All of my tattoos are small, most were done on a whim, and none of them have thin enough lines for my taste. I still love these tattoos, but at the time I was unaware that the needle gauge used on these small designs could have been a little smaller. Over the past couple of years, I started noticing tattoos with thinner lines and a significant amount of tiny details that look like they were blended smooth onto the skin. These are the tattoos I had wanted, but did not know what to ask for. But now I do: single needle.
Single needle tattooing is new to many, but it has a long history within the industry. In the 1970s, Mark Mahoney started tattooing–illegally–and quickly became the founding father of the single needle, or black and gray art. His use of a single tipped needle, like a one round liner, allowed him to create precise details that makes his portraits and skylines seem real. He gave Lady Gaga her David Bowie-as-Ziggy Stardust tattoo and Nefertiti to Rihanna. Mahoney paved the way for other artists to hone their skill and wispy, delicate works of art on their clients.
Anna Cojocari, an artist specializing in single needle tattoos at the Warren Tattoo Studio in Los Angeles, has some thoughts on why the style is gaining mainstream popularity. “With the development of the single-needle style, people can get much sharper detail in much less space than has been possible in the past. As a result, smaller, intricate tattoos have become as acceptable in tattooing as the bold, large designs of the past.” She credits the technique with the development of her own style but stresses it means there’s zero margin for error because there aren’t bold lines to hide your mistakes under.
Artists like Daniel Winter, also known as Winterstone, create small designs that maximize the amount of detail in a small space, like this elephant. He also used a single, ultra-fine point needle to give Lady Gaga a pre-Oscars tattoo commemorating her A Star is Born experience. The needle gives artists the space to create dimension while still using only black ink–the amount of pressure and area of detail is what creates the illusion of gray. But artists are experimenting with the style using color. Eva Karabudak, who currently holds at chair at Bang Bang in New York City, recreates storybook settings, like this scene from Where The Wild Things Are by combining subtle colors and a single-tipped needle.
Although single needle tattoos are generally small, many artists use the technique to tattoo a full scene of full of smaller characters. Stockholm-based artist Oscar Akermo recreated “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David as a forearm tattoo that looks more like an old photograph than
While these artists are creating award-worthy masterpieces on flesh, it’s important to consider how they age. Single needle tattoos are more likely to bleed or blow out and will fade faster than a bolder line. No matter the tattoo, our bodies actively try and remove the ink because it’s a foreign body. With that in mind, some artists specializing in this technique know to cut the black ink because the stronger the pigment, the more likely it is to bleed out. The single needle won’t penetrate the skin as deeply as a three or five round liner, which also increases the chance of the tattoo bleeding. By using less or diluted ink, artists aren’t necessarily reducing the likelihood that the tattoo fades; rather, they’re adapting to make sure the fading looks better. For this reason, many artists will encourage their clients to choose smaller designs, like this tiny turtle crawling across an ankle by Ilwol Hongdam of Hong Kong.
Cojocari reminds people that the technique requires “serious time, training, and experience to do well. It’s not just the needle, it’s the precision of the hand working the tattoo machine coupled with that artist’s skill.” So before choosing your design, research artists who specialize or exclusively use this technique.