Hot! Tattoo Art 101—The Power of Color


By Madame Lazonga

In my shop, the subject of darker skin and the use of color comes up quite a bit. I often find myself in conversations with darker-skinned people about certain colors and how they will look on their skin. Over many years, I have come up with ways to help people understand how tattoo colors work and what can be best for one’s personal skin tone.



I find it very helpful to point out that tattoo color is like a transparency. If you take a transparent piece of colored plastic and place it over your skin, this will give you a general idea of how the color will look as a finished product on your skin. We need to remember that the colors we put under the skin are seen through the transparent tone of the client’s skin. That’s the concept that some people find hard to understand and expect that all tattoo colors are opaque and will look the same on everyone. Not true.

What I’ve discovered is that certain colors will look washed out on darker skin. If the person has a yellowish skin tone, the warmer colors, especially yellows and oranges, will be very dull. The way to help compensate for this is to stick to the blue tones like magenta, green, blue and turquoise. I was recently tattooing a black woman and used the more orange colors for her flowers and then discovered that, after healing. they looked very washed out. I attempted the orange tones, because she was quite light-skinned, and I thought it just might work. Sometime later, I ended up going over those same areas with different tones of magenta, and the tattoo began to look vibrant again.

When you design for darker skin, usually the bolder the design, the better it will show up on the skin. Simple black tribal designs or even colored designs that are large and simple with high-contrast shading work best. Of course, the colored tattoos on darker skin won’t be as dynamic, but will tend to be soft and more subtle than the bolder tribal designs. It’s important that clients know this so they understand we are designing not only what they want, but what will ultimately look the best on their skin for the next 15 years.

In this column, I’ve included pictures of colored gels and laid them over each other to give you an idea of how colors look on different skin types. The first photo is a basic tattoo palette lineup of the color gels used. The second photo shows five basic shades of skin tone. I know they’re not perfectly realistic, but I’m just using it as a sample, so you can visually see what I’m getting at. With the third photo, I’ve started to lay over the gels, starting with the darker skin tone over the first two warm colors of red. The fourth photo is the second skin-tone color laid over the same red colors, etc. I’ve laid out all of the skin colors over every color of the rainbow, so you can get an idea of how transparent colors will look on the skin, once it is tattooed. Notice how the same tone of ink color can look drastically different, depending on the skin tone that we are working with.

Another thing to consider are the changes that even the lightest skin tones go through during the year. For example, here in Seattle, a client that comes in to get work started in December, may suddenly have very darkly tanned skin come June, especially if their job takes them outside during the beautiful months. My apprentice started a piece this past February, and, when the client came back for another session in May, she noticed that the warm colors that were once bright and bold were now much more muted and blended in with his skin. They didn’t look faded, just muted.

At first, she couldn’t figure out why there was such a difference, until she looked back at an earlier photo of the tattoo in progress and realized that he’d been out in the sun. His now-tanned skin changed the whole look of the tattoo. She and I discussed what to do to adjust for this and started developing some cool areas of background. In addition, the colors of the earlier part needed to be reworked, so the piece kept its dynamic design and did’t fade into his summer tan. She was just starting to learn these concepts and hadn’t yet had the discussion with her client about sun damage and what UV light could do to his skin and tattoo. Had she anticipated this quick and quite drastic change in skin tone due to the client’s being outside for work, she may have discussed a different color pallet with him in the beginning, and would not have had to rework the colors, now that the piece was almost finished.

I think it’s always a good idea to consult with your artist about what colors might work best with your skin tone or tones, as well as what design is best. A little thought and planning can make a big difference in the final product and result in a happy customer who will spread the word. So remember, use your SPF 45 or 50 sunscreen to protect your colors against the harmful ultraviolet rays that dramatically fade tattoos.

May all your colors stay bright.

—Your sister in tattooing
Vyvyn (Madame Lazonga), Madame Lazonga’s Tattoo, Seattle, Washington/

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