Black and Gray tattoos are one of the most popular and distinguishable choices in the industry. Rather than having their own exclusive style, Black and Gray is a system of shading and an absence of colour, qualities that can be incorporated into any style from realism to traditional.
Typically, Black and Gray tattoos are executed with a single needle and varying shades of black, with white used for intense highlights and contrast. The black ink is diluted with distilled water to create an almost faded, washed out look which can be built upon by layering the ink. Depth and texture are achieved by building on the saturation of the black ink, aiding the artist in creating a 3-dimensional image and is an especially helpful technique when creating life like portraits. Black and Gray tattoos are known to stand the test of time, having a crisper look for longer and are less subjected to fading in comparison to color tattoos.
Although Black and Gray tattoos don’t have a specific style attached to it, realism tattoos are considered one of the most popular choices. When trying to catch the picture-perfect likeness of a photo and transfer that image to skin, there is a risk of the 3-dimensional effect to be lost in translation. That is why, experienced and professional tattoo artists, will exceedingly plan out where the shading and contouring has to go to create that brilliant 3D image. Often times, stencils look like a road map and is a confusing concept to a client. However, to an artist, this is the best method to creating a type of chart or diagram, with exceptional detail, to understand which places need to be shaded darker and which areas need white ink to create a striking contrast to really make the image pop. This is the ultimate challenge with realism tattooing.
Black and Gray didn’t always have that name and prestigious status within the tattoo world. It was initially referred to as “Jailhouse Tattooing” due to its surge of popularity in prison in the 70s. Without having the proper colors and equipment, criminals would use guitar strings and motors from cassette players to makeshift a bootleg tattoo machine. Ink was created from shoe polish, pen ink or even cigarette ash, all of which limited the inmates to black ink.
Tattooing fellow inmates was considered illegal, so all the work had to be done in privacy and secrecy. Despite being extremely limited when it came to tools, equipment and a hygienic environment, inmates were able to create beautiful artwork. The tattoo imagery you chose would, essentially, tell your whole backstory and align you with a certain faction within the prison. Chicano imagery, usually religious or patriotic in nature, were extremely popular at the time. The Virgin Mary and Jesus were both iconic symbols to tattoo on a fellow believer. On the other side of the spectrum, swastikas and other racist, fascist symbols were a prevalent image, showing your dedication to the Aryan Brotherhood. Rather than an expression of your artistic self, prison tattoos were a way to inform authorities and fellow inmates of your status within the prison and was used as a method of intimidation.
Sometime in the late 70s or early 80s, the external tattoo community took notice of the popularized “Jailhouse” style and the detailed fine-line method of tattooing. It was around this time that Mark Mahoney began tattooing Black and Gray pieces and practicing his fine-line skills. With time, he became known as the “founding father” of the iconic style. Travelling the states, Mark began his tattooing career inking biker gangs in Boston, an illegal act at the time. He later migrated to New York, where he took interest in the underground punk scene. With experience and practice, Mark made a name for himself within the tattoo realm and massively popularized Black and Gray tattoos to what we know and love today.
With the rise of social media, Black and Gray has become greatly exemplified in mainstream tattooing, with many artists branching off and specializing in this art form. From the looks of many popular tattoo Instagram accounts, artists actually prefer sticking to this niche and clients love the simplicity in effortless outline tattoos or the fine line work and intricate details of realism. Black and Gray, for many, is a classic, timeless statement and an excellent investment, where longevity and creativity is concerned.