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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

Chicano 

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.

Dotwork geometric tattoo Tattoo by Kel Reid    

Blackwork

A blackwork tattoo is one done with solid black ink. No grey or white tones, just black and negative space. This style includes tribal tattoos and dates back to the beginning of tattoo history itself, but has evolved to be a popular style in modern tattooing. You’ll often see blackwork tattoos with heavy line work, almost wood-cut style, and parts of the tattoo blacked out to look like a silhouette, such as a rose with blacked out leaves. 

Ancient Polynesian tribes used blackwork tribal tattooing to communicate their identities and beliefs, and Western adaptations of blackwork have taken it to a new level of artistry. Also known as Dark Art, blackwork style tattoos often have a dark or gothic feel to them. 

gothic black work tattooTattoo By Rocky Howe

Lettering 

Lettering style tattoos are typically done in black ink. These kinds of tattoos have a comprehensive past. Ancient texts, illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, hand painted signs, and even graffiti culture have all had a hand in lettering style tattoos today.  Contemporary lettering tattoos take part of their influence from medieval calligraphy, with Gothic, Old English, and typewriter fonts seen in tattoos today. 

While lettering tattoos may seem more like a form of calligraphy than classic art, there is so much artistry and talent in a great lettering tattoo. The spacing, kerning, and every little detail is intentional and made to exemplify the art of language and the alphabet. 

American Traditional

American traditional tattooing is deeply rooted in American military and Navy history. As early as the 1930s, tattoo artists were adorning sailors in American port towns. Norman Collins, also known as Sailor Jerry, pioneered this style in Hawaii during World War II, after studying Japanese-style tattooing from the old masters. This style is seen throughout tattoo shops flash sheets today. Flash sheets were created to cater to the most popular tattoo requests from customers. They could walk into a tattoo shop, point to a design on the wall, and walk out with the tattoo an hour later. 

Snakes, skulls, pin up girls, anchors, and roses are common motifs seen in this style. With the simple colors palettes, it’s easy to simplify this style further to utilize only black ink. Using a balance between shading, line work, and skin, artists. Create beautiful, bold, and simple   designs in this style.  

Japanese Irezumi

Irezumi (meaning “inserting ink” in Japanese) can be traced back to 5000 BCE. Evidence exists of clay figurines discovered in tombs and ruins with their faces painted in representation of tattoos. These tattoos signified social status and defended against evil spirits. By the 7th century, decorative tattooing began to disappear because the Chinese government would use them as a form of punishment for acts of treason and violent criminal acts. This continued up until the beginning of the 18th century, when tattoos transformed from a punishment to a decoration. In 1827, a Japanese woodblock artist named Utagawa Kuniyoshi created full colored art prints of Japanese heroes depicted with full body tattoos. Kuiyoshi’s influence inspired a new wave of tattoos. Bodysuit tattoos became common shortly after. This new style of tattooing was known as “horimono” which comes from the Japanese word “horu” which means to engrave or puncture.    

At Diego tattoo gallery

Everyone at Diego has a unique take on black and grey tattooing. All of us create monochrome tattoos regularly, and approach the style with different opinions and techniques. 

Cari Coleman 

I primarily tattoo in bright color. Occasionally I will get a request for a black or black and gray piece. I have multiple approaches to this style

Conventional Black and Gray (graywash)

I use a soft hitting tattoo machine to lay in soft and smooth gray shading. I still use outlines, unlike portrait artists, because I am comfortable with it. The outline insures that the tattoo will stay readable over time.

Black work (only black ink) 

This style is one of my favorites to work in. Black work is accomplished by manipulating black ink into different textures. I lightly graze the skin with a small needle to create a stipple effect and use spaces of solid black or negative space to create high contrast. 

Black and gray (black ink and opaque gray ink)

When you mix black and white ink, you create an opaque gray pigment. I enjoy creating monochromatic tattoos using black and opaque gray. It is fun to create bold, non-traditional pieces with this color palette. 

In Conclusion

The techniques for these color palettes all differ greatly, as do the effects. I try to approach every tattoo from the perspective of value. It is important to create dynamic, high contrast imagery. This ensures the tattoo will be readable and stay readable over the years.  

Diana DeAugustine

I use three different techniques when tattooing black and gray. 

Gray wash

I use Silverback Ink when I tattoo with gray wash, which has four different shades of gray. Next, I build up the contrast by using brushstrokes similar to a portrait or realism technique. I use soft brushstrokes gradually making a smooth shade of contrasting grays from light to black. 

Neotraditional Opaque Gray Tones

I use Eternal Ink’s Opaque Gray set time build contrasting tones of gray. This technique is the same as color packing and blending. The inks are black and white pigment, instead of black watered down (gray wash set). 

Blackwork Stipple and Dotwork

I use Dynamic Black Ink for all of my lining and black shading. When I do blackwork tattoos, I whip shade using black ink. I’ll use a small round lining (Black Claw Needles) and graze the needle on the surface of the skin. I use soft long strokes to create a faded stipple effect. This creates a gradation of grays. I’ll also use a liner to make multiple quick dots and build up areas to appear darker. Dotwork tattoos use multiple tiny dots that build contrast. I’ll use less dots to make it look lighter. 

High contrast will make any black and grey piece better. The happy balance between your super darks to your flesh tones.