Black and Gray Tattoos: Why This Classic Style Never Disappoints


Ever since the invention of tattoos many millennia agoOpens in a new tab., the black and gray style has positioned itself as the most common type of tattoo there is. But what is it that keeps drawing people to this style over and over?

From its particular history to its practical advantages, here are some reasons why black and gray tattoos have long been a favorite among the tattoo community:

Black and Gray: Genesis of the Prison-Style

During the second half of the 20th century, inmates in American prisons took to tattooing their bodies as a way to proclaim individualityOpens in a new tab.. Armed with various objects such as guitar strings, toothbrushes, pens, and discarded parts from electronics, they built rudimentary yet functional tattooing machines.

However, unable to procure anything other than India ink (used for writing or printing) and mascara, their color options were limited to shades of black. Inmates created gray by watering down black ink.

From the ’70s to the ’80s, this now widespread black and gray tattooing style became known as joint-style or prison-style. Among these prisoners turned into tattoo artists, Freddy Negrete would soon become one of the most renowned names when it came to the black and gray style.

The Inmate Who Became a Tattoo Legend

Now considered an icon within the tattoo industry, Freddy Negrete first took to the needle in 1973. Then a self-proclaimed troubled youth, Negrete spent most of his adolescence in and out of juvenile correctional facilities.

It was during his time at one such Californian detention center that he discovered his vocation for body art. To keep inmates calm and prevent riots, staff at the facility allowed internees to practice tattooing freely.

“It was probably the most unique situation in all of the Californian prison system, where the staff actually let us tattoo. I remember we got the design of how to make a homemade tattoo machine from Susanville prison… so we started busting open all our tape players… and we got really good at it. I tattooed every day all day,” explained Negrete.

It wasn’t long before his commitment paid off. On account of his artistic skills, the talented artist got an early release from prison. Two years later, he’d land his first job as a tattoo artist at Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland. Founded by Jack Rudy and later bought by Ed Hardy, this Californian tattoo shop was one of the first to specialize in single-needle tattooing.

With the development of single-needle tattoo machines came the ability to portray greater detail, Negrete soon gained notoriety through his realistic designs.

How Ink Is Made (and Why It Matters)

Ink quality greatly impacts the future appearance of a tattoo. A tattoo made with ink that contains a high concentration of pigments will outlive any design made with low-quality or overly diluted ink.

In ancient timesOpens in a new tab., tattoo ink was created by mixing carbon, ash, and urine. Nowadays, tattoo ink gets its pigments from minerals, plastics, and plants, etc. Historically, nickel was used to extract the deep color of black tattoo ink. Other components found in black pigments are iron oxide, carbon, and logwood.

Unfortunately, around the world, little effort’s been made to regulate the production of tattoo ink. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “some inks contain pigments used in printer toner or car paint.”

Other complaints point to the use of ink contaminated with mold or bacteria, as well as the use of non-sterile water to dilute pigments. This increases the risk of contracting infections and can result in hospitalization.

In recent years, vegan tattoo ink has risen as a popular and healthier alternative to mineral-based ink. Nevertheless, it’s still important to find trustworthy tattoo shops that hold themselves (and their ink) to high-quality standards.

The Pros and Cons of Black and Gray Tattoos

For many, the greatest advantage of black and gray tattoos is clear: they age gracefully. Furthermore, less ink is required to create black and gray tattoos. Their elegant aura makes them easy on the eyes, and they mix well with any other tattoo styleOpens in a new tab.. Tattoo artists also cite the lower cost of black ink as another advantage.

Conversely, white ink is the most expensive to produce, and it usually fades the fastest. Interestingly enough, black and gray tattoos have also been known to react better to laser removalOpens in a new tab. than other ink colors. But are there any downsides to getting a black and gray tattoo?

In people with darker skin tones, more pigment concentration is required for ink to be noticeable on skin. In such cases, this translates to an increase in price as well as time spent per tattooing session. This is due to an abundance of melanin, which doesn’t affect the way skin takes up ink but does make designs harder to distinguish.

Achieving complex compositions can also be more difficult when working with black and gray ink. As a lack of vibrant color makes it harder to create pieces with a layered feel to them.

However, a skilled tattoo artist with proper training, experience, and a good grasp on color theory can easily rise above this type of obstacles.

What to Expect From the Healing Process

After getting a tattoo, the skin needs time to heal for the ink to settle properly. During the initial weeks of the healing process, scabbing and peeling usually occurs on the skin. While it might be tempting to rip it off, it can contribute to fading and inconsistent lines.

It is also important to note that clients of African descent are more prone to develop keloids, benign scars caused by an improper healing process that can expand further than the tattooed area.

To aid the healing process, tattoo artists recommend applying ointments to the skin to keep it hydrated. However, using too much product leaves the skin unable to breathe and even dilutes a tattoo’s ink. Gently washing the tattooed area, avoiding friction, and alcohol or drug consumption are also common recommendations.

Black and Gray Tattoos: a Style Made To Last

However, just because black and gray tattoos are predisposed to last longer, that doesn’t mean maintenance is not a concern.

After the initial healing process, you’ll need to keep your tattoo out of the sun at all costs. Why? While sunlight is essential for skin to produce vitamin D, constant exposure to ultraviolet rays leads to an overproduction of melanin. This not only logically results in a tan, but also damages skin cells.

When repetitive, such a process will make a tattoo fade more drastically, no matter the color of its ink. Consequently, this is why applying sunscreen and moisturizer every couple of hours when exposed to outer elements is a must.

Nevertheless, always expect some amount of fading as time progresses. Moreover, as skin ages and loses its elasticity, a tattoo can move from its original placement. Weight loss also contributes to a change in appearance.

Furthermore, while the frequency of touch-ups varies greatly depending on size, style, and lifestyle, you’ll be glad to know black and gray tattoos typically require the least amount of them. Some tattoo shops even vouch for their black and gray tattoos going for over a decade before needing any touch-ups.

In a nutshell, the consistent popularity of black and gray tattoos is not at all a surprising feat when taking into consideration how much more convenient it is to produce black ink than its colorful counterparts.

Whether it be their durability, esthetic, or rich history, the benefits of black and gray are many while its drawbacks seem little to none. So, no matter how much the tattoo industry might change in the future, one thing is clear: black and gray tattoos are here to stay.

32 Black and Gray Tattoo Examples

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