What is Blackwork style in tattooing?
History and characteristics of the different sub-styles
24 April 2023
Blackwork is one of the most diverse styles around, so it's quite challenging to explain how to execute it, under what techniques, and through what types of designs.
This style is characterised by its depth and great presence, mainly by using large amounts of pure black ink contrasted with shading techniques such as dotwork. It can range from the very minimalist to the more complex.
For all this (and more) it requires a great understanding of composition and balance between fillings and negative spaces.
But before we dive into the techniques that determine this versatile style, and to understand its current impact, we must go back in time to learn about its origins, influences and cultural impact.
Origins of the Blackwork style
Not all black tattoos are considered Blackwork, but all Blackwork tattoos are made with black ink.
Black ink tattoos have existed since this art form's birth. It's the first pigment that was used to permanently mark the skin.
Some historical mentions state that Blackwork originated with the Maori tribes of the New Zealand islands and the Tahitian tribes of French Polynesia. "Tattows" were tribal designs often laden with symbolism that represented identity, social hierarchies, achievements, ideologies and religious beliefs.
But although they existed long before, it wasn't until 1769 that they first came to light, when the English explorer James Cook travelled to Tahiti and first encountered these fascinating, unprecedented tattoos.
As with all novelties, it did not take long to attract attention and soon began to spread.
According to the historical documentation of the renowned Smithsonian Museum, it first became popular among the European working class, taking hold among sailors and coal miners.
Thus, the tradition of black ink has gradually evolved and branched out into different artistic trends, until how we know it today.
Characteristics of the Blackwork style
Despite being founded on the influence of tribes and tribal designs, Blackwork tattoos are not defined by this alone. They have evolved so much over time that today they vary depending on the artist's own style.
Even so, it has a very distinct and easily distinguishable aesthetic.
- Black ink is typically used for absolutely everything: lines, shading effects, textures, fillings.
- In general, there are no dilutions, grey wash or uniform gradients, and white is rarely used, if at all. Although, some work it differently. So, it's not definite; it varies depending on the artist's technique.
- High contrasts, saturations and skin reserves are often the protagonists.
- It prioritises well-defined, precise and mostly thick lines.
- Dotwork technique is another common factor performed by several techniques such as stippling, whip shading, pepper shading, or cross-hatching. Very interesting volume effects can be achieved through these techniques.
- In any case, it's the two-dimensional design that characterises it most, unlike styles such as Realism, which is three-dimensional.
Sub-styles of blackwork tattoos
Many motifs characterise this style. And while both symbolic and abstract patterns first built it, today, different elements make it up. All the same, the intentions behind have gone from being protective and sacred to more aesthetic and expressive.
From botany, sacred geometry and the world of insects, to gothic and even fictional characters… Blackwork style offers a world of possibilities as diverse as unique.
We could say that it's a rather open style, where each artist can find their place while developing their hallmark.
That's why, to finish describing the Blackwork style, we must venture into the different sub-styles that constitute it.
@tomastomas108 ; @brandon_crone ; @ilkimkoctattooer
Influenced by Plato's sacred geometry and Spanish textile embroidery, geometric Blackwork tattoos offer designs as intricate as striking.
From interlocking patterns that are purely decorative to the most maze-like fractals full of symbolism, this geometric branch of Blackwork truly draws the eye.
@_samrivers_tattoo ; @dino_vallely ; @raimundo_ramirez
Of great geometric aspect also but with a more rounded and ornamental appearance, this sub-style brings the influence of Mehndi tattoos, also known as Henna tattoos.
In this case, designs are symmetrical, organic, and symbolic.
The Mandala is a good example of it, an elaborated pattern that represents the macrocosm and microcosm of Hinduism and Buddhism.
@danielthegardener ; @fede.tattoos ; @rebecadewinterttt
Nature has always inspired art. Floral motifs are as popular as timeless. Whether flowers, plants, trees, fruit, vegetables or entire gardens…
These designs range from delicate and feminine (approaching even fine-line style) to pronounced and solid (like new-school style but without colours).
These designs adapt and flow with any area of the body. They are aesthetically pleasing, but often loaded with meaning. And they go well both as protagonists or to complete and unify spaces.
@_ladeh_tattoo ; @suflanda ; @_medvedev_tattoo
Stippling comes from Impressionism, an avant-garde 20th-century artistic movement distinguished by creating different effects and shapes based on the distance between dots, spots, and traces.
Both drawing and tattooing have adopted the use of dots, lines, and hatching to generate volumes, reliefs, and textures. In this sub-style, light and shadow are shaped by the quantity, closeness, and remoteness of these elements.
The shading techniques that makeup dotwork are diverse, so there's no single way to execute it. To learn more about it, take a look at our article Tattooing techniques: Dotwork.
Brush & Splatter
@danzo_tattoo ; @bo.shee ; @polinperhaps
It's a laid-back sub-style that simulates the brushstrokes and splashes often seen in oriental calligraphy or abstract painting, as in Jackson Pollock's style defined by his legendary 'Action Painting'.
As for tattooing, the execution is quite different; and in Blackwork, the colours are omitted. Still, visually, a similar effect is achieved, where a fluid, energetic and spontaneous movement is sought after.
