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Home Tattoo Information Skin color and tattoos
Skin color and tattoos

In my attempt to educate people about their tattoo process, I often try to explain about the use of contrast in tattoo designs. Not only the contrast between colors within the tattoo design but also between tattoo and skin colors. This is never more true than in the case of tattoos on dark skin.

The first problem occurs when you are viewing flash art. Many tattoo shops have artwork displayed on their walls or in binders that allows potential clients to pick out the design they want in their skin. The majority of this art is in full color on nice bright white paper, often done in watercolors or colored pencils. While this all looks really fantastic, you have to realize that no one's skin is that white. Secondly, all tattoo pigments sit under several layers of skin so no matter how great that piece of flash looks the tattoo will never look as great.

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Let's create a simple scale from 1 to 10 where 1 is the pure white of a piece of paper and 10 is pure black. We can see how contrast works when we start assigning tonal values to skin color. A pasty white person will never have bright, paper white skin. Their skin value on our hypothetical scale will be somewhere between 2 and 3. Likewise, the darkest skin tone will never be pure black, no matter how much sun that black skin receives. At the high end it may reach a scale of 9. At left is an image of black ink on white skin. As you can see, the ink stands out clearly because of the great amount of contrast between the black ink (scale of 10) and the white skin (scale of 3). That's a value difference of 7 points.

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When you put a similar black ink tattoo on someone whose skin is darker such as a tan person or someone of Mediterranean descent (Italian, Hispanic, Greek, etc.) you see that the contrast starts to diminish. Not enough to cause a problem with tribal tattoos as shown, but certain color will cause problems such as yellows, oranges and other light colors. Looking at this on our scale we have now reduced the contrast from 3 to about 5. This is a reduction down to about a 5 point value difference between the ink color and the tanned skin.

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As skin color gets darker contrast really becomes noticeably problematic. African-American skin can range in value from 5 or 6 all the way up to a good solid 9. The sample at left is at about a 7 on our scale (a 3 point value difference between skin color and black ink). As you can see the design is not as crisp and clean as the previous samples. Subtle shades of gray also tend to become lost and careful attention needs to be made to the negative spaces of the design. Color choices have to be made with careful consideration to how it will ultimately look on such dark skin.

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Our final example is the dreaded black ink on black skin scenario. I say dreaded because too often even the customer is unaware of the difficulties involved in doing a tattoo on such dark skin. Historically aboriginal art was restricted to scarification due to the inherent nature of dark skin. With the distillation of traditions and the 'Americanization' of African-Americans, scarification is a thing of the past. Tattoos are the preferred method of body art. As you can see, the tattoo is hardly noticeable against the dark skin tone. What you can't see in this particular sample is the slightly raised sections of the tattoo where the skin was scarred by an inexperienced artist. Not only is the skin's pigment too dark it also makes the skin much more fragile.

Hopefully you have gained an understanding of how your skin color affects the overall look of your body art. Understanding the problems involved will help you make more informed choices that will work to create lasting art with fewer regrets.