(877) 879-5350 Continuing Education for The Professional Tattoo Artist

Ask Guy Aitchison

Ask Guy 20

Q) I've been tattooing close to a decade now and one of the things I still have trouble with is getting black in tribal tattoos to lay down smooth and in as few passes as possible. I've watched artist I've worked with do it, asked how they do... and I still have trouble getting that flat black layed in on the first couple passes. I've tried the way I lay my tube to allow the needles to hit, tried the way I pack the color into the skin, all the ways i know of, but still a tribal tattoo that should only take 2 hours will take me four. I know there is no magical way, but what am I doing wrong that is preventing me from getting my ink to pack in smooth and completely on as few passes as possible?

A) I guess my first question would be, what needle group are you using for packing in the black? You'll most likely have the smoothest results with spread magnums- 7 or 13, depending on the size of the piece. Rounds or stacked mags may seem like they would pack the black better because the needles are closer together, but in reality that only makes it harder to get an even, velvety coat over large areas. With spread mags, the needles are far enough apart that when strokes overlap each other enough times, the hole pattern averages out to a nice even distribution. Rounds will leave concentrated chunks of darker areas, unless they are spread enough. Mags are also better for maneuvering in and out of tribal points, like a calligraphy pen.

One thing to keep in mind is that there really is no such thing as "solid" black on skin- it's really a matter of getting a nice even coat. It will always be at least a few percent translucent, no matter how many passes you make. Some experienced tribal artists are able to get a nice even pass really quickly, with one heal- but if you were to compare their work to a piece that's been gone over more thoroughly, you may notice that it's actually lighter than the more thorough one... but because it healed so evenly, no one questions its solidness.

One thing I usually recommend is to make a final pass through the piece with your liner or another small round group after you finish with the mag, to tighten the shaded areas up against the outlines. You'll get a darker overall look this way, and can avoid that slight gap you often see along the inside of the outlines, the result of working carefully with the mag as not to overrun the lines. A tightening pass like this only takes a few minutes.

Last but not least, when you are just about done, clean the piece thoroughly, then put a layer of clean water over the whole thing and look at it wet. This can help to reveal the remaining imperfections in the piece and allow you to address them. This is particularly effective in working on dark skin.