Black And Grey

One key style to note when it comes to modern tattooing are black and grey tattoos. This style uses varying shades of black ink to create the work, and can be seen in a number of different tattoo genres. There’s a surprisingly unique history behind them, and it’s very interesting to discuss. It’s becoming more and more popular to get these tattoos all around the world, whether you’re looking for a unique piece of tattoo art in Moscow, New York, Tokyo, London or somewhere else entirely.

Can a black and grey tattoo be colored in? Of course, you can’t put color over solid black but you can add color around it to have it appear as it were part of the original design. … It might not look like a tattoo that was designed to have color but the new watercolor technique would look good added to a black and gray tattoo.

In this article, we will be having a look at black and grey style in more depth, the history, the styles that use black and grey work, key interests with this style and much more.

History and Techniques

Tattoos made in variants of just one color have been around since the beginning of tattooing itself. Black was the first color ever used in tattooing as it is known today. In 2015, a body was discovered in glacial ice in the Alps, covered in 61 all black tattoos. This is currently the oldest known example of a person with tattoos, estimated to have lived around 3250 BCE. Over the years, black and grey tattooing has evolved and was popularized by a few different styles that brought black and grey tattoos into the public eye.

Black and grey tattoos have a very unique history, when compared to the other styles of tattooing. This style is also known as ‘jailhouse’ tattooing or ‘joint style’ tattooing, specifically because the style is believed to have started in prison tattooing.

Prison tattoos were often made with handmade machines and inks, and artists had to get very creative in order to be able to do them properly. Guitar strings were used as needles, tape recorder motors powered the machines and ingredients like cigarette ashes or pen ink were used to make the ink. This is particularly interesting in hindsight, as original, prehistoric tattoos (pre ancient Egypt) were made with ashes and soot. We seem to have come full circle!

These tattoos often had to be done in secret when done in prison, as many prisons will have a full on ban on inmates being allowed to tattoo. This means that the tattoos had to be quick, clean and smooth.

Outside of prison tattooing, black and grey tattoos were popularised towards the end of the 1970s and became a staple in most modern tattoo studios. They also have links to ‘chicano’ and ‘cholo’ culture. The inclusion of more traditionally artists in black and grey work means that this style has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years. It’s very popular nowadays, and it’s also quite social media friendly.

The best way to tell whether an artist is experienced in black or grey tattooing is to look at the variation in their shading. If they can achieve soft, subtle shades alongside harsher shadows, then they’ve been practicing this particular style for a lot longer and have a better understanding of what they are doing.

Black and grey tattoo work revolves around diluting black ink to achieve different shades; with a ‘wash’, of sorts. Mixing black ink with white ink to get more solid grey tones is also very common. The level of shading in black and grey tattooing is very important, as without them, the tattoos will fade, look blotchy and not hold up well in the wearer’s skin over time.

Typically, this work is done with a single needle; but this will of course vary based on the particular style and subject on the tattoo in question.

What tattoo styles use black and grey work?

Now that we’ve had a look at the key history and the techniques behind black and grey tattooing, let’s take a look at the different styles that utilise this beautiful way of working. Some styles are much more popular than others, but they all use black and grey artwork in a very unique and eye catching manner.


  • Realism

Realism Black-Gray Tattoo

When the topic of black and grey tattoos comes up, the style that people are most commonly referring to is realistic tattooing. This style focuses, unsurprisingly, around creating stunningly lifelike art work. There seems to be a competitive nature amongst the industry from what I’ve seen, based on how realistic artists can make their own work.

A common topic or subject matter for black and grey realism is portraits. Photo-realistic portraits made with black and grey tones can look incredible and convey a lot of emotion. Subject matters relating to pop culture are equally very popular: we’ve personally seen lots of people getting movie scenes or favourite characters tattooed in this style. Other popular subjects include flowers, animals, cars and bikes, mythological creatures and scenes from nature. One of the best things about realistic black and grey tattooing is how versatile it is. If you can think of the subject matter, we are sure that there will be a black and grey artist who’s suited to making your dream art a reality.


  • Old school

Old school Black-Gray Tattoo

Another key style that uses black and grey tattooing is old school tattooing, otherwise known as American traditional. This style was heavily influenced by work in the 19th century; specifically sailor and military tattoos.

Old school tattoos do look particularly striking in black and grey. The removal of colour makes them especially eye catching, and can help them stand out amongst other tattoos on the wearer due to the very dark shades.

