Blackwork tattoos are among the most diverse and impressive forms of body art around the world. The tattoos are either etched to cover the whole torso or extensive areas of the body, such as entire limbs. Blackwork tattoos are often made of abstract or geometric patterns, though you can find some depicting everyday objects.
Exploring the diversity, rich history and extensive cultural tapestry of blackwork tattoos would require several volumes of published works. It is possible, however, to offer you a glimpse of the complexity inherent in these tattoos with a summarized guide. It’s what we will attempt to do here with a look at the three most pervasive forms of blackwork tattoos.
Tribal Blackwork Tattoos
Tribal blackwork tattoos are by far the most common style in this body of work. They draw inspiration from ancient tribal art, especially of Polynesian origin. While modern tattoo artists have changed their inking methods and embellished some of their graphics, the similarities are still remarkable.
From ancient times, the exact design of the blackwork tattoo, as well as its specific elements, had diverse meanings. The tattoo wearer seeks first to have elements of their personality impressed on the graphic. The graphics also have particular associations with the wearer’s lineage and even gang affiliations.
History of Tribal Blackwork Tattoos
Tribal blackwork tattoos can be traced back to prehistory. Specifically, they are associated with the rise of Polynesian civilizations in Australasia and the Oceania island nations. From there, the art spread into areas of the Pacific Ocean where Polynesian seafarers emigrated.
Tribal art was also common in prehistoric Mesoamerica, Africa and the furthest reaches of northern landmasses inhabited by the Inuit. Granted, these other civilizations didn’t take their tattooing art to the height of expression of tribal Polynesians. Some patterns, etching methods and philosophical interpretations of their blackwork tattoo art have, however, come to influence modern blackwork tattoos.
The rise of tribal blackwork tattoos in Western culture is traceable back to the mid and late 18th century. Historical evidence shows that British sailors and coal miners were sporting tribal blackwork tattoos as far back as the 1770s. Historians have been able to trace the inspiration for these tribal blackwork tattoos to Oceania and the inhabited Pacific islands.
The emergence of tribal body art in Britain at the height of the age of exploration has a logical explanation. It can be no accident that these tribal tattoos made their presence just after the return of Captain Cook. The British explorer anchored on Tahiti in 1769, returning with tales of a tropical paradise that fascinated the whole nation.
Common Variations in Tribal Blackwork Tattoos
To understand modern tribal blackwork tattoos, you have to study the evolution of body art techniques in ancient Polynesian communities. The most illustrative tribal tattoos in this context are those common on Hawaiian islands in the western Pacific. The art form was very well developed on the island of Maui by the time Iberian peninsula explorers came calling.
The most distinguishable characteristic of Polynesian tribal blackwork tattoos is their extensive abstract patterns and swirls. These are often carved around the major contours of the body. This feature has continued to influence modern tribal blackwork tattoos with Hawaiian influences.
Skills and Techniques Required
Native blackwork tattoos are remarkable for their consistent dark black appearance. This distinctive dark hue is achieved by using carbon as the ink pigment. From ancient times, the carbon pigment comes from powdering wood charcoal or burnt bone and mixing it with water.
Traditional blackwork tattoos were inked using a hammer and etching needle. While the process was painful and tedious, the tattoos ended up having a deep dark appearance and a relief effect. This is due to the thickness of the charcoal pigments etched into the skin.
Modern tattoo artists no longer use powdered charcoal to ink tribal blackwork tattoos. It is, however, possible for them to replicate the appearance and feel of ancient tribal tattoos. Tattoo artists have to use dark pigmented ink and needle techniques that result in relief etchings on the skin.
Tips for Picking a Suitable Tribal Blackwork Tattoo Design
Owing to the diversity and sheer size of many tribal tattoo patterns, it isn’t easy to decide on one design.
Here are a few tips to help you pick a design that fits your preferences:
- Consider the effect the pattern will have when it’s inked around the contours of your body. The tattoo artist may offer you different patterns illustrated on a flat, two-dimensional surface. When the pattern is transferred to your body, however, the effect is different.
