Black and grey tattoos - Everything you need to know

Black and grey tattoos - Everything you need to know

If you’re interested in tattoos or body art, you’ll know that there are countless styles and techniques, each of which with their own deep history and meanings behind them. Tattoos have gone through something of a revolution in the last couple of decades, and the art that’s being produced nowadays is simply stunning.

One key style to note when it comes to modern tattooing are black and grey tattoos. This style uses varying shades of black ink to create the work, and can be seen in a number of different tattoo genres. There’s a surprisingly unique history behind them, and it’s very interesting to discuss. It’s becoming more and more popular to get these tattoos all around the world, whether you’re looking for a unique piece of tattoo art in Phuket, Tokyo, London or somewhere else entirely.

In this article, we will be having a look at black and grey style in more depth, the history, the styles that use black and grey work, key interests with this style and much more. Here at Pitbull Tattoo Phuket, we’re big fans of this style and would love to work on more black and grey projects, so feel free to get in touch with us if this is a style that you’re looking into.

History of black and grey tattoos

Black and grey tattoos have a very unique history, when compared to the other styles of tattooing. This style is also known as ‘jailhouse’ tattooing or ‘joint style’ tattooing, specifically because the style is believed to have started in prison tattooing.

Prison tattoos were often made with handmade machines and inks, and artists had to get very creative in order to be able to do them properly. Guitar strings were used as needles, tape recorder motors powered the machines and ingredients like cigarette ashes or pen ink were used to make the ink. This is particularly interesting in hindsight, as original, prehistoric tattoos (pre ancient Egypt) were made with ashes and soot. We seem to have come full circle!

These tattoos often had to be done in secret when done in prison, as many prisons will have a full on ban on inmates being allowed to tattoo. This means that the tattoos had to be quick, clean and smooth.

Outside of prison tattooing, black and grey tattoos were popularised towards the end of the 1970s and became a staple in most modern tattoo studios. They also have links to ‘chicano’ and ‘cholo’ culture. The inclusion of more traditionally artists in black and grey work means that this style has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years. It’s very popular nowadays, and it’s also quite social media friendly. If you are interested in this particular style, you should be able to find some great inspiration on platforms like Instagram and Pinterest.

Techniques and methods

The best way to tell whether an artist is experienced in black or grey tattooing is to look at the variation in their shading. If they can achieve soft, subtle shades alongside harsher shadows, then they’ve been practicing this particular style for a lot longer and have a better understanding of what they are doing.

Black and grey tattoo work revolves around diluting black ink to achieve different shades; with a ‘wash’, of sorts. Mixing black ink with white ink to get more solid grey tones is also very common. The level of shading in black and grey tattooing is very important, as without them, the tattoos will fade, look blotchy and not hold up well in the wearer’s skin over time.

Typically, this work is done with a single needle; but this will of course vary based on the particular style and subject on the tattoo in question.

What tattoo styles use black and grey work?

Now that we’ve had a look at the key history and the techniques behind black and grey tattooing, let’s take a look at the different styles that utilise this beautiful way of working. Some styles are much more popular than others, but they all use black and grey artwork in a very unique and eye catching manner.


When the topic of black and grey tattoos comes up, the style that people are most commonly referring to is realistic tattooing. This style focuses, unsurprisingly, around creating stunningly lifelike art work. There seems to be a competitive nature amongst the industry from what I’ve seen, based on how realistic artists can make their own work.

A common topic or subject matter for black and grey realism is portraits. Photo-realistic portraits made with black and grey tones can look incredible and convey a lot of emotion. Subject matters relating to pop culture are equally very popular: we’ve personally seen lots of people getting movie scenes or favourite characters tattooed in this style. Other popular subjects include flowers, animals, cars and bikes, mythological creatures and scenes from nature. One of the best things about realistic black and grey tattooing is how versatile it is. If you can think of the subject matter, we are sure that there will be a black and grey artist who’s suited to making your dream art a reality.

Old school

Another key style that uses black and grey tattooing is old school tattooing, otherwise known as American traditional. This style was heavily influenced by work in the 19th century; specifically sailor and military tattoos.