Popular subject matters include flowers, anchors, ships, wolves, butterflies, skulls and birds. Pinups, mermaids and gypsy women are also incredibly popular subjects. This style of art has become much more popular again in recent years.


  • Japanese

Arguably one of the most visually pleasing styles, Japanese tattooing is another style that uses black and grey tattooing very effectively. Traditional Japanese tattoos, known as irezumi, use soft black and grey tones to make the art eye catching.

Interestingly, some colorful Japanese tattoos use black and grey as a background or base for a piece. This is a great technique to make a piece look much more unique and well fitted to a wearer’s skin.

In terms of subject matter, Japanese tattoos are incredibly vast and varied. Mythological creatures like dragons are incredibly popular, as are figures like geisha girls or samurai. A lot of Japanese black and grey work include natural themes like flowers, fish, animals and more.


  • Chicano

Chicano Black-Gray Tattoo

The term Chicano is an interesting one, as it was originally used as an offensive term to describe Mexican Americans. Nowadays, some people have chosen to reclaim it to empower themselves instead, and thus, a beautiful style of art has been born. It is strongly linked to Mexican American pride and community spirit.

The typical subject matters here are very beautiful and varied. There are some heavy Catholic themes, including crosses, rosary beads and Virgin Mary portraits. Pinups with thickly lined lips, bandanas and hooped earrings are also popular, as are cars and skulls. Lettering is also very common here, and it can look incredibly striking when done in black and grey. Common positions for lettering tattoos here include the chest and stomach, although face tattoos are equally as popular.


  • Neo traditional

Neo traditional Black-Gray Tattoo

The final tattoo style that we’ll be having a look at here is neo traditional tattooing. This beautiful style is an expansion on old school/American traditional tattooing, and is interestingly known quite well for using bright colours. This is not to say that this style doesn’t use black and grey work, of course- plenty of artists are fond of using this particular style for their neo traditional pieces. It can actually make them a lot more eye catching than their brightly colourful counterparts.

Common subject matters with neo traditional work include portraits of both animals and people. Natural themes like flowers, trees and crystals are equally popular, as are pop culture reference tattoos. This is a hugely popular style right now, and is being eagerly lept upon by social media.

  • Dot work and stippling

Dot work Black-Gray Tattoo

Dot work style tattoo is one of the most intricate forms of black and grey tattooing. Complicated geometric shapes are made with dots and take a lot of patience and concentration to master. Throughout history, dot work tattoos have traditionally been used for religious or cultural artwork, especially in Asian and European countries. Mandalas, lotus flowers, negative space tattoos, and religious and spiritual images are commonly created in this style. This style of tattoo has risen in popularity recently in tattoo history, gaining traction within the past ten years or so.

  • Blackwork

Blackwork Black-Gray Tattoo

A blackwork tattoo is one done with solid black ink. No grey or white tones, just black and negative space. This style includes tribal tattoos and dates back to the beginning of tattoo history itself, but has evolved to be a popular style in modern tattooing. You’ll often see blackwork tattoos with heavy line work, almost wood-cut style, and parts of the tattoo blacked out to look like a silhouette, such as a rose with blacked out leaves.

Ancient Polynesian tribes used blackwork tribal tattooing to communicate their identities and beliefs, and Western adaptations of blackwork have taken it to a new level of artistry. Also known as Dark Art, blackwork style tattoos often have a dark or gothic feel to them.

  • Lettering

Lettering Black-Gray Tattoo

Lettering style tattoos are typically done in black ink. These kinds of tattoos have a comprehensive past. Ancient texts, illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, hand painted signs, and even graffiti culture have all had a hand in lettering style tattoos today. Contemporary lettering tattoos take part of their influence from medieval calligraphy, with Gothic, Old English, and typewriter fonts seen in tattoos today.

While lettering tattoos may seem more like a form of calligraphy than classic art, there is so much artistry and talent in a great lettering tattoo. The spacing, kerning, and every little detail is intentional and made to exemplify the art of language and the alphabet.

