I have a thesis that lower-back butterfly tattoos were to the nineties what white ink tattoos are for the aughts. The archetype for both is similar: a twenty-something woman who wants a cute tattoo that’s mostly hidden unless they grant you access up close. Kendall Jenner went to in-demand tattoo artist JonBoy for a single white dot. “It’s the little things,” Jenner reportedly told him. She and friend Hailey Bieber have matching broken heart tattoos (a nod to their undying BFF-ness) on their fingers. Jenner’s is in white ink, making it easy to cover while on the runway or in a Vogue spread.
Then there was Cara Delevingne. The model has the phrase “breathe deep” inked across her inner bicep in swirling cursive; a hidden reminder also worn by Lindsay Lohan because, sometimes, she forgets to breathe. (Apparently it’s a thing.)
White ink tattoos, explained
To clarify, a white ink tattoo is the same as a regular tattoo but uses, perhaps obviously, white ink. But according to the folks at Refinery29, white ink tattoos are “the perfect tattoos for people who hate tattoos,” which is a strange choice considering the time, money, and pain that go into any piece, white ink included.
It’s not surprising, then, that Ion Nicolae, owner of Black Line Studio in Ontario, disagrees.”Tattoos have always been a way of expressing yourself, and some clients prefer to be discreet,” he says, which makes white ink pieces the optimal choice for those looking to be more covert with their ink.
They also serve as a standalone for the mellower set — the white ink tattoo on my wrist is only noticeable after I tell its origin story. (Here’s the origin story, BTW, of my first tattoo.) But white ink has always been a part of any well-rounded artist’s arsenal, especially for working on more complex tattoos. “Most modern tattoo artists are painting, and [using] styles as complex as photorealistic and fantasy, so white is a necessary component of these renderings,” explains Adal Ray, a tattooist at Majestic Tattoo in New York. Artists specializing in fine line and single needle styles use white ink for natural shading that creates a tattoo akin to pencil and charcoal drawings on paper. In tattoos using color, white is used to accent the other inks, creating dimension and a bolder rendering.
Some tattoo artists are opposed to white-only tattoos, with the celebrity set giving the absence of color a decidedly basic reputation. Some artists go as far as refusing to do all white tattoos—for example, an artist once tried to talk me out of a white tattoo, but I am especially stubborn and nevertheless, I persisted. But there’s no excuse for judgment. Tattoos are art that’s both personal and permanent, after all.
“I personally like to see clients happy and will always try to guide them as best as I can with their ideas as long they understand the complications with each of their decisions,” says Nicolae, who doesn’t agree with that type of refusal.
What to keep in mind about your complexion
Like any tattoo, there are complications and considerations when getting an all-white piece. While many people select white ink because it blends in, sometimes it blends too well: the healed end result depends on the quality of the ink and the individual’s skin tone, too. Pale skin is a great canvas for white ink, despite its presumed lack of contrast. Turns out the paler the skin, the brighter the white ink will appear in a tattoo.
White ink tattoos look seriously striking on darker skin tones, too, with the hue lending designs depth and highlights, but they tend to fade faster—or altogether in their entirety—on those with deeper complexions. “When [white ink tattoos] are performed on dark-skinned babes, they tend to fade completely after the healing process, which is why many tattoo artists are hesitant to perform them in the first place,” Bustle reported.
But regardless of skin tone, white ink is particularly troubled by father time, explains Ray, having both yellowing and fading potential. That’s because not only is white ink actually it’s less stable than other inks, but also because it’s affected by the sun more, too. “They’ll never stay bright white,” he says.
Which means white ink tattoos may require more frequent touch-ups than the average piece. Particularly when placed somewhere like the wrist, an area that gets more wear. The touchups, therefore often end up utilizing colored or black ink to cover the original design.
PSA: They’re not black light tattoos
Many people make the mistake of choosing white thinking it will double as a party trick under the right lighting, but black light tattoos have different components. Black light tattoos aren’t always white and can be far less subtle than white ink tattoos are.
Some are quick to credit — or blame — the likes of Lohan and Jenner for the white tattoo frenzy. But it’s important to remember that, in general, tattoos are far more common — giving us more of every type of tattoo. It’s increasingly common to draw inspiration from Instagram for a tattoo; that constant suggestion is powerful. With white ink splashed across your feed—on its own or in a fine line style—you’ll likely find a way to add some white to your next tattoo.
If you liked our story White Ink Tattoos Aren’t Just a Celebrity Fad, be sure to check out our post Soundwave Tattoos: The Body Art You Can See and Hear.
Editor’s Note (November 2, 2019): The information about about darker skin tones was added after receiving important reader feedback. At Inside Out, we are always striving to be the accessible, inclusive tattoo resource, so hearing from you always helps us to be better.