Everything (Yes, Really) You Need to Know About Tattooing Dark Skin

·7 min read

Most people decide they want to get inked, and then immediately start scrolling through IG to find an artist and design they love (I'm currently obsessed with the tiny tattoo trend, BTW). But for people with dark skin tones, this step can end up raising some pretty serious concerns. Just take a quick scroll through any tattoo inspo page, it might be a while before you see a tattoo on dark skin. In fact, you might not see one at all. And it’s no secret that this lack of representation can make people of color question if the tattoo they want—or any tattoo at all—is even possible for their skin tone.

The internet doesn’t really do much to clear anything up either—your Google search results will probs have you digging through conflicting info from wannabe experts, leaving you with mental whiplash. So what is the truth *Oprah Winfrey voice* about tattoos for dark skin? To help set the record straight, I reached out to dermatologist Joyce I. Imahiyerobo-Ip, MD, Atlanta-based tattoo artist Debbi Snax, and Tann Parker, Brooklyn based tattoo consultant and founder of Ink the Diaspora, to get all the deets on tattoos for dark skin. Ahead, all the need-to-know info plus the best tattoo designs to try right now.

Can you tattoo on dark skin?

Yes, you can absolutely tattoo on dark skin. There are just a few differences in tattooing dark skin tones vs. light skin tones—kinda like how there are differences in styling curly hair vs. straight hair. But when it comes to the overall structure and makeup of the skin, everyone is the same regardless of skin tone, says Dr. Ip.

Quick bio lesson: There are three layers to the skin—the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous fat (aka the jiggly stuff right underneath the surface). In the epidermis, there are pigmented cells called melanocytes, and everyone (yes, everyone, regardless of how light or dark you are) has the same number of them swimming around in their body. Melanocytes produce melanosomes, and that’s what determines skin color, says Dr. Ip. People of color produce more amounts of melanosomes, giving their skin a different shade. So the whole idea that people with darker skin tones have “tougher” or “thicker” skin, making it more difficult to tattoo? It’s rooted in racist stereotypes, says Parker.

Because tattooing has traditionally been a white-and-cis-male-dominated space, Snax adds, there’s a ton of intimidation when it comes to tattooing dark skin. But the only difference between navigating tattooing different skin tones is just having the knowledge to do so. According to Parker, being a skilled tattoo artist means you know how to tattoo on all skin tones—not just lighter ones. And with that, let’s unpack a few of the most common myths and answer some of the most asked questions about tattooing darker skin tones:

What colors can be tattooed on dark skin?

A lot people think people with darker skin tones can't get color tattoos, and this is completely false. Parker says this is a blanket statement that’s gained traction because of the lack of skill of many tattoo artists. “A lot of artists are like, ‘Oh, I’ve tried it before and it just didn’t look right, so it must not work,’” says Parker. “It’s actually not the skin that’s the problem—it’s the artist. They don’t understand skin and tattooing.”

It’s all about having an understanding of how color works when it comes to deeper skin tones, says Snax. So, yes, color tattoos will show up on dark skin tones. Certain colors pop on different skin tones (Snax loves using earth-tone shades on some of her clients), and it’s up to the artists to acquire that skill set instead of giving shady excuses.

Can tattoo artists do fine-line designs on people with darker skin tones?

Fine-line designs are thin—and because people think that they need to be tougher when tattooing dark skin in order for the lines to show up, they think this delicate style isn’t possible to achieve on deep skin tones. But this isn’t true at all, says Parker. In fact, some tattoo artists are way too aggressive during the inking process, they add.

For example, an artist might do the first line, not see it right away, and then think that they have to go over the line two or three more times, when that’s really not the case. “It’s about taking your time to understand what you’re actually doing and giving the skin time to react,” Parker says.

Do people with darker skin tones scar easily from tattoos?

Nope. The scarring issue has more to do with the overcompensation of artists when tattooing dark-skinned clients than the skin tone itself. Some artists have a tendency to run their machines higher (again, under the guise that they have “tougher skin”), which causes some major (and unnecessary) damage. “It’s not that the tattoo won’t heal well, it’s that you’re not applying it in a way that allows it to heal well,” says Snax.

Even though people with darker skin tones have more fibroblasts in their skin—a cell that boosts collagen production at wound sites—which predisposes them to scars and keloids, says Dr. Ip, when it comes to tattooing, those results are more likely caused by a tattoo that wasn’t applied correctly to the skin.

How do I find the right tattoo artist?

1. Read reviews. Customer feedback is invaluable when it comes to finding a good tattoo artist. So before you book an appointment, so you research and find out what other people have to say. Sites like Tattoo Parlor Reviews, Tattoo Shop Reviews, and even Yelp make it easy to get info on tattoo artists and studios in your neighborhood.

2. Check out their Instagram. Both Snax and Parker recommend checking out an artist’s IG and website to see if they have any pics of their work on dark skin tones and that they have the skill set. And stay woke—some artists are in the game purely for money instead of putting their clients first. Parker says that if the artist uses language like “tattooing all shades” and promotes racial diversity in their IG bio but you don’t see a tattoo on anyone with a dark skin tone until 20 posts down, it’s a red flag.

3. Ask to see healed photos of tattoos on dark skin. Most artists will post freshly inked tattoos on their IG, but if you want to see how the tattoo will age on your skin (and if you want to avoid deep scarring), reach out to them for pictures, says Snax.

4. Look for an artist who is patient with you and willing to put in the time. Don’t feel awkward asking all the questions—your tattoo is going to be on your body forever, so you want to make sure it’s done right. If you’re thinking of getting a color tattoo, artists can do ink swatches, says Parker, to see how different shades will heal on your skin tone. Your artist can also do stencils of tattoos so you can see how they’ll show up on your skin. It’s important that you book an appointment with someone who’s willing to take these steps to make you feel secure in your decision.

The bottom line

Being a skilled tattoo artist means you know how to tattoo on all skin tones, not just lighter ones, says Parker. It’s kind of similar to styling different hair types and textures—there are differences in what a Black person’s hair needs versus what a white person’s hair needs. But at the end of the day, it’s still hair. And can you really call yourself an expert in your field if you can’t handle any client who walks through your door?

When you’re looking for an artist for your next tattoo, do your own research to make sure they check off all the boxes. And if you hear them repeat any of the myths above, on to the next one. In the meantime, here are a few pics of stunning tattoos on dark skin to get your inspiration flowing:

1. This finger tattoo for dark skin

2. This houseplant tattoo for dark skin

3. This delicate floral tattoo for dark skin

4. This rib cage tattoo for dark skin

5. This profile tattoo for dark skin

6. This text tattoo for dark skin

7. This colorful floral tattoo for dark skin

8. This blue tattoo for dark skin

9. This cupid tattoo for dark skin

10. This portrait tattoo for dark skin

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