A tattoo is a permanent piece of art on the body that, for many people, acts as a form of self-expression. Several factors can affect the design, healing, and appearance of a tattoo. For optimal results, people with dark skin should consult a professional tattoo artist with experience tattooing their skin tone.

Tattoo art has existed for centuries across numerous cultures, with many experts agreeing that the oldest record of a human tattoo is roughly 5,300 years ago on the Tyrolean Iceman, commonly known as Ötzi. For millennia, people across the world have practiced the art of tattoos to communicate concepts and for cosmetic reasons.

Within the modern tattooing industry, it is common for people to view light skin as the default canvas, and artists may be inexperienced and misinformed on how to work with other skin tones.

Everyone’s skin tone takes ink colors differently. Although some colors may show on some skin tones more than others, with an experienced artist, colorful, bright, and intricate tattoo designs are possible for any skin tone.

This article discusses what a person with a dark skin tone may want to consider when getting a tattoo.

A person with dark skin showing the tattoos on their arm.Share on Pinterest
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The modern tattooing process involves dipping a needle in tattoo ink and penetrating the skin at a rapid rate of roughly 100 times per second. The tattoo artist places the ink 1.5 to 2 millimeters beneath the surface of the skin, in the layer of skin known as the dermis.

The skin tissue swells, then heals, then forms scar tissue. Over time, the ink particles may move deeper into the dermis, giving the tattoo a faded appearance.

This process works the same, regardless of skin tone. However, artists who are inexperienced in tattooing different skin tones may overwork the skin, believing that they need to go over certain areas several times or place the ink deeper for the pigment to show.

Some people may believe that tattooing on dark skin limits the possibilities and is more difficult. However, this belief likely stems from inexperience and a lack of understanding of different skin tones rather than the skin tone itself.

There is a great diversity in skin tones, and this is mostly influenced by people’s genetics. Skin pigmentation is mainly due to melanin, which is a substance located in the outermost layer of the skin, called the epidermis. During the tattoo process, the tattoo artist deposits ink into the dermis, which is the layer of skin below the epidermis.

The epidermis and the melanin’s pigmentation within it act as a filter, laying over the top of the tattoo. Therefore, a tattoo on a person with a light skin tone may show color more brightly. A person with dark pigmentation in their skin may have the same colors in their design, but they may appear more muted.

Darker colors — such as royal blues, dark reds, greens, and black — may show more clearly than lighter colors on dark skin. However, tattoo artists can still incorporate lighter colors to create a colorful design. For example, white ink on a dark skin tone may still be visible but heal as a slightly darker color.

An experienced tattoo artist will take notice of a person’s skin tone and may consult with them on what colors are likely to work best. Although different skin tones may show tattoo colors differently, bright, colorful tattoos are still an option for any skin tone.

Many different factors — such as size, location, and preference — can influence the design of a tattoo. However, very small and detailed designs, fine line designs, or dotted designs may not show as clearly on dark skin tones.

A tattoo stands out on a person’s skin by contrasting with their skin tone. With dark skin tones, the tattoo design may read more subtly, as there may be less contrast. Designs that are larger and have more negative space (areas with no ink) can help a tattoo show more contrast and make it clearer on a person’s skin.

Keloids are scars that form due to the skin’s exaggerated response to an injury, such as a tattoo. Keloids are more likely to form in people with dark skin tones and those with a family history of keloids.

Keloids typically have a smooth and shiny appearance, and they can grow larger than the original injury itself. If a person has a family history of keloids or is concerned about the risk of developing them after getting a tattoo, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) suggests getting a small tattoo done in a test area to see how the skin heals.

Although dark skin tones are more susceptible to keloids, scarring after a tattoo can often result from tattoo artists tattooing too deeply and overworking the skin.

People with dark skin tones may be more at risk of experiencing complications during laser tattoo removal. The process of laser removal involves high intensity lasers energy passing through the epidermis and breaking down the tattoo pigment into smaller particles, which the body then metabolizes or excretes.

The most common complications of this procedure are hypopigmentation (loss of color) or hyperpigmentation (extra color, such as darkening) of the skin. This is more likely to occur on dark skin tones due to the higher concentration of melanin in the epidermis absorbing more of the laser’s energy.

Dermatologists may use different wavelengths during the procedure and allow for longer periods between treatments to reduce the risk of these complications.

A person who wishes to get a tattoo on dark skin should find a tattoo artist with experience working on different skin tones.

There are many misconceptions about how to tattoo different skin tones, and some artists may refuse certain designs or overwork the skin due to a lack of knowledge.

To find a suitable tattoo artist, a person can:

  • Do some research and find someone who advertises themselves as experienced in tattooing dark skin tones.
  • Look for pictures of healed pieces of work. This allows the person to look for any signs of scarring or faded tattoos and see whether or not the artist has much experience tattooing people with a similar skin tone.
  • Get a consultation with the artist to talk about any concerns the person may have.
  • Find an artist who is willing to do a color test. Some artists perform color tests on hidden areas of the body to see how a color will heal on a certain skin tone.

Tattoo aftercare is a key step in ensuring that a tattoo heals properly and remains free from infection.

The process is the same for any skin tone. A person should always follow the instructions their tattoo artist gives them, but, in general, proper tattoo aftercare involves a person:

  • not removing the protective cover placed on the tattoo until their tattoo artist tells them to do so, which will usually be a few hours after they finish the tattoo
  • washing the hands thoroughly before washing the tattoo with hypoallergenic soap and warm water
  • applying a moisturizer when their tattoo artist asks them to, which will typically be within the first few days of aftercare
  • avoiding submerging the tattoo in water, other than washing it, for 3–6 weeks
  • not picking at any scabs that may form
  • protecting the tattoo from direct sunlight

If a person experiences a skin reaction such as a rash, they should contact a healthcare professional, as this may be an allergic reaction to the tattoo ink.

Learn more about how quickly tattoos heal here.

The tattooing process is the same for all people, regardless of skin tone. However, people with dark skin may have a slightly higher risk of scarring.

Many of the difficulties that may arise with tattooing dark skin typically come from inexperienced or misinformed tattoo artists. Therefore, people should search for professional artists with experience tattooing similar skin tones.

A person can discuss their concerns with these artists, and the artist should be able to consider the person’s skin tone when creating the tattoo, given that different skin tones may show designs and colors differently.

Also, people with dark skin should follow the same aftercare guidelines to ensure the optimal healing of the tattoo.