The fact is there are challenges to working with dark skin. A lot of tattooers are not used to working with the variety of hues that span the African Diaspora. It’s not just a color issue, the skin also reacts to the needle in a way that I have not often found in clients from other ethnic backgrounds. There are limitations to the color palette and successful tattoos often have to be designed in ways that may be unexpected for uninitiated clients. Just like black hair is a different beast than its white or asian counterparts, black skin requires a certain kind of care as well. These challenges are often not worth the trouble for tattooers who don’t have a lot of black clients or tattooers who know the challenges exist. Subsequently a lot of people with dark skin end up with subpar tattoos. It doesn’t have to be that way!
Before getting a tattoo it may behove you to have some background in what a tattooer must consider while designing and applying your piece.
Black and Grey –
The human eye, from the blackest black to the whitest white, can only register 12 shades of grey. If your shade of brown falls at 6, putting a shade of grey down lighter that that is pointless. It just won’t read. Artistically that makes the lightest part of the tattoo a 6, so our choices are to only work with the darkest tones to create readable contrast. The bad news there is that you may not get the level of detail that some lighter skinned people can. The good news is the tattoo goes way faster and you pay a lot less money for the same design!
When it comes to color, there is no one right answer.
Tattoo ink is not paint. It sits under your skin not on top. Your skin is something like a tinted piece of plastic wrap. Put your shade on top of another color and that is generally what the color will look like. Use a dull color and it will look muddy, use a bright color and you have a fighting chance!
Certain colors will look better than others. Brown people have a warm hue. So reds and red derivatives look best. Pink and orange are great. Yellow in theory can be good but isn’t always the most reliable long term color. Magenta is good, Violet is bad. Green can be ok but only shades with a lot of yellow. I usually stay away from blue because it falls on the cool side of the color temp wheel. Still I have had some success with turquoise because of the levels of yellow-green and white. Which brings us to white.
I get a lot of questions about this. One would think white ink on black skin would look awesome –but have you ever seen it look awesome? No? There is a reason why. Remember ink goes under your skin not on top of it. On your skin white is at best tan and at worst mud.
I have successfully put color in the darkest of clients but when a client and good friend of mine came back asking for a touch up because it had dulled, I had to remind her that she is dark as night and them colors ain’t gonna get any brighter. haha.
It’s a lot of information, there is color theory and then just general knowledge of the medium, coupled with your particular skin tone, location of the tattoo and design. It’s easier to just trust your tattooer than to retain all this info and try to micromanage your piece. The key is TRUSTING your tattooer. How do you know how to trust him or her? Look at their portfolio! If you don’t see any tattoos on black people keep it moving. More on that later.
There is a saying in the industry; “Bold will hold.” That is to say, bold lines with lots of negative space in the right places will read better than a ton of tiny details smashed into a little area. This is true of any skin tone but when you are dark it’s often the only option you have. This is why tribal looks good on dark skin. I am in no way advocating for tribal designs here but the tenants of tribal (bold lines, solid shading, defined negative space with an emphasis on fit and flow) all equal clean readable tattoos that will hold up over time. Learn from our ancestors. This does not mean you are stuck getting those terrible black squiggles and points from the 90s’. We can take the elements described above and apply them to modern or personal illustrative designs today.
There is also something very beautiful about how subtle tattoos can be on dark skin. I mean I have clients with tattoos on their face and you still don’t notice it first thing.
Something else to note…
Raised lines, scars and welts.
A lot of black people seem to think that their line work or the whole tattoo is supposed to be raised up. NOT SO. This isn’t braille, once healed you should see a tattoo not feel it. If a part of your tattoo is raised up, your tattooer scarred you. It happens to black people more often than white, because in my experience black peoples’ skin tends to be thinner and more sensitive but it’s not supposed to happen.
Getting welts during the tattoo happens to people of all ethnic backgrounds but for some reason, what I can only assume is genetic, about 70- 80 percent of black people welt heavily during the process. This welting combined with the pigment of the skin and the darkness of the ink makes for a mess that can be hard to see through. I’ve developed work-arounds but sometimes a session has to be cut short because it’s nearly impossible to see what is going on anymore. The tattoo is so swollen, shaded areas begin to bulge together. The welts will go down in under an hour and it will heal fine but its better to stop early and add more later if needed.
Choosing your artist –
I am by no means the only tattooer who cares about doing good tattoos on black people but a lot of tattooers would just prefer not to work with these kinds of challenges. As a black person, I have a personal interest in seeing my people with tattoos every bit as good as anyone else. However this does not mean that every black artist knows how to work on black skin either. I have been extremely challenged to cover the work of artists, who only work on black skin. These artists never took the time to learn about design (or in some cases even how to draw apparently, haha). Look through portfolios. Ask questions, not all tattooers are created equal. Remember at the end of the day you get what you pay for and you get the tattoo you deserve.
Every tattooer has their niche and preference. Skin is our canvas. A lot of artists want the whitest canvas possible because it gives more possibilities to work with the medium. I enjoy all varieties of skin tone and in some cases prefer working with darker ones . It all depends.