As you prepare to get new ink, there are many different decisions to make before you even sit down for your session, such as: what kind of design, where on your body, which tattoo artist will you choose, what style of design, and what colors work best on a tattoo for your body?
All of these decisions can make a big difference in how happy you are with the final results. Finding a design you love and the right tattoo artist are key. You may, however, not realize how big of a difference the color you choose for your tattoo can make. And this goes beyond choosing between a classic black or gray design versus one that’s full of color. The type of style can also impact the colors chosen. For instance, old school, traditional, Japanese, illustrative, and new watercolor tattoos are all known for their heavy use of bold or bright colors.
Color Considerations for Your New Tattoo
No matter what colors you choose—from classic black, grays, and dark blues to full color, lightly colored, or even water colored—your tattoo can look amazing. No style is superior, and they all feel the same as they’re being done (i.e., lighter tattoos don’t hurt any less).
That said, some colors look better on various skin tones and types than others. Others are longer lasting. Some are even easier to remove should you choose to do so at a later date.
Here are some of the most important considerations for what colors work best on a tattoo:
- Your skin complexion: As you determine the best color ink for tattoos on your skin, look beyond how fair, medium, or dark your skin is. You’ll also need to look at what your undertone is. Your undertone is determined by the amount of melanin found in the skin. Lower concentrations provide a cooler complexion. Higher levels provide a warmer tone.
If your skin has a pinker look, you likely have cooler undertones. If you have more of a peachy complexion, you have warmer tones. If your complexion just seems to align with the color of your skin, then the undertones are more neutral.
If you’re still not sure, another helpful tip comes from your veins. If your veins appear more blue, then your skin has cooler undertones. If they appear more green, then the undertones are warmer. If you can’t really see a color, then your tones are more neutral.
The tone of your skin can drastically affect how the tattoo color looks on your body. You see, the tattoo ink resides within the dermis, which is also where melanin is found. So, both the color of your skin and the undertone can affect the appearance of the tattoo colors.
Cooler and more neutral tones have less of an effect than warmer, more melanin tones. So folks with these types of complexions tend to have more freedom when it comes to color choices and the colors appearing as expected.
For people with warmer undertones, the colors may appear warmer than expected. Remember to take that into account if that describes your skin and choose warmer colors that match your skin tone to ensure the colors appear as expected.
- Your skin color: While undertones can be one of the biggest considerations when choosing tattoo colors, the color of your skin can also impact how well your tattoo stands out. Some colors that show up the best on various skin colors include:
- Dark skin: blacks, dark reds, deep blues, shades of green, and other deep colors
- Tanned or medium skin: blacks, blues, reds, greens, and purples. Yellow and oranges can work well for some but can be difficult to see or can fade more quickly for others.
- Light or pale skin: blacks, blues, reds, whites, and purples. Watch shades of orange or yellows, which can look muddy and are also more difficult to remove.
The riskiest colors, in terms of how they look versus how they’re expected to look are reds, oranges, sky blues, and yellows. If you have a warm or yellow undertone, skip the oranges or yellows, which can look muddy with this skin tone.
Be careful if you choose red tattoos as well as more people are allergic to this color of dye. It can help to do a test dot in a sensitive area to see how your skin reacts before starting the tattoo.
- Safety: There’s an abundance of colors and inks available for tattoos. Now, you can find bright shades, unusual colors, neon, and even UV light activated options. For the safest options, choose more traditional, tried-and-true colors of branded inks. Some tattoo artists mix their own inks, and others choose “off brands” to provide more options. Unfortunately, especially if you find yourself in a foreign country or at a less reputable studio, some of the inks may be made with toxic chemicals and even heavy metals. Reds tend to come with higher risks. Black tends to be the safest tattoo color, followed by blue and green pigments.
Take some time to chat with your tattoo artist to ensure their equipment is properly sterilized and that they are using the highest quality inks with the lowest possible levels of toxicity.
If you have any concerns, start with a patch test before the full tattoo to ensure your skin reacts well to the ink color.
- Sun exposure: Consider your lifestyle as well. Do you spend a lot of time hiking in high mountains in the summer? Or does your job have you spending hours outdoors? Do you live close to a beach and spend hours soaking up the sun? Or, are you someone who spends your days indoors and rarely venture outdoors before dusk?
Beyond your tattoo standing out on pale versus tanned skin, some colors fade more quickly, especially when exposed to sunlight. If you want a longer-lasting tattoo, then black and grays, which are denser, are less likely to fade over time. In contrast, those tattoos made with more vibrant colors or pastels, such as pink, yellow, sky blue, and light greens fade faster. And the colors typically chosen for the watercolor-type tattoos tend to be the most short-lived and require more frequent touch-ups.
- Size: If you really want something bright and bold, then you will likely want to choose a larger piece. Smaller tattoos with lots of colors tend to blend into each other and can look muddy. So, if you want a smaller or more intricate tattoo, then choosing less colors (or just going with blacks and grays) is likely your best bet.
Monochromatic tattoos can still be visually striking and provide a range of options from realistic or portrait to tribal or blackwork to script. Mixing black ink with water can create lighter and darker ink tones for a wide range of light and shade that provide greater dimension and movement. Or, they can be used to create small, detailed pieces.
- Placement: Choosing the right color for your tattoo can also depend on where it is on your body. Different body parts are more or less likely to be exposed not only to the sun but can be more affected by weight changes and aging.
If you want to help your brightly colored tattoo last longer, you may want to pick your shoulders, inner arms, upper chest/collar bone, back, or ankles/calves where the skin is thicker and tends to remain taut even over time. The outer arms, upper legs, face, ears, and abdomen tend to experience greater change over the years, which can affect how well the tattoo ages and how colorful the tattoo color remains.
Color tattoos found on the hands, especially the palms, and feet, especially the soles, don’t go into the skin as deeply, so they’re more likely to fade faster. The skin on these areas also renews more as it rubs against objects and is cleaned more frequently, which causes the tattoo color to fade. Crease lines, such as around the armpits, wrists, and knees can also be challenging as the skin in these areas moves so much, so they’re harder to heal.
- Removal: When you get your tattoo, the last thing you’re thinking of is having the tattoo removed. After all, you are choosing to permanently mark your skin for good reason. But let’s face it: we all change as we go through life. What’s important to you now may not be several years or decades from now. You may find your job changes or your family life changes, and it’s time to move on.
If that happens, it’s worth knowing in advance what colors are easiest to remove. Counterintuitively, that tends to be darker inks, such as blues and blacks. Laser tattoo removal is accomplished by using highly concentrated light to break down ink particles. Because darker colors absorb the light, they are easier to break down. Lighter colors, on the other hand, reflect the laser, so removal takes more sessions before the tattoo is no longer noticeable.
If there’s even a minuscule chance you’ll eventually want the tattoo removed, avoid using reds, yellows, or oranges, which are the most difficult colors to remove.
What Colors Work Best on a Tattoo Takeaway
Even after meticulously picking your design, your artist, and your tattoo colors, your tattoo may not look exactly as expected. It may look way better than you ever hoped. Or, the colors may not look as bold and vibrant on your skin as you had thought. If that’s the case, you can typically change the tattoo colors with future touchups.
And when in doubt, you can always choose black-ink tattoos, which stand out on all skin colors and complexions and can withstand greater sun exposure (with proper tattoo care, of course).