Black and Grey tattoo ideas

Black and grey tattoos have a storied history with roots in the prison system. Motivated by their need for a creative outlet, prisoners innovated the black and grey style and tattooing process using the limited resources available to them. They tattooed their personal histories on their bodies without any color at all, often relying on ink from pens or ashes from cigarettes. Though the black and grey style was popularized among inmates, it has progressed into the tattoo mainstream. Nowadays, black and grey tattoos are a timeless form of body art, offering more versatility and wearability than vibrant color tattoos.Tattoo of Medusa with snake hair in black and grey

How, you may ask? For one thing, black and grey tattoos create cohesion among different designs, making them perfect additions to existing ink or as the basis for large-scale work like tattoo sleeves. Black and grey ink can also add timeless beauty to even the quirkiest designs, and many tattoo artists specialize in detailed black and grey work, ranging in style from realism to pop culture pieces. If you’re looking to get an eye-catching tattoo with enduring appeal, check out these enviable black and grey tattoo ideas below.

  • Black and Grey Tattoo Sleeves


Black and Grey Tattoo Sleeves

Blackwork tattoos as a full leg sleeve. Tattoo sleeves on the arms and legs can be the perfect accessory to any outfit when uncovered. With artfully decorated arms and legs, no extra accessories are needed — most body art enthusiasts agree, any t-shirt, tank top, or dress looks substantially cooler on inked skin. When you need to display a more professional appearance, tattoo sleeves can easily be covered with long shirt sleeves and pants; and for times when you’re feeling just a little edgy, you can roll up your sleeves to reveal just a peek at your ink.

Unlike tattoo sleeves inked in full color, black and grey ink is eye-catching without overwhelming the eyes. Plus, even as your sleeves fade over time, black and grey ink often maintains a lot of its boldness, which contributes to its timeless charm.

Arms and legs are also the perfect canvases for telling an intricate story in black and grey ink or acting as the backdrop to a unique single design. Whatever your style, black and grey tattoos can add permanent-but-timeless beauty to your sleeve.

  • Black and Grey Tattoos for Chest and Back

Black and Grey Tattoos for Chest and Back

Floral chest panel tattooWhile the arms and legs provide easily visible and flowing canvases for black and grey sleeve tattoos, the more expansive and flat canvas of the chest and back calls for a different style of tattoo. These designs can range from symmetrical and ornamental chest tattoos to intricate full-back displays.

The chest offers a prominent space for designs to to peek out from beneath low-cut shirts. Chest panels in black and grey can highlight the shape and structure of the pectoral muscles or breasts in a variety of styles. The chest is the perfect space for ornate displays featuring perfect symmetry as a focal point of the design. Wings and flowers are especially conducive to symmetrical designs, so tough birds and pretty florals are just a couple examples of popular subjects for chest tattoos.

Japanese irezumi style in black and grey featuring a tiger and florals as a half-back pieceFor tattoo-lovers looking for ink that is both massive and easy to hide, the back is the ideal canvas. The back is the most expansive space on the body, making it the greatest potential canvas for any major ink you desire. With a back tattoo, you have the possibility of the design beginning at the neck and expanding downwards onto the buttocks. For this reason, the historic Japanese Irezumi tattooing style, which is often done in black and grey, makes the most efficient use of the back as a canvas; this style features cohesive designs that can span across the arms, back, neck, butt, and even onto the legs with strict outlines ending precisely where their clothing covers.

Whether you want ornamental tattoos or a design encompassing nearly half your body, black and grey tattoos have unmatched potential to give any design beauty and longevity.

Does black and grey work look good with other styles?

This is a common question, and it is safe to say that yes, black and grey tattoos do look fantastic when combined with other styles. It can take a little more thought from the artist and the customer, but the payout is definitely worth it.

As we’ve said earlier, black and grey work can look very beautiful when combined with colour work. Common styles that use this combination include Japanese tattooing, neo traditional and realistic work. Black and grey work can be a great accent for more colourful pieces, as seen in traditional Japanese irezumi tattoos.

Another style that works particularly well with black and grey tattooing is blackwork. As much as they might sound similar, these tattoo styles are actually quite different. Whereas black and grey work aims to use a wide variety of shades and soft tones, blackwork is much more harsh and focuses on solid black linework. These styles do combine very nicely, and can make very eye-catching pieces of work.

Dotwork and geometric style tattoos can also look gorgeous when combined with black and grey tattooing. we are personally a huge fan of tattoos that feature both black and grey tattooing with mandalas, as we think that they look very elegant.

A common misconception with particular styles of tattooing is that they only suit particular types of people. This simply isn’t true- all tattoos can look beautiful on all kinds of people, and black and grey tattoos are no exception. If this is a style that you’re looking into, then we would encourage you to go for it. As long as you research your studio and artist properly, we are sure that you will end up with a beautiful piece of artwork.