industry. But a number of the posts I was seeing seemed too good to be true. There were tattoos with a level of photo-realism that was a million miles away from anything I’d seen before, or with line work that was incredibly (almost unbelievably) smooth, or with blocks of black that looked like vantablack, the “blackest black” created by MIT researchers in 2019.

Either there had been some incredible advances in tattooing technology that I hadn’t heard about, or some of these artists weren’t being entirely honest about their work. As it turns out, the latter is true, with accounts being set up on Instagram specifically to call out artists who are doctoring their work to the point of complete misrepresentation. One such account, @tattooedtruthfairy, has 110K followers, including some of the UK’s most well-known tattoo artists. It invites people to send in examples of tattoos that have been touched up using filters and photoshop, and often juxtaposes doctored images beside a ‘real’ photograph of the tattoo. The posts then tag the artists, none of whom responded when I reached out to them for comment. 

On the Reddit thread r/instagramreality, users are also calling out tattoo artists. “I see this A LOT… especially with super bright cutesy / anime tattoos,” wrote one user in reference to a zoomed in picture of a tattoo clearly showing that the black line work had been edited. “You can obviously tell the contrast has been cranked way up.” Another commented, “My tattoo artist and I were just talking about this. It absolutely blew my mind that someone would photoshop their tattoo work because obviously when a client comes to you, you’re going to have to explain why it doesn’t look the same.”

And it’s not always bad, or even mediocre, tattoo artists that are dramatically altering their work for Instagram. Many of the tattoos featured on @tattooedtruthfairy are very good tattoos, even after the trickery has been stripped away. It makes sense that an artist would want to show the best possible version of their work. But where’s the line between posting a good picture and a misrepresentative one?

Ainslie Heilich is a tattoo artist who is well respected in the industry, particularly for cover-ups. “At this point I would say that close to 100% of all tattoo photos you see online have had some sort of minimal photo editing done,” he says. “But there is a fine line between acceptable editing to make the photo reflect the reality of what the tattoo looks like in person, versus the current trend of misrepresenting the possibilities of what the physics of tattooing and human skin can do. Artists are jockeying for likes and follows, and will achieve them by any means possible.”

Ainslie explains that, in the past, editing an image of a tattoo was a cardinal sin in the industry and that artists would be quickly outed and shunned by their peers for doing so. But Instagram and the rise of the “tattoo influencer” has normalised image editing. This is having a direct impact on how legit tattoo artists work, with Ainslie noting that he has seen a huge increase in people coming to his studio with unrealistic expectations, asking for tattoos that are physically impossible because they’ve seen a doctored image online. 

“Tattoo artists now have to spend a lot of time educating, and subsequently disappointing, clients who think that these edited tattoos look like that in the real world,” he explains. “People don't generally like being told that they've been misled by the photos online when they are trying to give you money, but I feel like it is unethical to not say anything.” The impact of this has caused a split to emerge in the industry between tattoo artists who are focused on how they look online and those who are concerned with the art of tattooing, their real world clients and the longevity of their tattoos, according to Ainslie.

So, how can you spot a doctored image of a tattoo? And how can you know if what you’re seeing on Instagram is something a tattoo artist could recreate on your skin?

First of all, black sections that are very black, with no reflection and no visible pores on the skin; and white parts that appear to glow, are both dead giveaways of editing. “Look for ‘image artefacts’, like groups of ‘noisy’ pixels showing skin texture next to smooth blended pixels, which would indicate a blending tool was used during the edit,” Ainslie explains. “It could be innocent to hide bad irritation, or more misleading to hide flaws in the tattoo like choppy shading.” But sometimes, spotting a fake is nearly impossible: “Some are really good at covering their tracks and others stick out like a sore thumb.” 

By now, everyone should know that Instagram isn’t reality, but when it comes to tattoos it seems that people are still willing to suspend disbelief. The only way to avoid being misled is to do your homework. Research a potential artist and find out how they are viewed in the industry. Try to find studios where they’ve done residencies (many successful artists will travel and take bookings in different cities for short visits, because their work is so sought after that they know the trip will be worthwhile) and find articles about them in industry magazines like Inked. If they’ve emerged out of nowhere and seem to exist only on Instagram, chances are they’re not all they appear.

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