What to Know about Tattooing Darker Skin Tones | Painful Pleasures Community

What to Know about Tattooing Darker Skin Tones

Tattooing darker skin tones is a critical skill for any tattoo artist to have. Learn all about how to tattoo darker-skinned clients successfully in this guide.
by Danny Tress Last Updated: February 1, 2023

Tattooing clients with darker skin tones is a critical skill for any tattoo artist to have. Too often, misconceptions about tattooing dark skin have stopped artists from booking more diverse clientele. But you can create incredible tattoos on any skin tone with a little practice and education. So, when considering how to tattoo darker skin tones, there are several key factors to bear in mind.  


Floral hip tattoo by Kandace Layne on black client

Ornamental tattoo by artist Kandace Layne @kandacelayne

When tattooing someone with a darker skin tone, their choice and personal desires obviously play a huge role. However, it’s important to establish realistic expectations about certain styles and subject matter. Specific styles and subjects become slightly more limited the darker your client’s skin tone is. 

So, first thing’s first: determine your client’s skin tone. A quick way to identify your client’s skin tone is by using the Fitzpatrick Scale, which designates skin tones on a scale of 1 to 6. Bear in mind, this small scale doesn’t account for every skin tone – that would be impossible. Nevertheless, it’s good as a reference point. You can learn more about the Fitzpatrick Skin Tone Scale in our blog here.


Large-scale black and gray snake tattoo on a black client.

Snake and floral tattoo by artist Debbi Snax @snaxink

Once you’ve figured out your client’s skin tone, you can consider what styles and subject matter would be most suitable for them. 

Overall, tattoo styles that show up more effectively on darker skin tones tend to be bolder, darker, and have clear legibility. Similarly, subjects that stand out well on darker skin tones tend to be simple and easy to “read” (e.g., lots of subjects found in traditional tattoos like roses, skulls, eyes, anchors, etc).  

The following styles can show up outstandingly on darker skin tones: 

  • Black and grey traditional and neotraditional 
  • Color traditional and neotraditional 
  • Tribal and Polynesian 

On the other hand, the following styles may not show up as well on darker skin tones: 

  • Black and grey realism 
  • Color realism 
  • Illustrative realism 

These styles tend to be less effective because they have more subtle details in very concentrated areas. They also often include a more complex visual subject. 

We’ll talk more about detail, boldness, and establishing effective contrast later in this blog. 

A Note on Size 

No matter what style and subject you and your client decide on, making the tattoo as large as it can be (without ruining the design) is always a good choice. Larger tattoos have more breathing room and allow more details to shine through with better visibility. This is true for any skin tone, but most especially for darker-skinned clients. 


Arm tattoo on black client by tattoo artist Oba Jackson

“The Seer” tattoo by artist Oba Jackson @omoori


Black ink shows up optimally on all dark skin tones. So, if you’re performing a black and gray tattoo, this step is less important. However, if you’re performing a color tattoo, knowing your client’s undertone is critical. Skin undertones are a little more challenging to identify than skin tone. Your client’s undertone will either be cool, warm, or neutral. 

Clients with cool undertones have purplish or blueish veins. On the other hand, clients with warm undertones have green veins. And people with neutral undertones often have a mix of the two. Moreover, clients with cool undertones burn easily in the sun, while clients with warm undertones tend to tan, brown, or otherwise darken after a trip to the beach. 

You can also identify your client’s undertone by holding up a white sheet of paper to their skin. If, by comparison, your client’s skin looks yellowish, their undertone is warm. They have a cool undertone if their skin looks pinkish by comparison. 

It’s especially critical to know your client’s undertone if you’re performing a color tattoo. Their undertone will directly influence which ink colors you choose. For instance, if your client has a warm, reddish undertone, and you tattoo them with a complementary color, the colors will neutralize and not heal to the true color you’re looking for.  

Conduct a Color Test

Screenshot of a post by Black Rabbit Tattoo Shop showing a color test on a black person's arm

Promotional post for color test offerings made in 2020 by artist Kimberly Graziano @bunnymachine at Black Rabbit Tattoo Shop @black_rabbit_tattoos


Oftentimes, knowing your client’s undertone isn’t enough to predict exactly how a certain tattoo ink will show up on their skin. Additionally, you need to keep the value of your color options in mind when choosing ink for your client. If you choose a color with a value that’s lighter than your client’s skin, for instance, it won’t heal well over time. We’ll talk a little more about value later on in this blog. 

