Immediately recognizable by the lack of vivid chroma hues and tints of grey, Blackwork tattooing has become an unstoppable force within the industry. But, believe it or not, all black fills and designs are not just a recent trend. It’s actually older than Traditional Americana. In this article we explore the historical origins, the contemporary styles, and the artists who have mastered Blackwork tattoos.
Though tribal tattoos do make up a large portion of the Blackwork style, recently other aesthetics have been added to the roster as well. Dark art, illustrative and graphic art, etching or engraving style, and even lettering or calligraphic scripts have been considered to be within the vein of Blackwork when only black ink is used. Perhaps more closely related to it’s authentic origins, Blackwork can also include geometric work, which is usually in the form of esoteric sacred geometry, as well as ornamental tattoos that usually stem from Henna inspired designs or the like. These may seem like stylistic delineations but, to be sure, the term “Blackwork” has been used in the past to describe other art forms beyond tribal tattooing.
Although Blackwork tattoos have come to mean something much different, the origins of the style lay within ancient tribal tattooing. Polynesian pieces, known for their often abstract patterns made of shapes and swirls in large swaths of black ink, are a huge influence on the style in particular. Curving around the organic contours of the body, these tattoos were usually based on the person's personality, with the tattooist using symbology and tribal iconography to illustrate their life story or legends. Frequently Polynesian tattoos embodied a person's lineage, beliefs or affiliations. They were protective, and absolutely sacred in nature. Polynesian tattooists were regarded almost like shamans or priests who held the divine knowledge of tattooing ritual. It was these ancient aspects of culture that largely influenced Blackwork tattooing of today, and many tattooists that work within the tribal style still hark back to these ancient aesthetics. You can see the influence clearly in the expertise of Haivarasly and Hanumantra Lamar.
Another inspiration for Blackwork tattooing is gleaned from what is typically regarded as Spanish Blackwork, which is actually fine embroidery on fabric. Tightly twisted black silk threads were used either in a counted stitch, or in a freehand manner, on white or light colored linen fabrics. The designs ranged from florals such as labyrinthine illustrations of ivy and blossoms to more complex compositions like stylized graphical knots. Although this technique was flourishing in Spain during the 1500’s, similar in form is Kasuti embroidery. Kasuti is a traditional art practiced in Karnataka, India which dates back to the Chaluyka dynasty that ruled from 543 to 753. Like Spanish Blackwork, Kasuti is intensely intricate in its aesthetic makeup, often including over 5,000 hand stitches but differs in its use of brightly colored threads.
No matter who far these folk arts may seem to be disassociated from contemporary Blackwork tattooing, it helps to recognize the different facets of historical artistic techniques and mediums that inform modern styles and aesthetics. Henna, for instance, can be traced back to the Bronze Age which spans from 1200 BC to 2100 BC. This was 4,000 years ago in the history of humankind, and yet the application of Henna dye, called Mehndi, can easily be connected to present day ornamental and decorative tattoos, most of which are considered a form of Blackwork tattoo simply due to the lack of color. Mehndi-esque pieces are found in the oeuvre of tattooists such as Ciara Havishya, Clinton Lee, Helen Hitori, and James Lau. Due to the ancient genesis of Henna, artists who work in this style may also tend towards more tribal or primitive designs. It’s all a matter of artistic personal expression and connection. Victor J Webster is a blackwork tattooist that does several different types of pattern work depending on the project, including Maori, Native American, Tibetan, and more. His work is a perfect embodiment of the vast connectivity that is human artistic expression.
Blackwork tattoo artists working within the realm of dark art tend to have an illustrative approach that gleans inspiration from etching and engraving. Dark art tattoos are usually informed by esoterica, alchemy, and other arcane hermetic iconography. Take for instance the work of tattoo artist Sasha Woland. Tarot cards, reapers, swords, sigils and demons dot her portfolio in a style that is most reminiscent of fine artists like Gustave Dore, Albrecht Durer, Julio Ruelas, and Francisco Goya. These artists often employed the techniques of engraving and etching, which consistently called for black ink in the creative process. The connections both materially, technically, and philosophically are quite clear when viewing the works side by side. Other Blackwork tattooists working in a similar style include Alexander Grim, Kelly Violet, and Jack Ankersen.
Another aesthetic linked to the esoteric arts is sacred geometry, a Blackwork tattoo style that is extremely popular. From ancient Hindu texts to Plato’s idea that God has put perfect geometric structures hidden within the entirety of the natural world, the ideals can be seen in fractals, mandalas, Kepler’s Platonic Solid, and more. Setting divine proportions to everything, sacred geometric tattoos often consist of lines, shapes, and dots. Dillon Forte is an artist who works within this aesthetic, and regularly infuses his pieces with Buddhist, Hindu, and sigil symbology. Jondix, Nissaco, and Lewisink are also highly influenced by these aspects of culture.
There are many more types of Blackwork tattoos mostly because, currently, a tattoo artist only using black ink can be considered a Blackworker. The term is now broad enough to include the aesthetics and artistic philosophies outlines above, as well as highly graphic art informed by visual artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Milton Glaser. Tattooists working in a graphic approach use simplified forms and blocks of black to create their pieces. Noil Culture is an extremely good example of this. At times these graphic tattoos can seem almost illustrative, but there are artists working with simple and fine linework regularly. Seoul based artist Oozy typically works in this style which lends itself greatly to illustrating anime and manga, while Bordeaux based tattooist Sad Amish blends the linework characteristic with heavier graphic shapes of black. Lettering and calligraphy, due to their font based designs, are also considered a family of the graphic arts, however distinct from other styles in tattooing. Many artists including Delia Vico, Oilburner, and Gromov6666 rely singularly on black ink alone, but it is worth mentioning that many traditional lettering artists usually use tones of greys to create dropped shadows, a method pulled from graffiti.
With such a vast array of aesthetics and personal approaches included in the overall stylings of Blackwork tattooing, the options are almost limitless. Due to the ease of clarity in design, the way that black ink pops on any skin color, and the fact that is ages incredibly well, makes this particular mode of tattooing adaptable to any design or concept. Since it is infused with the techniques of ancient times, Blackwork is concretely tried and true.