Black and Grey Tattoos- The Modern Monochrome

Tattoos made in variants of just one color have been around since the beginning of tattooing itself. Black was the first color ever used in tattooing as it is known today. In 2015, a body was discovered in glacial ice in the Alps, covered in 61 all black tattoos. This is currently the oldest known example of a person with tattoos, estimated to have lived around 3250 BCE. Over the years, black and grey tattooing has evolved and was popularized by a few different styles that brought black and grey tattoos into the public eye.

Portraiture and Photorealism

Possibly the first style that comes to mind when you talk about black and grey tattoos is photorealism. This style of tattooing was inspired by the Realism Art Movement which began in France in the 1850s. The point of this style was to reject the ideas of Romanticism at the time. It focused less on exaggeration and drama and more on common objects, ordinary people, and everyday situations. The goal was to capture the artistry in the day-to-day, taking time to observe the natural world and represent it as accurately as possible. 

In tattooing, this style utilizes shading and fine lines over heavy line work. Black and grey photorealism tattooing uses black ink with different levels of dilution to create different values of grey. Sometimes, white or opaque grey ink is used as well. With this, the artist is able to  represent the different shades of color  

Portrait by Marissa Gray:Black and grey portrait of a lady face


Roses, Virgin Mary’s, women, cars, and rosaries come to mind when thinking about Chicano style tattooing. This style has deep historical roots and powerful philosophical and political background, and what makes it so popular is the history behind it. 

From the Mexican Revolution to the Pachuco culture of the 1940s, sociopolitical artwork formed the groundwork for modern Chicano tattooing. The prison culture of Los Angeles, which was a byproduct of xenophobic societal forces in migrant people, was were this art style developed. Inmates would build homemade tattoo machines and use black ink, the only color available at the time, to depict the scenes they knew best and tell their unique stories. Shops like Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland, and artists like Freddy Negrete, helped to push the style to the mainstream of tattoo culture, where it continues to grow today. 

Prison Style

With some overlap into Chicano style, prison style tattoo is an umbrella term for the genre of tattooing typically created with homemade tattoo machines in prisons, usually monochrome in color. American and Russian prisoners may convey gang membership, code, or secret meanings for their origin or criminal deeds. This style of tattooing is typically improvisational in nature. Tattoo machines are made using found materials such as mechanical pencils, magnets, radio transistors, staples, and guitar strings. Ink is typically made using pens, melted plastic, or soot mixed with shampoo. 

Within this style are common motifs, which symbolize different meanings. A teardrop tattooed under someone’s eye usually represents that the wearer has killed someone, while three dots in a triangle stand for “mi vida loca” or “my crazy life” and represent ties to the Mexican Mafia.  

Dot work and stippling

Dot work style tattoo is one of the most intricate forms of black and grey tattooing. Complicated geometric shapes are made with dots and take a lot of patience and concentration to master. Throughout history, dot work tattoos have traditionally been used for religious or cultural artwork, especially in Asian and European countries. Mandalas, lotus flowers, negative space tattoos, and religious and spiritual images are commonly created in this style. This style of tattoo has risen in popularity recently in tattoo history, gaining traction within the past ten years or so.