How to make a solid black tattoo VERY black. Is it the ink?

Arcata, Humboldt Co. CA


How to make a solid black tattoo VERY black. Is it the ink?


All of this discussion about which ink is better PRESUMES many facts. Presuming that a tattooer is doing everything properly to make a tattoo solid black and not spotty/gray/light, and that every ink goes in the same way with the same tools and the same techniques. The vast majority of tattooers today seem to have never done a proper apprenticeship to a tattooer with traditional training. One of those traditional skills one would learn is that different inks require different tools/techniques to put in properly. Most tattooers use different machines for linework vs. shading, right? How many are using a machine set up solely for putting in black ink solidly? How many are using flats or stacked mags vs. staggered mags?

The simple math is "how much black pigment is being put into each square millimeter and more importantly, how deep is the pigment coverage?", since SOLID black ink that's not in very deeply WILL show the brightness of skin through it. People always ask "which ink to use to actually make the tattoo black?", rather than "how do I make a solid black tattoo VERY black?"

How many solid black tattoos have you done with either to have such an opinion? Did you take the time to determine the best way to work each ink, or do you "tattoo the way you tattoo and this ink didn't work well"?

Different inks (if, in fact, they actually ARE different, and not identical inks sold by different suppliers as often happens) often require finding the right "combination" for putting each differently formulated ink (texture, fluidity, particulate size in suspension, liquid binder, pigment content, etc.). Some inks are made of larger particulate pigment- this ink will be darker close to the surface, but won't penetrate very deeply since the tip of a long-taper needle is actually larger than most of the pigment particles. These inks require a MEDIUM taper needle. Some inks seem to go in better with a faster stroke or harder impact. Some want the opposite. EXPERIMENT!

Figure out how it wants to be put in and put it in that way. Many inks have a lower pigment content, and these need to be put in more patiently, perhaps with a slightly faster running machine, since each stroke of the machine is putting less pigment into the skin by definition (or discarded completely for anything except dilute washes). If I take the time to find the right machine, running the right way, with the right taper needles, I've been able to tattoo with just about ANY black ink, including using "tribal" black to do gray-work as well as linework (just thin it out as needed- you get the same ink by double-boiling straight India ink to 50% its original volume).

The most common problems with "tribal" black tattooing I've seen in 25 years tattooing, are threefold....... and presuming the tattooer has been taught how to tattoo properly, it STILL isn't the ink that's at fault-

a) it seems to be that tattooers get impatient, hurried, bored, disinterested, or whatnot when working large fields of solid black. They bid a tattoo at “X” dollars, start nice and slow to get a solid black field, then realize they're running way behind, either other customers with appointments, or behind the money they asked for the tattoo (and anyone who doesn't think MANY tattooers "hurry up" if they've underbid, is kidding themselves. I've seen it WAY too many times). They also sometimes do this without being aware of it, gradually increasing the pattern size they tattoo with each stroke of the machine, until they're doing the same work to cover an area twice or three times as large as the same pattern was in the first minutes of filling in the tattoo.

b) I've also seen tattooers get lazy about needle angle when they've been working an area for a while. Keep it consistently at a low angle with the needles out a bit further and a longer stroke to compensate for the angle's naturally shallower track. Too many tattooers try to do solid black with their tattoo machines almost perpendicular to the skin. Imagine a cross-section of the skin as the machine moves past at a low angle vs. a very steep angle. You get MUCH darker, multiple layers of ink with the low angle, and only "a whole bunch of dots really close together to make it black" with the steep angle, which is the PRIMARY reason one tattoo will look darker than another, with all other things being equal.

And lastly, I've seen this more than any other mistake in doing large blackwork-

c) when setting up, many tattooers set one or more large ink caps for such work, rather than many small ones. This makes sense on the surface, but once you've been working solid black for half an hour, dipping as many as a hundred or more times in that half hour, blood products contaminate the ink supply, both diluting the ink in the tub AND adding coagulants that cause the ink to thicken considerably, and the pigment to bind into blocks too large to easily enter the skin during the tattooing practice. By the time you've been using the same ink pot for forty-five minutes, you can see strings of ink follow the tip of the tube when you pull it out of the cap as the ink is coagulated enough to change the viscosity considerably. If I'm tattooing a forearm or half-sleeve in "tribal" black, I set out sometimes fifteen or twenty SMALL ink caps, filled with ink, and by the time they're HALF empty, they're typically contaminated enough that I move to the next. Think about how little ink really is used before being contaminated, and why using a large ink cap fools the tattooer into thinking he/she's tattooing with the same ink they started with.....

Trevor Marshall of New Zealand, famous for his VERY large solid black (and sometimes patterned with gray) "tribal" work, told me once that he uses a "four needle FLAT with India ink" for doing large tribal work, because there is NO WAY to "try to hurry up and get lazy" with a needle group so small. Yes, his customers paid by the hour, but I'm not sure they weren't getting a better deal than with most tattooers, who will try to use a large needle group which leaves an area looking solid quickly, which then heals in a very uneven surface density.

I've looked at BLACK "tribal" tattoos and asked the tattooer "what ink did you use?" many, many times over the years (10 years on the international tattoo convention circuit and lots of guest spot work), as I'm always curious about such things when I see a particularly well done tattoo. The most common answer I've heard when asking "which black ink did you use?" for exceptionally black "tribal" work is....... drum roll, please.......... "Pelikan India Ink". Second most frequent is "Talens India Ink", third is a bit up in the air, but "National" and "Starbrite" are both less common but often enough.

Hope some of this helps.....