The Ultimate Guide To Getting A Tattoo As A Person Of Colour

You painstakingly pick the design, choose the right artist and silently howl your way through the sitting. That’s the usual, time-honed process of getting a tattoo, right? But if you’re a person of colour, things aren’t quite so straightforward.
In the first instance you have to decide what you want from a seemingly limited range of options for your skin tone. Then you realise the artist whose work you so admire appears to only tattoo white people (from what you can see from their Instagram page, anyway). And now you can’t even tell whether their style will work on your skin. Cue frantic arm flapping and phone throwing. By now the fire you had for getting inked has subsided dramatically and you mentally file it away under 'difficult'.
But according to Amanda Rodriguez of the legendary Three Kings Tattoo in the US, who has now opened a UK branch in Deptford, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. "It’s less about what you can’t do and more about knowing how your skin differs, and finding the right style for you." With that in mind, this guide will tell you everything you need to know before you get your new ink.
Can getting a tattoo cause keloid scars?
Keloid scars can occur when skin that’s been wounded (as a result of anything from tattoos to piercings or a cut) heals, becomes raised and changes texture, sometimes appearing shiny. It is thought to be due to collagen overproduction and often affects skin of colour more. It can also be hereditary. Keloid scars take different forms, too. You might not always see the scarring at first, explains Heleena Mistry, a tattoo artist from Leicester. "Sometimes tattoos become shiny after they’ve healed and that’s when it’s been scarred. Also, if it’s taken on a blue tinge, or has little bubbles which means the ink has exploded in the skin, then it’s a sign that the needle has gone too deep," she explains.

Samuel Paul-Enahoro, a tattoo artist at Inkology in Brixton says tattooing too deep is the biggest issue for dark skin. "When artists aren’t experts in dark skin they can press too hard. Always go with somebody more established who understands how to work with different skin tones," he advises. However, if you already have a keloid or scarring, that can be tattooed over. "If you have existing scars, we can tattoo over them, and stretch marks too, just as long as they’re healed," Heleena adds. "We do a lot of work with self-harm scars where texture of the skin has become bumpy and keloidal."
What about if you like an artist but they don’t have any pictures of dark skin on their Instagram?
Half the battle is finding an artist whose work you love and figuring out whether their art works on your skin. But many don’t seem to feature people of colour on their feed – are we just not getting inked anymore? "People of colour are having tattoos," says Heleena. "But it might not fit the aesthetic of some tattoo artists' pages or look as aesthetically pleasing as they want. Taking pictures of tattoos on people of colour is harder because we react differently to tattooing, usually by swelling, rather than a bit of redness on white skin, which can be removed or filtered."
Amanda says to always drop the artist a line if you’re interested and can’t see any dark-skinned clients on their feed. "Send them a clear picture of yourself," she advises. "Once they see your skin tone, they can give you the right advice and send you pictures of their work on skin of colour to save you scrolling through their page."
Are there some tattoo styles that suit dark skin tones more than others?
Amanda, who often works in colour, says to think of your tattoo from a practical perspective. "It’s like watercolour paint on a sheet of paper. On darker paper you’ll see less colour than you would on white paper and tattooing is the same. I have light tanned skin and the brown in my skin makes tattoos look more muted. You should expect that it won’t be quite so bright."
Amanda suggests that bold black and grey tones look the best on dark skins because they’re easier to see. "Geometrical and Japanese styles also look really striking because they are based on contrast. I’d say totally avoid anything like dot work, it’s just too fine and doesn’t show up on dark skin at all."
Heleena is often asked this question, too, and suggests getting a patch test first. The artist will create a bunch of little dots in different colours (somewhere hidden, fear not) to see what the colours look like once the skin (and melanin) has healed over the colour. "Blue tattoos often fade to green on anyone with a yellow undertone, and pink could go orange too. Red can also have a brown tint, but a patch test will determine all of that and how bright the artist needs to go," she says.
Can people of colour get very fine tattoo work?
Tattoos come in trend waves. In the '00s it was stars (guilty), then it was florals, but it’s the super fine, single needle styles that are hugely popular right now. "I call these Pinterest tattoos," Samuel laughs. "Once a day somebody will come in with a Pinterest reference for a very fine tattoo, but it is doable on dark skin. I have a series on Instagram called Afreekah which is done with a larger needle, which I believe is perfect for people of colour to get a simple tattoo that shows up." But above all, listen to the artist’s advice, says Amanda. "Please don’t take it personally if they say it won’t look good. It could just fall out and disappear if it’s too fine, meaning you’ve wasted your money and you'll be disappointed."
Is tattoo aftercare the same for people of colour?
Just when you think the worst is over, then comes the soreness, the healing and the itching. "The aftercare is the same for all skin tones," explains Amanda. "Your artist will tell you how long to keep the dressing on for, so go with their advice as it differs for different tattoos." Many artists are now using a new kind of breathable film (originally designed for burn victims) which can help to heal tattoos. It can be left on for a couple of days. "We do need to moisturise our skin more though, as it is drier," says Samuel. "Cocoa butter is the best for that and it's great for healing tattoos."
As for keeping the tattoo bright and protecting against fading, SPF is still crucial, even on dark skin tones.
Where can I get more inspiration on tattoos for skin of colour?
Amanda recommends searching through different hashtags. Some of the most used are #darkskintattoos and #darkskinbodyart. Heleena also suggests @TheRoseUnderground on Instagram: a group of Canadian artists and enthusiasts who are building a community to highlight racism in the industry.
There is also a resource called @inkthediaspora on Instagram, which showcases tattoos on people of colour to help you find a style you like. "We’ve been left out of the conversation for too long," adds Heleena. "Especially as the art form came from indigenous people of colour – and that’s not fair. We're not anywhere near as limited as we think or have been told. You just have to find the right artist."

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