As a resolution to guesswork, conduct a quick color test with your client’s permission. This involves tattooing a series of dots or lines on your client’s skin. After giving the trial tattoo 2–4 weeks to heal properly, you can clearly see which colors show up effectively and which do not. From there, you can decide on the best color options before proceeding with a fully designed color tattoo.

Choose an Appropriate Stencil Color  

Figuring out your client’s undertone can also help you choose the right stencil color. You can find tattoo stencil paper in green, purple, red, and blue varieties. Many tattoo artists find that green has excellent visibility on dark skin tones.  

Nevertheless, you may have to try a few different stencil colors before you determine the right one for your client. But making sure they can clearly see their stencil is mutually beneficial: your client will be able to see exactly how the outline of their tattoo looks, and you’ll be able to tattoo with better visibility. 


Spiderman chest tattoo by Rodney Savage on a black client

Spiderman tattoo by artist Rodney Savage @nothumantats

Even though black and gray tattoos are a little less complicated than colorwork, you’ll still want to make sure you’re reaching for the right pigments. 

To that end, you can also test different graywashes on your client’s skin to see how well they show up. This is important, too, because you want to make sure your value range is right for your client’s skin. If you use a graywash ink that’s lighter than your client’s skin tone… well, it’s not going to show up. As a general rule, all black and graywash inks in your lineup should be darker than your client’s skin tone. 

Darker Values = Better Contrast 

The darker someone’s skin tone is, the more dramatic you want the contrast to be. Better contrast improves the tattoo’s “readability.” So, how do you do that? Create high contrast with lots of negative space and lots of dark, bolder, dramatic tones.  

You can also establish contrast by creating a dark background. To do this, pack in rich black color in the background of the tattoo, and let the foreground be much lighter, using a lot of negative space and some shading. This could look like a rose with un-colored, lightly shaded petals on top of rich, deep blackwork. Be sure not to shade too much in that negative space – it can muddy the design and ruin the tattoo’s readability.  

A Note on White Ink 

Some artists believe that white ink will show up well on dark skin tones… but that isn’t the case. White tattoo ink doesn’t saturate nearly as well as black tattoo ink. Moreover, it fades quickly on all skin tones, most especially black and brown. Plus, as mentioned above: the value of white is lighter than your dark-skinned client’s skin tone, so, by principle, it’s not going to show up well. 


One extremely common misconception about tattooing darker skin is that it doesn’t heal well. In fact, some folks claim darker skin is more likely to develop keloid scars or react poorly to tattooing. This is a total myth. 

Developing keloid scars is not synonymous with skin color and tone. That can happen to anyone. As for the rumor about darker skin healing more poorly? Well, that can be attributed to a large number of factors. But particularly when it comes to darker skin tones, this is usually the result of tattoo artists overworking the skin.  

 Artists who don’t have a lot of experience tattooing darker skin often accidentally work an area (or the whole tattoo) on a dark-skinned client. This is usually in an effort to make the tattoo stand out more boldly and have more contrast. Consequently, clients can develop scarring, keloids, or just have a bad aftercare experience. Simply be sure to choose the right pigments, values, stencil color, and design for your client. There’s no need to overwork or traumatize the skin to try and improve the tattoo’s visibility. 


If you don’t already have experience tattooing real dark skin, using practice skins is a helpful place to start. A Pound of Flesh tattooable practice skins come in a variety of Fitzpatrick skin tones, so you can try your hand at more diverse surfaces. Not only is this great for practice, it’s also great for your 3D portfolio. Black and brown clientele will see that you’re capable of tattooing their skin tones effectively and be more likely to book you.   

As one final note, be sure to share your tattoos on Instagram, most especially on darker skin tones. Oftentimes, dark-skinned clients are underrepresented on social media, which can deter clients from booking appointments. Sometimes, this underrepresentation is an inadvertent result of overly edited photos, which can alter the look of your client’s skin (and tattoo). So, keep your photos as true to life as possible. Greater representation leads to a more diverse and well-rounded industry.  

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