For Black and Brown people, deciding to get a tattoo often requires some in-depth research prior to going under the needle. When I got my first tattoo last year, I sifted through Google and looked through Instagram to find a well-reviewed tattoo artist who knew how to properly ink my melanated skin and showcased their work on diverse skin tones. Because the unsettling reality is, not every tattoo artist does. Even though people of color are deeply connected to tattoo history, the industry has long been shaped by racism and colorism, with many artists failing to train themselves on darker skin, omitting tattoos on melanin-rich skin from their portfolio, or turning away clients of color completely.
The Myth About Tattoos on Dark Skin Tones
While many non-Black tattoo artists have promoted this rhetoric that darker skin is harder to tattoo (particularly with color), Atlanta-based tattoo artist Kandace Layne—who got her start as an apprentice at Black-owned tattoo shop City of Ink—debunked this myth flat out. “City of Ink instilled in me that Black people can get pretty much any color. It's just how you use those colors and how those colors play out with each other,” says Layne. “There's some colors you probably would want to be more strategic with, but the idea that people of color can't get colored tattoos is just a lie.”
Layne believes that the reason many white tattoo artists have rejected tattooing darker-skinned people is tied to the idea of erasure. “When you think about tattooing, you don't think of these indigenous cultures that are virtually the originators of tattooing. They're completely left out and it's not even like those cultures are dead. They're still here,” explains Layne. “So, tattooing has really been whitewashed and that carries over into the physical too, where tattoo shops are segregated,” Layne says in reference to shops that fail to include Black tattooists on their staff.
How to Make the Tattoo Industry More Inclusive
Layne currently works at Queen Bee Tattoo Shop, an Atlanta studio that has always prioritized diversity and inclusion in their hiring process. “My boss’s tattoo shops Queen Bee, Pain and Wonder, and Virtue and Vice all have staff members of different ethnic backgrounds. This needs to become the norm. It makes clients feel more welcome.”
In order to begin to make the tattoo industry more inclusive, Layne believes there are a few things that non-Black tattoo artists and shops need to do. She says the most immediate action they can take is to make their staff more diverse. “Tattooers should aim to have diversity in their shops by hiring BIPOC and women,” she says. “Sometimes that may mean hiring people who were tattooing in unfit environments or trying to teach themselves. They could try helping these artists, or hire already established BIPOC, which there are plenty of.” Layne also added that allyship between Black and non-Black tattoo artists can manifest in other ways besides apprenticeships and hiring. “Show some support in whatever way you can. Even if you can't apprentice someone, if you see someone needing help, reach out to them. Just do something, but you have to open your circle,” she explains.
Advice for Getting Your Own Tattoo
For people of color looking to get tattooed, Layne understands how challenging it is to find an artist you trust. But she does offer this bit of advice for Black and Brown people wanting to get inked: “Make sure that you find an artist that has a style that you already like. You don't have to like everything on their page, but for the most part you should like everything that they do and they should also have different skin tones on their page.’'
Whether you’re planning your first or your next tattoo, be sure to keep Layne’s suggestions in mind. Ahead, we’ve also rounded up 15 tattoos on dark skin to give you some inspiration.
Floral Sternum Tattoo
Sternum tattoos are incredibly popular, and this colorful floral piece is a perfect source of inspiration if you're considering getting inked there. This flower tattoo was done by Layne, who specializes in geometric and henna/mehndi inspired ornamental tattoos.
Black Queens Tattoo
Done by Atlanta-based tattoo artist Danger Dave, this black ink leg tattoo pays tribute to Black female athletes Laila Ali and Serena Williams. If you scroll through Dave’s Instagram, you’ll see that he mainly uses black ink in his work. His portfolio includes a lot of portraits, tribal pieces, and tributes to Black icons including Madam C.J. Walker, Muhammad Ali, and Maya Angelou.
Floral Butterfly Tattoo
Loaded with colors ranging from orange to green, this vibrant tattoo is a beautiful example of color on brown skin. This floral tattoo adorned with Monarch butterflies was done by celebrity tattoo artist Miryam Lumpini, who has worked with stars including Keke Palmer (pictured here), Jhené Aiko, Swae Lee, and Kehlani.
Watercolor Graphic Tattoo
This blue and purple watercolor tattoo features beautiful paintbrush-like strokes. And it was done by none other than Amanda Wachob, who is credited as the pioneer of the watercolor tattoo trend.
Abstract Angel Portrait
If minimalist pieces are more your speed, consider something like this. This abstract portrait of an angel is done by Atlanta-based tattoo artist Uncle Bree, who is known for incorporating minimalism into her work.
Egyptian Lotus Flowers
This black ink Egyptian lotus flower arm sleeve was done by Toronto-based tattoo artist Brittany Randell. Randell primarily tattoos people of color and if you scroll through her feed, you'll see her portfolio includes an array of pieces ranging from beautiful portraits of Black women to floral designs.
Often recognized as a symbol of strength, good luck, loyalty, and wisdom, elephant tattoos are quite popular. This piece—done by Atlanta-based tattoo artist Kru Mackenzie—boasts an elephant decorated by red and blue watercolor-esque floral designs.
Sunset Window Tattoo
Gazing out your window to look at the sunset is always a beautiful moment. And sundown makes for an even more beautiful tattoo, as exhibited in this piece by Oregon-based tattoo artist Shannon Wolf.
Watercolor Fish Tattoo
Fish hold a multitude of meanings, ranging from good fortune to fertility. This fish tattoo by Brazilian tattoo artist Índia is incredibly vibrant, boasting bright purple and blue ink.
The purple berries and green leaves used on this tattoo pop on the client's melanin-rich skin. Brooklyn-based tattoo artist Jaz Paulino is known for creating pieces like this, featuring dainty lines and watercolor techniques.
Tree of Life Tattoo
The Tree of Life has many meanings including interconnectedness to the universe, ancestry, growth, individuality, and peace. Here, the Tree of Life is centered in a mandala.
Angela Davis Tattoo
Thie piece pays tribute to Black power icon, activist, and professor Angela Davis. Done by the UK-based HoneyBadgerTattoo, this abstract portrait also features bright pops of blue.
This lettering tattoo spells Black Lives Matter in the Wakandan alphabet. This powerful piece was done by Brooklyn-based tattoo artist Doreen Garner, who often does tattoos centering around Black culture and Black pride.
Black Woman Tattoo
This black ink portrait—done by JayBabyTattoo—depicts a beautiful Black woman. Hints of white ink can be found in this piece, which gives it an extra pop.
Spiritual and Astrological Tattoo
Los Angeles-based tattoo artist Devorah created this piece based on the astrological and spiritual signs her client loves. This hand and finger tattoo is also adorned with leafy, permanent-henna designs.