Dark skinned tattoo on shoulder

Yes, You Can Make A Beautiful Tattoo On Dark Skin.

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The battle of trying to explain to a tattoo artist that they don’t know how to tattoo dark skin… It never ends! This idea that dark-skinned people can’t get tattoos is rooted in a bias. A bias that is pervasive in the west. It is spread by tattoo artists that have no clue what they are doing. It is also spread by clientele that may have good intentions but have no idea what they are talking about.

Maybe they heard it from a previous artist? Maybe they are fed this idea by the limitless images they see carouselled through their social media feed. Whatever the reason, the truth of the matter is: You can tattoo any skin tone and make it look good.

Large scale tattoo on dark skin of Buddha

Is It Possible to Tattoo Dark Skin?

Like we said above, yes, you can tattoo any skin tone out there. The process of doing the tattoo is the same! Needles are used to implant pigment into the skin. The body holds it fast by trapping it in the dermal collagen network of the skin. Immune cells called macrophages also hold fast some of the pigment. All of this sits below the skin’s natural color which acts as a filter on the light trying to reach the tattoo underneath. Simple, right?! For some of us out there, who have had the chance to work on a plethora of skin types over many years – yes. It is easy to understand. We can also make a good tattoo on dark-toned skin without scarring it.

For others, there may be a lack of understanding about skin structure that creates a problem. Many out there also know little about how light plays a part in the ability to see implanted tattoo pigment. These deficiencies make for an artist who is uncomfortable or unable to work with any skin type/tone. We can attest to the fact that this under-educated state creates tattoo artists who are quick to blame the client, or their skin tone, for their lack of ability to complete a tattoo well.

The entire system reeks of stereotypical ignorance. Much like hairstylists and their inability to work with multiple types of hair, tattoo artists in the western world lack sufficient knowledge when it comes to anything other than white skin. Rather than ask questions or take the time to do research and educate themselves, people in the industry creates barriers that deny many the chance at a good tattoo experience.

What Is the Difference Between Light and Dark Skin?

Answer: Melanin content Melanin is the stuff that gives our skin its color. It is produced by organelles in our skin called melanosomes. These organelles secrete a substance that absorbs light energy, which in turn stops our skin from being burnt. The darker your skin is, the more melanin you have in it and the less likely you are to suffer sunburn.

Where is Melanin Located?

Melanin is located in the lower part of the epidermis – the outer, protective layer of our skin. The melanin works extremely well at stopping UV damage to the unprotected layer of skin underneath, called the dermis. The dermis holds all the sensory and vascular things in our skin. It also houses the sebaceous (oil) glands and sensory nerves that allow us to feel the environment around us.

Why Don’t Tattoos Look as Bright in Dark Skin?

Tattoos don’t look bright in dark skin for two reasons.

  • Because the melanin in the skin absorbs light energy.

    • Light energy is needed to reflect or refract off pigment that is implanted. This makes the pigment visible.
    • Because the sun only imparts enough energy for most of us to be comfortable, some dark skin tones don’t allow enough energy to get through the melanized layer of the epidermis to show the pigment as vibrantly.
    • It works 2-fold as well. Melanin isn’t a 1-way mirror. It absorbs light going in and going out. This means that there must be an exponentially greater factor of energy reaching the pigment to bounce back out.
  • Because the tattoo wasn’t created with skin tone in mind.

    • When creating a tattoo for dark skin tones you have to follow a couple of rules to make sure the design will stand out. Focusing on contrast is key to making a tattoo look good on any skin tone.
    • Most tattoo artists out there understand what contrast is yet are unable to apply the idea universally. This leads to a washed-out tattoo design that doesn’t fit the individual.

Nefertiti tattoo on a thigh on dark skin

Common Misconceptions of Tattooing Dark Skin

Many people think that dark-toned skin is difficult to tattoo, that they take longer to heal, and that the skin may be thicker and less likely to accept any tattoo pigment. These statements are wrong and accompany many other misconceptions about tattooing in general.

Taking Care of a New Tattoo on Dark Toned Skin.

