Tattoos Across Skin Tones

Various things can ignite tattoo inspiration. You could be inspired by local wall art, something you like in a movie or, most commonly, anything that caught your attention during doom scrolling social media.

Now, we want you to think back. How many screen-shotted inspo pics you have saved feature a range of skin tones?

So, with that in mind, let’s talk about tattoos for different skin tones.

Tattoo biology…

Here are the basics when it comes to tattoo biology which you likely have picked up.

The epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous fat (the wobbly parts) are the three layers of the skin.

The epidermis is the outermost layer of the skin, and tattoos reside in the dermis, which is the second layer down. The epidermis sheds cells constantly, whereas the dermis remains relatively static.

The tattooing process involves creating a tiny vacuum within the skin through the needle depression that draws the ink into the dermis as the needle retracts. The ink is then held in place by the cells of the dermis.

Now, let's get into the nitty-gritty details about tattoos on different skin tones.

The main thing to consider with tattooing darker skin tones is the value range (i.e. how light or dark something appears).

The less of a value range your tattoo design has, the easier it is to do on darker tonal ranges. Conversely, when you have a wider variety of values in your design, it can be challenging to tattoo onto the skin that doesn't have as much of a contrast.

However, this does not mean that it's impossible to tattoo complex designs across different skin tones. It simply takes a little bit more time and skill to execute.

Another important thing to note is that ink under darker tones will appear to change from lighter to darker values as they heal, often appearing lighter immediately after the tattoo is done and gradually gets darker as it heals.

This process is due to how tattoos heal on all skin tones. Initially, the ink sits on top of the skin when a tattoo is done. Then, as the tattoo starts to heal, the ink begins to sink down into the dermis.

The rate at which this happens varies from person to person. It is also dependent on how deep the tattoo is in the skin.

As such, touch ups can wait 6-8 weeks before being approached to see the healed tonal results and clients can be advised to keep the tattoo out of the sun for up to 6 months if possible to give the dermal layer the best chance to heal and protect that new tattoo.

According to Tann Parker (@okaythentann), a Brooklyn-based tattoo consultant and founder of Ink the Diaspora, "...being a skilled tattoo artist means you know how to tattoo on all skin tones—not just lighter ones." Complex, colour rich tattoos are possible, with the right execution.

So with all that in mind, let's discuss...

How colours are affected by skin tone

The great news is that all colours can be used across all skin tone values, just keep in mind that some colours will appear lighter than others and their value range will be impacted by the skin tone above the dermis once the ink has settled and the tattoo area heals.

For example, white ink tattoos often look more like a scar than an actual tattoo the darker the skin tonal value. This is because the contrast isn't as stark, and it can be challenging to see the tattoo when it's healed.

When choosing colours the key is to understand how colours will work when added to a deeper skin tone. Skin tone acts as a kind of ‘tint’ on a person’s tattoo. No matter how bright the colour used on it is, their skin tone will nevertheless tint over it.

Doing more complex colour schemes and value ranges will not read as easily on darker tones. Therefore, the less of a value range your design has, the easier it is to do on darker skin tones.

See below imagery sourced from Florida based artist Russell Van Schaick (@findyoursmile) to reference how a coloured tattoo could appear on different skin tones:

How are fine line tattoo designs affected?

The good news is that fine line tattoos will show up across all skin tones. However, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First of all, as we mentioned before, some inks will appear lighter on darker tonal range. This means that a black fine line tattoo might heal a bit lighter than expected and may require the client to come in for touch-ups to reach the desired contrast level. It's important to discuss expectations with them to make sure that they are comfortable working with you before getting a fine line tattoo.

Another thing to consider is to not be too aggressive in order to execute a fine line design. Artists understand that fine lines will heal differently across different skin tones, requiring the tattooist to go over 2-3 times until a line appears. After that, however, the skin can take a little time to react to the ink and develop the line, meaning you would have to go over your design a number of times causing the fine-line design to turn out thicker than requested.

This is an important factor to keep in mind for a technique that will improve with experience.

Anything to avoid?

There are a few things to avoid to ensure that a client’s tattoo heals properly and looks its best. (Generally, the things we're about to mention actually apply to all skin tones).

First of all, it should be advised to clients to avoid tattoos in areas that are prone to friction. Tattoos on hands, feet, or anywhere else that get a lot of rubbing can be more challenging to heal and may end up looking patchy.

In addition, clients should be aware that tattoos in areas exposed to a lot of sunlight will fade faster than those in covered areas and during the healing process, direct sun exposure should be avoided on a new tattoo when possible for several months after that tattoo.

What is the best way to take care of tattoos?

Again, skin tone is irrelevant when it comes to aftercare. All the usual advice you would inform a client will remain the same.

Of course, it's important to keep the tattoo clean. It will need to be regularly washed with soap and water. Swimming pools, hot tubs, and sun tanning should be avoided. Additionally, it's important to keep the tattoo moisturised with regular tattoo aftercare lotion or ointment, as well as to avoid picking or scratching at the tattoo as it heals.

If a client follows these care instructions, their tattoo should heal properly and look its best, regardless of their skin tone.

The wrap-up

The key to achieving a fantastic result on any skin tone ultimately comes down to you - the tattoo artist. Understanding how colours sit on different skin tones will make all the difference, as well as taking the time to have a realistic conversation with your client about how to achieve their desired result.

We hope you can continue to nail your designs on every client who walks through your door, and have them leave already booking their next appointment with you.