Getting Dark: Techniques for a Better Black and Gray
Black and Grey tattoos are timeless and versatile, lending themselves to almost every style of tattooing when executed well.
The thing is, executing a black and grey tattoo well can be pretty hard (to put it lightly). How many times have I finished a black and grey, been super happy with the result (or so I'd have myself think in the moment) only to have my self-esteem completely crushed after zooming in to inspect all of the details on my phone later that night while trying to narrow down 50 shots to one post-worthy photograph, ultimately deciding I should just burn my phone and quit tattooing?
The truth is, way too many times. I'd wrap up a grueling piece to which I spent hours on and go home to pick it apart to the point that all I was able to see in the piece were mag marks or a lack of contrast when I intended for it to be striking and buttery smooth. The worst was seeing the healed piece later, and finding that the grey that I used as my dark tone healed out to be almost identical to my mid tone, which was way too close to my light tone, making everything look washed out and just..so grey.
I’ll give you the rundown of what I've figured out for my process over the years to help get your black and grays to heal the way that you want them to. By no means do I expect my methods to work for everyone, but at the very list it might help you come up with your own techniques for black and grey tattoos.
You can use pre-made grey washes if it's what you're comfortable with. If you're happy with the results you're getting then great - keep it going. You'll always have consistency with pre-made washes and you won't have to work around time variations in a multi-session piece or a touch-up. Personally, I make my own washes for each tattoo by using a "drops" system. I set out 6 medium caps for each piece (if it's a larger tattoo I'll set out 12 and mix up two of the same of each ratio). I find it's nice to have a bit more range with the tones, as it makes your blends smoother. The bonus to this is that you don't usually have to refill your caps, which is something that you should never do unless you're using a pre-made grey wash, by the way. Refilling your caps with a custom wash will change the ratio of ink to water, and the consistency of the tones will be thrown off.
In the first cap I pour solid black. This is the most important cap; it's straight black ink and it's an absolute necessity for a black and grey piece. Have you ever heard anyone call it a "grey and grey" tattoo? No, because it's BLACK and grey. The contrast between the light tones and a decent amount of jet black will create depth and generally more visual interest. I put ten drops into the next cap, followed by 8 drops in the one after that, then 6, and 4 and finally 2. I then fill the remainder of each cap with pure distilled water from a squeeze bottle. The type of black that you use is important because you want to find something that cuts well with water. I have used many different brands and I find the ones with a thinner consistency work best. I have most recently been using Formula 23 from Intenze and it's perfect for me. It heals out super smooth and it's easy to work with. I've had success with Waverly bluebird in the past as well. Keep in mind that your grey tones will lighten 30-50% depending on your technique by the time it's healed, so if it looks too dark when it's fresh, you're probably on the right track.
It's important to use products that will help reduce redness as you're tattooing so you can see the tones as clearly as possible while you're working. A high quality glide with skin soothing ingredients is key. I stick with organic products because I hate the idea of working petroleum into the skin. Try some different varieties to see what works best for you, but I'll give you a spoiler; it probably won't be A&D. It's great to have a separate squeeze bottle of witch hazel to apply to your paper towel to help reduce redness. While we're on the subject, don't be cheap when it comes to paper towels. The softer the paper towel, the less irritation the skin undergoes while wiping.
Your technique will determine the type of needles that you use; there's no wrong way, it just depends how you tattoo. I find using a medium taper mag that works well for more peppery whip shading allows me to get a smooth black and grey as long as I work off the tips of the needle. You won't have to work off the tip as much with long taper needles because they create smaller punctures which will deposit less ink in the skin per pass, making it appear smoother. Bugpins are great for black and grey with a rotary machine because they compensate for the lack of give. I tend to lean toward using curved mags so that I don't end up with dark edges and I finish up with a round shader for small detail.
Use whichever product and technique that works best for your style and don't be afraid to try new things. There's always more than one way to accomplish the look you're going for, so be open to different methods and you'll find one that best suits you.
About the Author:
Ashley Stover has been tattooing for over 10 years
and currently works out of NiteOwl Tattoo in Tampa, Fl.