The Case for Watercolor Tattoos

The Case for Watercolor Tattoos

Old timers hate them, suburban moms love them. We make the case for appreciating watercolor tattoos, despite their flaws.

If you are the type of person that thrives on heated arguments might I suggest doing the following: walk into an old school tattoo shop and bring up the subject of watercolor tattoos. Many tattooers, especially the old guard, have very strong opinions about this popular trend. And by “strong opinions” we mean that they hate them with the burning intensity of 10,000 suns. Yet, people seem to love the style. Just think about how many watercolor tattoos you see out in the world, and check out the enormous followings some of the top artists in the style have. We have to be able to find some middle ground between the two camps here, right?


The primary argument tattoo professionals make about watercolor tattoos is that they will not last, and this is 100% true. Unless held in black lines, the color in tattoos spreads as the years go by, often becoming an unintelligible mess. The reason for this isn’t based on style, but on science. Black ink is carbon based and it hardens within the skin in a way that other non-carbon based pigments don’t. Thus the Traditional style wasn’t created purely for aesthetic reasons, but as a tried and true way to guarantee that your tattoo would still look good 30 years down the road.

There is no refuting the idea that watercolor tattoos are going to look completely different as they age… but what if that’s not a bad thing? The Statue of Liberty wasn’t the beautiful shade of green she is today back when she went up in 1886. No, she was the shiny color of copper, it was only the years of aging that turned her into what she is now. So who is to say that if done properly watercolor tattoos won’t age into something different but still aesthetically pleasing?


Some of the best artists working within the style — Justin Nordine, Sasha Unisex, Gene Coffey — use hard black outlines to create the design, then place watercolor flourishes as a way to enhance it. By taking hold of the main limitation of the style and twisting it into their favor, these artists are taking ownership of their work, for both good and bad. In my opinion, these pieces look like they will only become more intriguing over time as the color starts to fade and spread outward.

The other question that I think needs to be asked concerns the idea of the tattoo lasting in the first place. There is something to be said for someone who wants an amazing piece of body art right now, the longevity of it be damned. There is no denying that there are watercolor tattoos that are jaw-droppingly gorgeous immediately upon their completion, and there is something to living in the right now. As long as the client understands that their art is going to morph over the years, more power to them as they take a chance on something fleeting.


That brings me to the last point I want to make about watercolor tattoos. What I love about them more than anything is that they are different. These are artists going out on a limb and trying something new. Yes, some of their experimentations will fail, but along the way something amazing may be created.


In the end it all comes down to personal expression, both on the part of the artist and the client. A responsible artist will tell a client what to expect as their watercolor tattoo ages and changes, and if the client isn’t troubled by this why the hell should any of us care? It’s not your body or your tattoo, what’s the sense in getting upset about it? Calling out shoddy artists trying to sell their clients snakeoil is one thing, making a big stink because you don’t like the style of art that people are into is something completely different.

Let’s find a way to enjoy these watercolor tattoos for what they are — a grand artistic experiment that shakes up the game a bit, whose end results are still relatively unknown.

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