- Be aware that tribal blackwork tattoos are usually impossible to deface or transform into some other graphic. Be sure the pattern you pick is something you will never regret over a lifetime.
Spanish Blackwork Tattoos
Spanish blackwork tattoos are distinctive for their geometric shapes and mishmash of loops and interlocking patterns. While it’s not a rule, the tattoos often cover entire parts of the body, such as an arm, leg or the trunk up to the neck.
Unlike other forms of blackwork tattoos, the Spanish variety usually holds no symbolic meaning. Many fans of Spanish blackwork tattoos, as well as some tattoo artists, regard the tattoos as a decorative form of body art. They are also often used to conceal and lessen the appearance of scars and other forms of skin disfigurement.
History of Spanish Blackwork Tattoos
For a long time, Spanish blackwork tattoos were a fringe form of body art culture. The patterns evolved from textile artists in 16th-century Spain. These patterns were originally transferred onto silk using freehand or counted stitch methodologies. Other embroidery artists used dyeing techniques to transfer the patterns onto linen and wool fabrics.
Some variants of Spanish blackwork tattoos borrow inspiration from a form of art that evolved further in history. The tattoo graphics, distinguishable by their stylized graphical knitting patterns, borrow inspiration from Kasuti embroidery of 6th-century India.
For millennia, Spanish tattoo artistry remained in the doldrums of history. In recent years, though, the distinctive tattoos have made a major impression, popularized by some celebrity tattoo artists. The leading figures in this movement have included Clinton Lee and Ciara Havishya.
Common Spanish Blackwork Tattoo Variants
The patterns that are characteristic of Spanish blackwork tattoos didn’t evolve in the bodywork industry or culture. They come from certain aspects of medieval Spanish tapestry and embroidery industries. They are mostly devoid of the cultural symbolism associated with other forms of body art.
The most effective way to distinguish Spanish tattoos is to describe where they are located on the body. The tattoos that are suitable for inking on the arms are different from those found on the legs and the trunk of the body.
Skill and Techniques Required
Spanish blackwork tattoos are made of regular and repetitive patterns. The tattoo artist needs to have a good idea of form and perspective to reproduce them well on the skin. This is the only way to ensure balance and regularity in the patterns.
Tips for Picking a Suitable Design of Spanish Blackwork Tattoo
If you are interested in getting a remarkable Spanish blackwork tattoo, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- If you’re interested in floral patterns, select a design that’s not too extensive. Otherwise, you will get an appearance of having a wallpaper pattern plastered all over your skin.
- If you’d prefer geometric shapes as the base pattern for your tattoo, you can be adventurous. You only need to avoid getting too intricate patterns combining clashing shapes.
Calligraphic Blackwork Tattoos
Calligraphic blackwork tattoos are made of letter work, as its name indicates. It makes this variety the only form of minimalist blackwork tattoos.
History of Calligraphic Blackwork Tattoos
Tattoos with calligraphic expressions are a relatively recent development in the long and convoluted history of body art. There’s evidence that ancient Chinese and Japanese appreciated having lettered invocations etched in black ink on their skin. However, these cannot be considered calligraphic tattoos in the modern sense of the term.
Common Calligraphic Blackwork Tattoo Variants
There is little diversity in calligraphic blackwork tattoos. The major differences are in the scripted fonts used in etching out the letters. Fans of the tattoos have a choice between more cursive scripts and those which adopt block lettering.
Skill and Techniques Required
A tattoo artist who executes a calligraphic blackwork tattoo perfectly needs to be well versed in the art of calligraphy and artistic lettering. If they’re not well versed in the art, they should be capable of tracing the scripts to the skin.
Some calligraphic blackwork fans require the lettering to bear a form of 3D relief when inked. To achieve this, the artist adds a silhouette or shadow effect to the background framing the letters.
Tips for Picking a Suitable Design
Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you select a suitable calligraphic blackwork tattoo:
- Calligraphic tattoos should be such that the word or phrase is readable at a glance. For instance, it would defeat the purpose of having the letters encircle a limb.
- A single artistically done calligraphic letter may be all you need to conceal a skin defect on a prominent part of the body, such as the face.