Blackout tattoos (sometimes called blackwork tattoos) are having a bit of a moment, but they’re nothing new. They’re also a welcome counterbalance to the discreet, delicate designs that have filled our feeds over the last few years.
Blackout tattoos look much as the name suggests. They involve predominantly black designs that take up a lot of body real estate. Think: an arm, leg, or chest almost entirely, well, blacked out. Some tattoos are just areas of solid black, while others have various designs with a black background.
They make a dramatic statement, and while not everyone’s cup of tea, they’re especially appealing to folks who have tattoo regret and want to cover up existing ink.
Blackout tattoos may use the same equipment and ink as other tattoos, but on another scale.
“The process of a blackout tattooing differs from other types of tattooing in the sense that the entire surface of the skin is completely saturated with ink, with no bare skin peeking through. Blackout tattoos are way more intense. There is much more trauma to the skin,” says Roxx, an LA-based tattoo artist specializing in blackwork.
Getting the saturation right could mean multiple sessions. It also means a different recovery than with other designs.
“Depending on the client, their pain threshold, and the piece, the tattoo could take anywhere from 1 session to 3 back-to-back sessions,” Roxx says.
Roxx also points out the importance of making sure clients are well rested and prepared for back-to-back sessions.
“Sometimes, people’s minds are stronger than their bodies, and they can push themselves too hard, which can have a negative impact on the healing of the tattoo,” Roxx explains.
The location of the tattoo and your individual pain tolerance play a role in how much it’ll hurt. That said, blackout tattoos are typically more painful than other designs, both during the session and after.
This comes down to going over the skin multiple times in order to achieve the right coverage and saturation, which can leave your skin feeling pretty raw.
According to Roxx, you can also expect “a lot of swelling” for up to a week after the process is complete.
The cost of a blackout tattoo depends on a lot of variables, starting with the artist’s rate, which can range from around $100 to as high as $500 per hour depending on their experience and popularity.
The size and complexity of the tattoo matters, too. A bigger and more detailed design will take longer. A big area of solid black, while not as intricate, requires a lot of ink, time, and needles, which can jack up the price significantly.
Don’t forget to factor in a decent tip — at least 20 percent is customary.
As intense as they look, blackout tattoos heal like other tattoos. How long this takes depends on various factors, like placement and aftercare.
Some body parts take longer to heal, because they see more daily action from movement and clothing. Your skin, lifestyle, and overall health matter, too.
“The client has to be prepared to be very diligent with the aftercare, which includes resting the limb that was tattooed, eating well, and drinking plenty of water, not just tending to the actual tattoo,” Roxx says.
You can expect swelling, pain, and itching in the first week or so of healing. Tattoos also tend to ooze for a few days.
Typically, tattoos heal — on the surface — within 2 or 3 weeks, but they can take up to 6 months to heal completely.
Choosing a tattoo artist who is experienced in blackwork tattoos can also make the process and recovery faster and easier.
Taking care of your tattoo per your artist’s instructions will go a long way in preserving your ink, helping you heal, and avoiding complications, like infection and scarring.
Much of the usual aftercare advice applies to blackout tattoos, but on a bigger scale. And because of the size of the tattooed area and full coverage, taking some time off to recover after the process is recommended.
“There’s a lot of swelling that doesn’t usually happen with other kinds of tattooing. The best tip I can give to people [is] to time their appointments with a couple of days off after the appointment, so [they] can fully rest and recover from the process. You don’t want to get a blackout tattoo and then go right back to your normal life, using your arm (or whatever you got tattooed),” Roxx says.
Roxx also recommends applying ice to the area in the days after your appointment (on top of the tattoo covering, not directly on the tattoo), and keeping the limb elevated.
Some consider non-Black people getting blackout tattoos to be a form of cultural appropriation because it involves adopting a feature of a marginalized group without acknowledging the history or significance behind it.
For centuries, Black people endured racism based on the color of their skin. As a result, some find it offensive when a non-Black person intentionally blackens their skin for their own benefit, whether that’s to appear “trendy” or simply because they like the way it looks.
Others disagree with this interpretation, but it’s a point worth considering if you’re contemplating a blackout tattoo and aren’t Black.
Along with more swelling and recovery time compared with other tattoos, blackout tattoos carry the same risks as other tattoos.
Your skin is prone to infection during the first couple of weeks while your skin is healing. Proper aftercare can greatly reduce your risk of infection.
See a healthcare professional if you notice any signs of infection, such as:
- severe or worsening redness or swelling
- skin that feels hot to the touch
- pus from the tattooed skin
It’s possible to be allergic to ingredients in tattoo ink.
An allergic reaction can cause symptoms, like:
- severe itching
- skin rash
You could develop a scar if your tattoo doesn’t heal properly or if you have an allergic reaction or infection.
Some people are also more prone to scarring, such as those with a history of keloid scars.
Unsterilized needles increase the risk of infection and can also transmit bloodborne illnesses, like HIV and hepatitis C. Choosing a reputable artist who practices proper health and safety protocols can prevent this.
Potential to hide skin cancers
Blackout tattoos are, well, predominantly black and cover a lot of skin. This can make it hard to see signs of skin cancer, like new spots on the skin or changes to existing moles.
Another thing to consider: If you develop skin cancer within the tattoo, surgical treatment will likely alter the tattoo’s appearance.
You can remove a blackout tattoo. Contrary to popular belief, black ink is easier to remove than other colors. That said, the size of the tattoo and how deep the ink has penetrated the skin can make it harder to remove.
Keep in mind that tattoo removal isn’t a quick process and usually requires multiple sessions with a few weeks of downtime between each.
Removing a blackout tattoo could be very expensive, time-consuming, and painful. If you’re on the fence or think you may change your mind down the road, a blackout tattoo is probably not the way to go.
If you want a dramatic piece and are prepared to do the time in the chair and while recovering, have at it. Just be sure to do your homework first, and choose a reputable artist with experience in blackwork tattooing.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.