Mastering Mash-Up Tattoos with Harlan Kantner | Painful Pleasures Community

Mastering Mash-Up Tattoos with Harlan Kantner

Mash-up tattoos are especially tricky, but Harlan Kantner has the secrets to nail them every time. Check out his tips.
by Danny Tress Last Updated: April 11, 2024

Time to mash-up some tattoos with Harlan Kantner. Now picture this: Neotraditional tattoos—bold, vibrant, and bursting with personality. Realism tattoos—so detailed they could be mistaken for photographs. Now, imagine blending these two styles together. Sounds crazy, right? It’s difficult enough to master just one of them, but becoming a master of both and seamlessly mixing them together… Well, that’s where Harlan Kantner comes in.


Shot of one of Harlan Kantner's mash-up tattoos

Meet Harlan Kantner, the mastermind behind some of the most mind-blowing mash-up tattoos you’ll ever lay eyes on. He’s an award-winning tattoo artist working at Athens Tattoo Co. in Bel Air, Maryland. If you haven’t already seen his work, check out his Instagram which will make you question reality. You’ll spot hyperrealistic, deftly crafted skulls and portraits blended with neotraditional florals, animals, and accents that pop against the subtle black and gray. Making these surreal blends come to life is no easy feat. But Harlan has mastered the art of it, seamlessly blending neotraditional and black and gray realism like it’s nobody’s business.


Well, not only does it look sick… but creating mash-up tattoos is one of the best ways to distinguish yourself as an artist. There are countless neotraditional tattooers. Likewise, there are countless realism tattooers. But the number of artists who can successfully marry the two popular styles? That number is MUCH smaller. Harlan has carved out a name for himself with these show-stopping mash-ups. But like we said above, the journey to being a mash-up extraordinaire is no easy feat. To do it well, you have to master two styles. Any styles you choose. In the case of Harlan’s work, the subtlety of realism and the vibrancy of neotrad work creates incredible tension. But realism and neotraditional styles are two radically different animals… as are many tattooing styles. Imagine combining illustrative fine-line tattoos with watercolor. Or anime tattoos with glitter.

One thing’s for certain: if the idea of mashing up your styles interests you, Harlan’s the guy you should be listening to.


Shot of one of Harlan Kantner's mash-up tattoos featuring a lady head and neotraditional flower

Versatility is the name of the game. Harlan isn’t afraid to mix things up, experimenting with different styles and techniques to create one-of-a-kind masterpieces. And obviously if you’re tackling a mash-up piece, you love versatility. But you need to structure that versatility. You’ll be using a lot of different techniques during your mash-up piece to accomplish two opposing styles and blend them together. Harlan advises you take this in stride. He says when he’s working on a realism-neotrad mash-up, he works as follows:

  1. Linework and portraiture FIRST
  2. Shading second
  3. Color packing last

Tackling all the time-consuming linework and portraiture first gives him the framework of what he needs to finish bringing his tattoo to life in subsequent sessions. Dividing his techniques into stages also ensures he’s not constantly reapplying a stencil. Now, this is especially crucial to Harlan because most of his pieces are large and require multiple sessions. Maybe your mash-up tattoos will be smaller. Still, this principle is a good one to follow. If you jump around between techniques too much while you’re tattooing, it’s easy to get lost and make more mistakes.

And hey, remember, tattooing isn’t a sprint—it’s a marathon. Harlan’s mantra? Pace yourself. Don’t go all out in one session, folks. Take breaks, stay hydrated, and for the sake of your clients (and your best-healed results!) take pain thresholds into account. If your client is uncomfortable or struggling to sit, you risk poorly healed results… and a client who won’t want to return. The way Harlan puts it is… try not to murder your client in one sitting just to snap a good Insta photo. That’s just good advice no matter what style you’re tackling.


Neotraditional bird tattoo by Harlan Kantner

A quick note before we dive into Harlan’s setup. Harlan advises you to ask “WHY” not “WHAT?” What’s that mean? Well, it means that asking WHAT he uses is not nearly as important as WHY he uses it. These tools may not work for you if your WHY’s don’t match up with Harlan’s. It all depends on the styles you’re mashing up, how fast you tattoo, and how you prefer to work. So get ready for a breakdown of WHY Harlan likes to use what he uses. Now, let’s get down to business with Harlan’s top picks for supplies:


Flux Max tattoo machine with blue backdrop

The Flux Max is Harlan’s go-to tattoo machine for its versatility and all-around badassery. He prefers the 4mm stroke which he declares is perfect for tackling everything from line work to color saturation and soft shading (all ESSENTIAL techniques for his two chosen styles).


Harlan swears by Peak needles for their consistency and precision. He’s always sworn by Quartz and Triton needles, but he’s recently tried Peak’s latest Stellar needles as well, which give him an optimal flow for colorwork in particular. For realism, he’s all about that Quartz bugpin 17 curved mag for shading, while delicate details get the Triton bugpin 5 or 7 round shader treatment. And for neotraditional linework? A traditional 9 round liner does the trick, but Harlan advises any artist (whether you’re mashing up or not) to mix up your liner configurations. Some lines will be fat, bold, and crispy while others will be soft, delicate, and gray… especially when you’re juggling two conflicting styles.


Hustle Butter Deluxe with a blue backdrop

Harlan considers this stuff a game-changer, especially for color tattoos. He uses both standard Hustle Butter and the CBD-enriched kind the whole time he’s tattooing (usually). The CBD Hustle Butter, Harlan asserts, keeps the skin chilled out and helps him see “what the f*ck I’m doing.” Visibility is super important, particularly when you’re taking on a mash-up tattoo chock-full of details you need to focus on.


Four bottles of World Famous tattoo ink on a granite countertop

When it comes to ink, Harlan’s all about that World Famous goodness. For Harlan, World Famous tattoo ink has the perfect consistency and flow for the way he works (which is pretty fast.) He claims it’s not too thin or thick, giving him that Goldielocks perfection for speedy passes and saturations.


Dr. Bronner's Soap on a medical tray

Why not green soap, you may ask? Harlan used to stick to Green Soap (who doesn’t love that smell?) but that timeless favorite unfortunately has proven to be reactive with Recovery Derm Shield, one of Harlan’s favorite aftercare bandages. After he noticed clients were breaking out from the Green Soap-Derm Shield combo, he switched to Dr. Bronner’s. It still smells great, gets the job done, and keeps clients’ skin healthy and calm during recovery. Tattoo care, no matter your preferred style, is crucial for optimal healed results. Harlan also likes to add Witch Hazel to his distilled water, which likewise keeps clients’ skin happy and calm.


Ready to see Harlan tackling some sick mash-up pieces? Check out the video below to get up close and personal with his process. You’ll get bonus tips and tricks not included in this blog as well.


Neotraditional tiger and flower tattoo by Harlan Kantner

Now you’ve got the tips, tools, and inspo to get to work with mash-up tattoos. Try combining two of your favorite styles (or, if you’re not ready, start trying to master two styles separately before blending them together). We’re stoked to see your sstyle remixes.

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