One of the most commonly repeated myths about tattoos is that color ink doesn’t necessarily work on darker skin tones. What’s particularly enraging about this myth is how pervasive it is—far too many POC are turned away by tattoo artists because of the color of their skin.
The myth that some colors won’t work on certain skin is exactly that, though. A good tattooer should be able to make their style work on anyone. But for POC—who lack representation in the tattoo industry—it can be hard to imagine what colorful designs will look like on their deeper skin. If you scroll through Instagram, you’ll see countless examples of color tattoos on pale skin, but you’ll have a far more difficult time finding examples of the same types of tattoos on darker skin tones. Colors present differently on various complexions, though, so how can people of color know which hues will work best on them?
This is where tattoo color tests (also known as palette tests or swatch tests) come in.
What is a color test? The short answer is that it’s exactly what it sounds like—a process used to “test a range of color inks on clients who want to see how the variations of colors and [ink] brands will heal on them,” according to Toronto-based artist Brittany Randell. To learn more, we spoke to Randell and Steph Mehlhaff, resident artist at Home Bodies Tattoo in Seattle, about tattoo color tests.
The process can vary between artists
“The process of a color test starts with setting up an appointment with a potential client, who usually doesn’t have any color tattoos yet but is interested,” says Mehlhaff. “A lot of the time they already know what design they want to get, assuming that they’re happy with the healed colors.” As a client, if you already know what shades you want when you go in for your color test, you “can choose amongst the colors I currently have; I don’t necessarily test them all,” says Randell. But if you’re not sure exactly what you’re looking for, you can get all of the available colors tested as well.
Some artists, like Mehlhaff, for instance, will even create custom colors depending on their client’s skin tone. “I mix colors differently for different skin tones,” they explain. “I try to make the shade of the ink darker than the shade of the person’s skin to ensure it will be visible for years to come.”
Many artists offer free color tests
The goal of tattoo color tests is to help clients determine which hues look best on their unique skin tone so that they can confidently come back for a full tattoo appointment. Because these tests lead to more business, many artists provide them free of charge. “I give color tests for free for anyone,” says Mehlhaff, although they prioritize people with brown and black skin or individuals with sensitive or allergy prone skin. “It doesn’t cost too much for me to do a color test—maybe around $15 in supplies.”
The cost of supplies can vary between artists though, depending on the equipment they’re using and the number of inks they’re testing. Because of this, Randell charges a nominal fee—between $40 to $60—for her tests, with the overall cost varying “depending on how many colors I’m testing.” She does note, however, that she will provide tests for free to clients who are getting another tattoo during the same session.
Healing is an important part of the process
As with any tattoo, the colors used during a test will appear bolder when fresh. To know what these hues truly look like on your skin tone, you must let them heal. The amount of time it takes for a tattoo to fully heal varies from person to person, but waiting at least a month or two to book a follow up appointment is usually a safe bet.
“We all heal differently and at different rates,” says Randell, “So I would recommend waiting three to four weeks or even a few months to see how the color settles.” Mehlhaff, however, suggests waiting a little longer. “After the color test I think waiting two to three months is ideal before getting the full tattoo design. The test will heal in less than a month, but it takes more time to really settle in the skin. I’ve waited up to 5 months after color tests I’ve done on myself.”
Color tests ultimately make tattoos more accessible
Despite the fact that Randell doesn’t do many color tests—she’s only done three this year, although that’s not abnormal given that most of her work is black and gray—she thinks they’re helpful to the tattoo community at large. “I think color testing can be beneficial to the tattoo industry and potential clients, specifically for those that have melanin, to see what options they have,” she says. “A lot of color tattoos are showcased primarily on white skin and many ink companies don’t advertise or do testing for or on black and brown skin.”
Echoing this sentiment, Mehlhaff says, “I think offering color tests is important because there are a lot of people who fear that colors won’t look good on them, so they don’t get tattoos. This is upsetting to me as a person who thinks tattoos are one of the most beautiful forms of expression and care and love! I want us all to share the joy of tattoos with as little fear as possible. I think colors can look great no matter how different it looks on a white person’s skin versus a dark person’s skin. Because they will look different, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”
If you liked our story Tattoo Color Tests Celebrate Diversity—Here’s How, make sure to check out our gallery of 10 Empowering POC Representation Tattoos.