Black and Grey or Colour?

When considering a new tattoo, the colour palette will be one of the biggest decisions you have to make, as it drastically affects the visual impact of the piece.

A range of skills demonstrated by studio owner Glen Carloss


While black as a pigment has been used in tattooing since it’s beginning, black and grey realism as an art form has its origins in the tattoo machines made by 1970/80s Mexican prisoners; 'Chicanos'. The machines had one needle, and because they were only able to get black ink, (in some cases they would make their own by burning baby oil or old magazines) [1] the colour choice grew out of necessity. They were able to water the black ink down to make grey, marking the inception of the style.

The style broke into the mainstream in the 1970s in East LA, with a predominantly Mexican clientele wanting ‘la pinta’ (prison) style. [2] They would request the fine lines and soft shading that black and grey allowed for, and favoured roses and portraits. This solidified the movement as a style in it’s own right, hence black and grey as a colour scheme coming with it’s own themes and conventions and remaining popular for realistic portraits and floral tattoos to the present day.

Colour tattooing also has a long history, from the strong yellow pigments being found in the Inuit culture [3] to the limited primary colour palette of the early 1900s old school artists. More recently, colour realism as a forte has been refined by Eastern European artists, and is now an equally popular option for tattoo tropes like roses and portraits.


Both black and grey and colour tattoos can be stunning and the choice is yours, but there are some factors to consider that may affect your options. For one, generally most artists will specialise in a certain style. And the style itself can often dictate the colour choices.

For example, styles like watercolour and neo-traditional will most often (but not always) be crafted in full colour, whereas dotwork, mandala and of course black and grey realism will tend to utilise the monotone palette.

Resident Artist Luke Galvin's Neo-Traditional work

Tattoo Trivia Artist Luke Galvin's favourite inks to use are 'Mint Green' and 'Tropical Teal' by eternal ink

Dotwork Mandala by our artist Paris Pamela

Aside from stylistic colour conventions, there isn't necessarily always a 'better' option for tattoos. Your artist will usually be able to advise on what may suit your particular concept and content better, but some other points to consider include: whether you want to cover some existing work; the time you feel able to sit; the pain you can endure!

If you are looking to cover up some existing work, colour, and particularly cool colours, will cover better. Because of the nature of colour tattoos being more saturated, the coverage will be better.

Also because of the saturation of ink in colour tattoos, they tend to take a little longer to complete. With black and grey realism, you can manipulate the shading so that the light areas can be left free of ink, allowing skin tone to sit in place of lighter areas. When working with full colour, the artist will usually pack the colour onto all areas of the tattoo, so that the skin is completely covered. In the above example of Glen's two rose thigh pieces, the black and grey took between 8-9 hours to complete, whereas the colour project was more like 12 hours (this piece is also smaller).

It is worth bearing in mind that pigments will age differently. Certain parts of the body will be more susceptible to ink dropping out (areas such as fingers, elbows and other joints or skin that has a lot of contact/usage), and this can also be something to consider. For example, strong black lines will hold better than soft yellows on the hands/fingers. Your artist can advise on this also.

More diversity of skill from Glen

Tattoo Trivia Artist and studio owner Glen Carloss' most used colour ink is 'Spearmint' by Fusion


Consider any other tattoos you may have. Curate your body and think about how your art fits with each other. You may want to dedicate all of your skin to the highest quality black and grey realism, or delicately place colourful floral motifs like an organic, scattered meadow. Make an informed choice and take the related history, the conventions of the style and the ageing of the pigments into consideration to chose what is best for you. Ultimately, you may just like the look of one over the other. Or, if you want to give your artist an exciting project - let them have free reign to decide what's best!

Check our Artists page to see a select portfolio from each of them


Scroll through the gallery above to see a selection of the different styles and palettes our artists can work in

Made your decision?

Contact Us

to start the booking process!

Written by Abbie McMurray

For Ladies and Gentlemen Tattoo Studio 2018

Facts credit of

[1, 2]


  • Facebook - Grey Circle
  • Instagram - Grey Circle
Ladies and Gentlemen Tattoo Studio   |           Byfleet, Surrey                   |

Created 2018 by Ladies and Gentlemen Tattoo  Studio