The Black & Grey Tattoo
Black & Grey Illustrative
Black and Grey Illustrative tattoos are the melting pot of tattoo styles, pulling references from many different aspects of tattooing. This style usually features bold, black outlines and realistic shading and is representative of images often found in storybooks or on art gallery canvases, hence the implied name. Often referred to as a combination of American Traditional and Realism, illustrative tattooing has become extremely popular over the years as this style continues to develop its own quirks.
Black & Grey Realism
Black and Grey Realism has gained severe popularity in recent years, with artists like Brandon Albus, Michael Perry, and Brad Doult climbing to fame for their incredible skill in this difficult style. This style of tattooing is based on the French realism art movement of the 1800s, in which designs are life-imitations. Skipping bold outlines often seen in other styles of tattooing, realism is designed with softer edges mimicking the appearance of a photograph rather than an illustration. There is still some controversy with this style, as many old-school artists claim the tattoos won’t hold up over time without bold outlines.
Black & Grey Geometric
Geometric tattooing can be seen in color work but, mostly, is found as a black and grey style. This form of tattooing features lines, shapes, and patterns—often with minimal shading. Perhaps one of the oldest forms of tattooing, geometric shape tattoos have been found on mummies dating back over 5,000 years. Some geometric tattoos expand to include elements found in nature, such as leaves and flowers. These tattoos generally use a blend of patterns and shapes to create an overall flow, rather than a single image. In some cases, these geometric designs have religious or spiritual underlying meanings.
Black & Grey Traditional
Black and Grey Traditional tattoos feature the same simple elements as the colored American traditional tattoos, however, in only shades of black. These designs usually contain essentials like sparrows, ships, skulls, and roses. This style was made popular by sailors and soldiers during war time but has continued to be a favorite among tattoo collectors to this day. This style has proven it holds up solidly as the tattoo ages, particularly in the black and grey format as this prevents color fading from being so apparent. Famed artists like Sailor Jerry, Shanghai Kate, and Mike Mahoney have catapulted this style into the history books.
Black & Grey Portraits
Similar in style to Black and Grey realism, portrait work displays soft edges and lacks the hard, thick outline featured in other styles. Portraits can include people, pets, and wild animals and are designed to be photographic replicas of the subject matter. Smooth, soft shades are the key to black and grey portrait work, making portraits one of the hardest subjects matters to tattoo. Black and grey portraits are preferred by individuals who spend frequent time in the sun, as they tolerate sun damage much more efficiently than color tattoos.
The Black and Grey Tattoo has been prevalent throughout the majority of the tattoo’s history. Created with only varying shades of the color black, this tattoo style has appeared across time and cultures—ranging from the ancient Egyptian’s first pictorial tattoos to the crusades of the English in the middle ages. Of course, it gained its most recognizable fame in the late 70s and 80s as this style became favored heavily by jailhouse prisoners.
Black and Grey is a broad-spectrum category of tattooing that encompasses multiple styles and methods of tattooing, making it as diverse as it is beautiful. These styles include realism, illustrative, traditional, Japanese, neo-traditional, blackwork, and more. In most cases, anything devoid of color falls under this grouping, although a true black and grey tattoo should contain varying shades of black and greys.
Currently, black and grey tattooing is more popular in comparison to full color, as it is believed this style holds up longer over time. This is particularly true for clients who work in the sun. UV rays are harmful to a tattoo’s appearance, causing colors to fade with prolonged exposure. While black and grey tattoos still feel the effects of the sun, their influences are less apparent than a full-color piece.
While the famed black and grey tattoos of the prison systems did not contain anything other than black ink, the black and grey tattoos of modern shops today have many different black inks, grey washes, and white ink for highlighting effects. Today, artists have a plethora of manufactured black and grey ink shades to work with, allowing these tattoos to grow in depth and realistic appearances. Some artists prefer to mix their own grey and black tones by watering down one black ink with distilled water or white ink. The early days of black and grey tattooing, however, often used ink created from elements such as ash and soot to create the black tones.
Black and grey tattooing has often been thought to originate in prisons in the 1970s and 80s, however, this broad-spectrum category of tattooing began long before the decade of tumultuous prisons. Preserved bodies over 5,000 years old have been unearthed with simple black and grey tattoos featuring geometric designs and outlines of animals such as rams and bulls. These simple designs showed crude shading and bold outlines, which lasted through the ages on their heavily safeguarded skin. Ancient Egyptian concubines used to tattoo black and grey images of the God Bes, a not-so-attractive deity, on their thighs as he was thought to protect them from unwanted suitors or pregnancies. The Crusader Knights of the Middle Ages often came home from their travels with religious imagery embedded in their skin, plastering their faith across their bodies in audacious black ink. Those in tribal communities decorated their bodies with indigenous designs in bold, black patterns for thousands of years; while Ancient Roman and Greek governments used simple black ink tattoos to punish their criminals and label their slaves as far back as 700 BC. And, of course, let’s not forget about Captain James Cook and his crew – who traveled the seas in the 1700s only to return with bold, black indelible ink decorating their bodies. Looking back through history, black and grey tattooing could be considered the oldest style in the industry to date, with its roots in just about every culture and country across the world.
When it comes to talking about styles, black and grey is regularly used to define any form of tattooing which is devoid of color. Generally, this style includes varying shades of black and grey but in some respects can be simply one shade of black, such as in black work or fine line tattooing. Other styles, such as realism and portrait work, require many shades of black and grey, mixed with some white highlights, to create a soft, multifaceted appearance.
During the primitive days of black and grey tattooing, ink was often created from elements such as ash and soot, making the blends and shades choppier than today’s smooth designs. Needles were created from sharpened pieces of bone, rose thorns, or even animal teeth. In the 1800s, artists began to turn to crude electric tattoo machines to complete their black and grey masterpieces, while their standard black ink was crafted from carbon and iron oxide. Those tattooing in prison, where black and grey tattooing really made a name for itself, found ways to create ink from boot polish, cigarette ash, and pen ink. Prison machines were (and still are) constructed from guitar strings, paperclips, rubber bands, pens, and other similar objects based on accessibility. Due to the nature of their machines, black and grey prison tattoos were most often fine-line, single-needle pieces. These incredible works of art were often highly-detailed and depicted images of loved ones, religious beliefs, and gang affiliations.
This unique method of tattooing began to hit the streets in the early 70s and 80s, as artists like Mark Mahoney—deemed the “Founding Father of Black and Grey”—began to adopt this single-needle method of black and grey tattooing outside of the prison walls. Mahoney, and the artists who followed his lead, found themselves tattooing cars, choppers, religious icons, bombs, and guns before they turned their attention to the general public. They ventured into creating custom designs for the everyday client, creating a style of black and grey that appealed to the masses. Today, black and grey work touches every type of imagery—from nature scenes and portraits to sacred geometry, nautical elements, and comic book characters.