Old school tattoos do look particularly striking in black and grey. The removal of colour makes them especially eye catching, and can help them stand out amongst other tattoos on the wearer due to the very dark shades.

Popular subject matters include flowers, anchors, ships, wolves, butterflies, skulls and birds. Pinups, mermaids and gypsy women are also incredibly popular subjects. This style of art has become much more popular again in recent years.


Arguably one of the most visually pleasing styles, Japanese tattooing is another style that uses black and grey tattooing very effectively. Traditional Japanese tattoos, known as irezumi, use soft black and grey tones to make the art eye catching.

Interestingly, some colorful Japanese tattoos use black and grey as a background or base for a piece. This is a great technique to make a piece look much more unique and well fitted to a wearer’s skin.

In terms of subject matter, Japanese tattoos are incredibly vast and varied. Mythological creatures like dragons are incredibly popular, as are figures like geisha girls or samurai. A lot of Japanese black and grey work include natural themes like flowers, fish, animals and more.


The term Chicano is an interesting one, as it was originally used as an offensive term to describe Mexican Americans. Nowadays, some people have chosen to reclaim it to empower themselves instead, and thus, a beautiful style of art has been born. It is strongly linked to Mexican American pride and community spirit.

The typical subject matters here are very beautiful and varied. There are some heavy Catholic themes, including crosses, rosary beads and Virgin Mary portraits. Pinups with thickly lined lips, bandanas and hooped earrings are also popular, as are cars and skulls. Lettering is also very common here, and it can look incredibly striking when done in black and grey. Common positions for lettering tattoos here include the chest and stomach, although face tattoos are equally as popular.

Neo traditional

The final tattoo style that we’ll be having a look at here is neo traditional tattooing. This beautiful style is an expansion on old school/American traditional tattooing, and is interestingly known quite well for using bright colours. This is not to say that this style doesn’t use black and grey work, of course- plenty of artists are fond of using this particular style for their neo traditional pieces. It can actually make them a lot more eye catching than their brightly colourful counterparts.

Common subject matters with neo traditional work include portraits of both animals and people. Natural themes like flowers, trees and crystals are equally popular, as are pop culture reference tattoos. This is a hugely popular style right now, and is being eagerly lept upon by social media.

Does black and grey work look good with other styles?

This is a common question, and it is safe to say that yes, black and grey tattoos do look fantastic when combined with other styles. It can take a little more thought from the artist and the customer, but the payout is definitely worth it.

As we’ve said earlier, black and grey work can look very beautiful when combined with colour work. Common styles that use this combination include Japanese tattooing, neo traditional and realistic work. Black and grey work can be a great accent for more colourful pieces, as seen in traditional Japanese irezumi tattoos.

Another style that works particularly well with black and grey tattooing is blackwork. As much as they might sound similar, these tattoo styles are actually quite different. Whereas black and grey work aims to use a wide variety of shades and soft tones, blackwork is much more harsh and focuses on solid black linework. These styles do combine very nicely, and can make very eye-catching pieces of work.

Dotwork and geometric style tattoos can also look gorgeous when combined with black and grey tattooing. we are personally a huge fan of tattoos that feature both black and grey tattooing with mandalas, as we think that they look very elegant.

Who suits black and grey tattoos?

A common misconception with particular styles of tattooing is that they only suit particular types of people. This simply isn’t true- all tattoos can look beautiful on all kinds of people, and black and grey tattoos are no exception. If this is a style that you’re looking into, then we would encourage you to go for it. As long as you research your studio and artist properly, we are sure that you will end up with a beautiful piece of artwork.


To conclude, black and grey tattooing is an absolute staple of the tattooing world. It has interesting roots, and has been developed by modern artists to be a stunning body art style. It works well with a number of different styles of tattooing, too.

If you’re in the Phuket area and are looking for a breathtaking tattoo, make sure to come and check out Pitbull Tattoo. Our team has a wealth of experience, and we would be glad to help you put together a stunning, bespoke piece of art.