Skin Color, Tone, and Complexion – What This Means For Your Tattoo

Skin color, tone and complexion are aspects of a tattoo client’s skin that seem to be rarely discussed now-a-days. Let’s be honest – bright white printer paper backgrounds are not a skin tone we see in the real world. So why do tattoo artists post amazing designs that look great on paper but don’t show us what they would look like in our skin? I could claim laziness but I think it is something more simple than that. Most tattooers aren’t thinking about the client when they draft up their designs – they are focused on creating ART (insert sarcasm).

(Before the hate mail comes in just listen up… This is an article about SKIN TONE not your client as a sentient being FFS.)

When creating a design for the body, most artists focus on contrast that is embedded into a piece of paper or tablet screen. Their choices of line weight and colors are focused on making a rad image appear as bright as possible, when set against a perfectly white screen. 

Let me tell you, most of the artwork I see is amazing but it doesn’t seem to be designed for the body. Rather, it would look better hanging on the wall of the shop or over my grandmother’s hearth.

In a perfect world, understanding the skin’s influence on design would be a priority during the creative process. 

What Does Skin Color, Skin Tone & Skin Complexion Mean?

While often confused with one another, skin tone, color and complexion mean very different things:

  • Skin color is the BASE of your skin

    • This is what color we normally associate with our genetic (phenotypic) makeup. Tattooers are ford to identify the base of a person’s skin to determine best techniques for design creation and application. Terms like light skinned or dark skinned are used commonly to describe a person’s BASE. It is created by the quantity of melanin producing cells located in the skin.
  • Skin Tone is the TINT of your skin

    • Also known as undertones, skin tones are the result of UV rays forcing your skin to produce melanin (the main constituent of your skin BASE) to protect itself from damage. The way this melanin filters natural light adds a TINT to your skin BASE. This aspect of skin coloring is made up by the filtering ability of melanin in the skin – which wavelengths of light are reflected versus absorbed.
  • Skin Complexion is the texture & appearance of your skin.

    • Skin COMPLEXION is how the skin feels. Touch sensory questions like, “How does the skin feel” are best at describing COMPLEXION.

What is Melanin?

Melanin is produced by a small organelle in human skin. It is located in the bottom layer (called the basal layer) of your epidermis (the protective, outside layer) of your skin. These organelles produce a type of pigment that creates the color normally associated with human skin color, tone, and complexion (viewability). It is a genetic trait, something that is not chosen at birth but bestowed by our families genealogy. There are a few different types of melanin out there and if you want to learn more about the science behind this natural pigment, check out this video:

What Does Melanin Do?

Melanin protects our skin from the harmful UV rays of the sun. It also acts as a filter, changing the appearance of the tattoo pigment that is resting below it.

How does it work?

Skin tone is determined based on the quantity of melanin (skin pigment) due to your genes and is present in the epidermis (uppermost layer of the skin). However, external factors such as UVA/UVB rays found in sunlight and sunbeds may affect the quantity of the melanin in your body. 

Types of Skin Bases.

Humans may have a way of simplifying the color profiles of individuals but tattooers look at skin tone and complexion in a simplified way. Skin colors range from light peach to a darker chocolate and are broken up into 3 broad categories:

File:Influence of pigmentation on skin cancer risk.png
John D’Orazio, Stuart Jarrett, Alexandra Amaro-Ortiz and Timothy Scott, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Light Base-

    • Your skin is pale. When exposed to sunlight, this skin tone is prone to burning in 30 minutes or less. Most common in people with temperate/northern (not arctic) ancestry.
  • Medium Base-

    • Your skin is a range of lighter in the winter to medium/dark tanned in the summer. With this skin tone mild to moderate sun exposure leads to a darkening of the skin. Sun exposure of more than 1.5-3 hours will lead to a burn. Most common in temperate/semi-tropical ancestry. Is also seen in arctic ancestry.
  • Dark Base-

    • Skin bases reach from a medium tan to a deep chocolate. Sun exposure rarely leads to burns but tanning occurs very easily. This skin tone is common with equatorial ancestry.

How Skin Base Affects Tattoos.

The base coloring of skin affects the viewability of the tattoo. Having a darker base means fine line tattoos will be less visible at a distance. Multiple gradations of pigments may also become less visible, depending on how dark the skin’s color is, resting or not.

More on Resting Base Color.

Resting skin color is the lightest base the skin sees in a year. When designing a tattoo, artists should pay attention to what the darkest color the base becomes during the year. For some this is the height of summer. Others may have a darker base if their jobs take them outside more often.

Types of Skin Tones.


You can find skin tones easily by looking at a place where veins in the body are easily seen. Places like the wrist are usually best.

  • Warm (yellow, peachy golden undertones) – Veins are not easily noticeable under natural light or have a greenish tinge to them.
  • Cool (pink or bluish undertones) – Veins appear blue colored.
  • Neutral (mix of warm & cool undertones) – Veins look greenish, purplish, or .bluish, but not only a single color.

How Skin Tones Affect Tattoos.

Certain skin tones show colors better than others. Cool tones are great at showing more subtle colors when compared to those with warm undertones. People with neutral tones handle blacks and greys exceptionally well. People with warm undertones show bold colors better than most.

Types of Skin Complexion

From smooth to rough, clean to dirty, the complexion of a person’s skin is most often left to the viewer. In tattooing skin complexion plays a role in deciding how to approach placing and layout of designs. If the skin has breaks, acne, scars or differences in pigmentation, the design must evolve to work with these variables.

As a client, knowing how your skin feels can also help you pick out designs or styles that will better fit your skin type.

Why Skin Color, Tone, and Complexion Is Important To Tattoos.

Longevity is priority, even if a person can’t imagine making it to middle age. The best way to create a tattoo that is timeless is to take the client’s body and design a custom tattoo for them based on their biology. Using skin color, tone and complexion is just one of the many tangential aspects of tattoo design that need to be addressed by artists before the session begins.

White Ink Tattoos

White pigment is massively popular at the time of writing this article so knowing how your skin works – like a filter. Knowing this makes decisions around color and placement more easily understood.

Want to Learn More?

We have an article discussing the chemistry of white ink (also known as White pigment or Titanium Dioxide) at the following link-

Titanium Dioxide – Pigment Chemistry

We also have an article discussing white ink tattoos at-

White Ink Tattoos 

In Conclusion

Now that skin color, tone, and complexion are better elucidated, go  ahead and start planning some amazing tattoos!