Tattoo Colors

  • Written By Dan Hunter on July 1, 2019
    Last Updated: March 11, 2022

When you’re deciding on a tattoo, you’ll either find an image you like, sketch one, or work one out with your tattoo artist. The image you choose might be a pencil or pen outline, or it might be a full-color image. Either way, you have an important decision to make.

Do you want to get a classic black and gray tattoo, or one that’s filled with bright and bold colors?

It seems like a simple question, but it’s probably more complicated than you think. For one thing, neither type of tattoo is superior to the other – both black-line tattoos and those filled in with color can look amazing. All colors also hurt the same amount, so at least that’s something you don’t have to worry about.

Nevertheless, even when you decide which one you think looks best on paper, there are other factors to consider, like whether the colors will work well with your skin, or whether the colors will age well, or even cause problems if you ever want to get the tattoo removed. Colors also have big implications when it comes to tattoo flow and design, too.

Skin Complexion

You’re probably used to thinking of your skin in terms of its color. However, when it comes to deciding which colors would work best in a tattoo, you have to look beyond your skin tone. Specifically, you need to consider your skin’s undertone.

What’s your skin’s undertone? If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s what gives your skin its complexion. Plus, it all has to do with the amount of melanin present in your skin. Low concentrations of melanin will give you a cooler complexion, while higher levels of melanin will give you a warmer one.

Knowing Your Undertone

We don’t expect you to figure out just how much melanin you have in your skin. Thankfully, there are easier ways to know your skin’s undertone.

The first way is to look at the complexion itself. If your skin’s complexion is on the pink side, your skin has cooler undertones. If, on the other hand, it’s more of a peachy complexion, your skin has warm undertones, and if you have a complexion that aligns with your skin color, then you’ve got neutral undertones.

Maybe you can’t tell whether your skin is more peach or pinker. If you’re still not sure about your complexion, there’s one more way to identify your undertone: your veins.

Take a look at the veins on the underside of your forearm. If they look blue, it means your skin has cool undertones; if they’re green, you’ve got warm undertones. If they don’t seem to have any discernible color, that’s because your skin has neutral undertones.

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Why Undertone Matters

Your undertone is one of the most important things to consider when it comes to selecting tattoo colors, but why is that? Why should your complexion make such a big difference?

It’s all because of your skin’s layers.

What you’re touching when you run your hand across your skin is only the surface layer, known as the epidermis. Even though your tattoo will look like it’s sitting on the surface of your skin, the ink will actually be on a deeper layer of skin, called the dermis.

The dermis is where your tattoo’s ink particles will live, but it’s also where you’ll find your melanin. In fact, the melanin is in the upper layer of your dermis, above the layer that houses your tattoo ink. That means your melanin, which gives your skin its complexion, lies between your tattoo and the surface of your skin.

So, if you want your tattoo to come out looking the way it should, you need to factor in your complexion (the undertone) and how your tattoo’s colors will look after they’re filtered through it.

What Your Melanin Means for Your Choice of Colors

So now you know your undertone, but what does that mean for your color choices?

If you have a cooler undertone, there is less melanin standing between your tattoo and the surface layer of your skin. That means it won’t really interfere with the way it looks. Any color you choose will probably show just fine, although blue and red pigments will show most clearly.

If you have warmer undertones, things get a bit trickier. Since you have more melanin, the colors in your tattoo will show up differently when filtered through your complexion. Just like your blue veins show up on the green side, the pigments of your tattoo will show up warmer than they should. If this is the case for you, we recommended that you get a tattoo with warm colors that match your complexion.

Your Skin Tone Still Matters

Undertone is a big factor, and an underappreciated one, in selecting the right tattoo colors, but that doesn’t mean your skin tone is completely irrelevant.

Here are the pigments that will show up especially well with your skin color:

  • Light skin: red, white, and purple
  • Tanned skin: blue, green, and orange
  • Dark skin: black, dark red, deep blue, and other dark colors

If you have certain skin conditions such as vitiligo that affect your pigmentation in other ways, then it’s always best to consult an experienced tattoo artist and let them know your situation. A good artist should be able to work around an uncommon case with a bit of careful planning.

The Effects of the Sun

In addition to your skin color and complexion, you also have to consider your lifestyle when you’re picking out the colors for your tattoo.

Specifically, you should ask yourself how much time you spend in the sun. Do you tend to spend your days indoors? Do you mostly go out at night? Or do you live a beach life full of bright sunshine?

Why does it matter? Well, it all comes down to your melanin again. The more time you spend in the sun, the more melanin builds up in your skin. That’s why your exposed skin turns a darker, tanned color after you’ve spent some time working outdoors or lounging on a beach towel.

Therefore, if you’re the type to spend a lot of time exposing your skin to the sun, you should get a tattoo with colors that work best with a warmer complexion, since you’ll spend a lot of time with higher concentrations of melanin above those tattoo ink pigments.

Additionally, some colors will also fade more quickly than others, especially when exposed to large amounts of sunlight.

Laser Removal

You’re still planning your tattoo, so getting it removed is probably the farthest thing from your mind. Yet the possibility of removing your tattoo should still factor into your decision. After all, things change.

You might not want the same kind of tattoo thirty years from now. Your personality might change over time and you might feel the tattoo no longer represents who you are. Or maybe landing your dream job somewhere down the road might mean getting rid of the tattoo on the back of your hand.

Whatever your reason, if you want to get your tattoo removed, its color will make a big difference to how easy it is to laser off.

Laser tattoo removal breaks down the ink particles in your skin by blasting them with highly concentrated light. How well the treatment works depends on how well the tattoo pigments absorb that light. Plus, the darker the pigment, the more light it will absorb. Conversely, lighter colored ink will deflect more light, which will make the laser treatment less effective.

It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but that means that a black tattoo is easier to remove than a pale pink one.

It normally takes several sessions to fade a tattoo enough for it to stop being noticeable. If you decided on some light colors for your tattoo, you can expect to sit through even more of those sessions. Since each one will cost you, that means removing a light-colored tattoo isn’t just more time consuming, but it’ll also be more expensive.


Before you get your heart set on that really colorful tattoo, make sure it will show up well with your skin color and complexion, and even your body hair distribution. If it doesn’t, don’t despair, you can always modify the colors so they’ll work better for you, and of course, black-ink tattoos still look great on any complexion.

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