Chances are that your skin heals faster if you have a skincare routine. Whether it is daily, bidaily, or even weekly, if you take care of your skin, it takes care of you. The skin that is taken care of could be called, healthy. If you have healthy skin, how can you make it more-healthy? The answer is, you can’t. Once something is healthy, it is healthy. For skincare after a tattoo, if you have healthy skin and are given incorrect aftercare instructions, your skin can suffer and become unhealthy. Using a moisturizing product that isn’t fit for your skin can leave you feeling greasy, sticky, or just plain gross. So, when given instructions from a tattoo artist on how to take care of your skin you need to check yourself and your habits before conforming to their instructions. We have an article about taking care of a new tattoo. You can read it by following this link: How Much Lotion Should I Use on My New Tattoo?

Can White Ink Tattoos Work on Dark Skin?

Since melanin is so good at absorbing UV radiation (light), and since white ink needs light energy to work its magic, the denser the melanin concentrations a person’s skin has, the less effective white pigments will be at reflecting light and shining through. This doesn’t mean the person getting a white ink tattoo will be unable to see it. To be honest, I have seen some white tattoos in dark skin look bright and vivid for more than 7 years (at the time of this writing). I have also seen white ink tattoos that barely show up in dark skin while they are being done. The key to getting white ink tattoos to be visible in dark-toned skin is saturation, as well as making sure the undertones of the person getting the tattoo will allow the pigment to be shown. Learn more about skin tone and undertones by reading our article: Skin Color, Tone, and Complexion, What This Means For Your Tattoo? Learn more about white pigments and white ink tattoos by reading our article: White Ink Tattoos, an In-Depth Article

Tips for Tattooing Dark Skin.

There isn’t some magic trick that goes along with tattooing dark skin. A tattoo artist needs patience, good technique, and an understanding that things take time to understand. True mastery in tattooing comes from understanding all skin types. Wait. What was that? Oh…PRACTICE! Yeah, that’s right, you need to practice getting better! Anyways… Here are a few tricks that can be used to create more vivid images on dark skin tones:

Use thicker lines.

Using a thicker line weight when applying a tattoo makes the image bolder. Being bolder makes it easier to see

Large scale tattoo on dark skinned shoulder

Make the design bigger.

By making the design 15-30% or so larger the ability to view the image is enhanced. Conversely, making a tattoo design 30% smaller on dark skin can make the tattoo illegible at a distance.

Think of the client’s skin tone as the brightest tone in the design.

Most designs that are going to be tattooed on dark skin should take the natural resting skin tone into account when creating values. Whatever the resting skin tone is should be considered the light tone of the piece. Lighter values can be added as needed, like highlights, for example. But these additional light tones shouldn’t be. Dark values will need to be added to contrast the skin’s natural color. The darker the skin, the greater amount of black is needed to create a vivid image. 

Take multiple sittings to get it right.

Saturation is key to creating a vivid tattoo design. When working with dark skin there needs to be adequate saturation if there is any hope of the design being seen at a distance by using the above techniques, there will be more work for the same “style” of design so keeping track of how things heal, as well as the saturation of each focal point/area of interest will help the tattoo withstand the test of time.

Proper technique will help it heal well.

How many tattoos on dark skin have you seen that are raised? It is like the tattoo has become a sort of braille, visible due only to its topography. This occurs when the tattoo procedure is done incorrectly. Skin raises like this when it is SCARRED. That is not a good technique, it is very bad! Putting any tattoo ink into darker skin takes time. Sometimes the first pass will not net an immediate result (where most tattoo artists are accustomed to seeing a bold, bright line or color fill on light skin immediately). So why not go back in deeper and faster? Because it rips the skin to shreds! Take time and let the inflammation and redness fall away from the tattoo. Give it time to cool off. Sometimes it takes up to a minute for a line in dark-toned skin to show up. Do a single pass with good technique and let the skin settle. If there are problems after completing all the linework you can then go back in and do some repairs.

Finding an Artist who has Experience with Dark Skin Can Help… Sometimes

Whether it is white ink or another color, choosing a skilled tattoo artist is key in getting a quality product. Try to stay away from those who have a specific “style” and go to the professionals who know how to do it all. By going to a tattoo artist who knows the ins and outs of all design types you are more likely to get an artist who knows more about different skin types.

Dark skin tattoo of portrait on Africa

Can You Use Colors On Dark Skin?

Absolutely! The idea that you cannot use colors on all skin tones is plain ignorant. If you skipped the video above, go back and check it out. We give you a trick to see what colors work with your skin regardless the colo

The Extras:

We also have a YouTube channel that breaks down commonly asked tattoo questions. You can find it by following this link:

Better Tattooing YouTube Channel

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