Some artists even make their stencils in a very creative way, either using brushes, their fingers, or, at times, by throwing ink from far away to live the whole experience.
@ineepine ; @bk_tattooer
Another sub-style that seeks to be relaxed and spontaneous. Its delicate strokes resemble a sketch drawing. Its irregular lines and unfinished elements give a draft or design-in-progress effect.
This aesthetic doesn't aim for purity or perfection. It's usual to see guides or marks indicating perspectives and proportions; contrary to how it's usually done, they are included in the final design, rather than erased.
This “pencil” effect is created by thin needles, as in fine-line. However, you can also find designs with contrasting thicker lines.
The intention is to portray the creative process, and although we are now talking about Blackwork, it can be merged with distinct styles.
Another non-figurative variation on the Blackwork style. This sub-style is characterised by both symbolic and purely aesthetic elements. Occasionally, adding geometrical designs.
With the use of lines, fillings and shapes, through abstraction, we can express tangible elements such as animals or objects as well as concepts, either to evoke ideas, sensations, or stories.
It's a non-representational, subjective and freely interpretable art. It varies from artist to artist and is ideal for free-hand.
@nos_tattoos ; @goscarhove
Another ancient style that has influenced society since ancient times. Japanese tattooing also has a cultural, social and spiritual background.
It's a style full of symbolism and stories, easily recognisable by its characteristics and motifs. From mythological beings, fables and folkloric characters, to earthly elements.
Although colour is significant and plays a part in this style's representation, still, because of its two-dimensional perspectives and its unique use of negative space, it lends itself well to its Blackwork version.
Common designs include the 4 elements of nature, weather, landscapes and flowers, ornaments, numerous mythological animals, samurai, geisha, skulls, masks, demons, and kanji (Japanese lettering).
Inspired by engravings, occult sciences and mysticism, this is a stylistic branch of Blackwork that is characterised by being dark, macabre and very expressive.
It tends to portray the esoteric, strange, disturbing, magical, surreal, fantastic, supernatural… It's a style with so much presence that not everyone likes it. Only suitable for fans of dark forces and unexplained phenomena of nature.
On a technical level, it's very interesting how human body parts usually adapt organically, so it's also a good style to make it free-hand.
Among the most common motifs are many symbolisms worthy of witchcraft, classic horror characters, demons, skulls, bats… basically, everything that has a dark aura and can be classified as gothic or "Halloweenesque".
@diegotattoo ; @gromov6666 ; @chriz.letters
Although it has become popular in recent decades, this style also has an ancestral influence. There's evidence of ancient Chinese and Japanese cultures carrying lettering on their skin.
Today, there are as many possibilities as calligraphies. And you can find from the simplest and most delicate cursives to the most elaborate and complex letters.
Lettering can be classified into several styles, but now we'll focus on Blackwork, where the calligraphy is solid, robust, and entirely black.
From imprint aspects to engraved looks, most have medieval or gothic inspiration and are so complex that even get difficult to read.
Special mention: manga, anime, comic and cartoon
There's a lot of cult around comics, manga, and cartoons. Therefore, it's common to find tattoos that depict either a particular scene or character.
And as black ink's nature not only makes anyone fall in love with it but also looks good on any skin, within Blackwork we can find endless tributes to these worlds.
There's so much to explore that it wouldn't fit all in. Click here if you want to know more about Manga, anime, and tattoos.
Such different results can come up from this style, that we couldn't describe it in a few words. So, we'd better express it with visual examples.
Bonus: new-school & neo-tradi
@madman_tattoo ; @_annabellemeister ; @leo.branco.tattoo
The same goes for these two very characteristic and popular styles; they can also be executed entirely in black ink.
They share some similarities, and that's why they are often confused. Broadly speaking, they both have the same fundamentals of traditional American tattooing regarding the black line as the skeleton. But in terms of techniques, motifs and details, there are a few differences.
If you're interested in learning more about these styles, here you can check out the particularities of each one: Neo-Traditional Tattoos, and New School Tattoos.
The great versatility of both styles is best reflected in their colour version, still, they adapt very well to Blackwork.
Shall we see some examples?
@green.vesper ; @kike.esteras ; @charlytattoo ; @emily_rose_murray ; @hannaflowers_tattoos
Should you specialise in Blackwork style?
As you may have noticed, Blackwork is a very broad, versatile and permissive style. We could say that it's ideal for anyone who wants to focus on a style that doesn't confine them too much.
But this freedom has its drawbacks…
In a way, it can also be a double-edged sword because, given so many possibilities and flexibility, you need to communicate well with your client and establish a good dialogue to meet their expectations. Not to mention how it may affect your decisions as to how you want your art to look.
A good way to find it out is by digging into your personal preferences and trying things out until you find what works best for you. Have you seen this article? How to create your tattoo style?. There we guide you on the matter.
Either way, it's still a very beneficial style when it comes to investing in materials, creating your own designs and practising techniques that are as interesting as challenging.
So, if you like this aesthetic, and you feel it suits you, give it a try and unleash your creativity, as Blackwork is perfect for it.
Did you know Blackwork tattooing? It is undoubtedly one of the most suitable styles to learn how to tattoo. These are the styles you should avoid as a beginner.
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