The delicate, painterly designs that define watercolor tattoos were popularized by artists acting out of defiance toward the traditions of their industry; an industry that, ironically, was also popularized by defiance and rebellion. Old-school, “Sailor Jerry” tattoos are iconic. They shaped the American tattoo industry with their bright colors and solid black outlines. But, as tattoos have become an increasingly mainstream form of self-expression, artists have moved away from this conventional style and the artistic limitations it imposes. It’s precisely this move that has led to the growth of watercolor tattoos.
Although watercolor painting has been around for thousands of years, dating back to when our early ancestors used the method for cave paintings, watercolor tattoos as we know them are relatively new. According to Baris Yesilbas, a New York based tattoo artist who specializes in watercolor designs, the style has grown with the advent of Instagram. “The style speaks for itself,” he says. “It’s inspired by and resembles watercolor paintings: different shades of colors that connect with each other in a great harmony, fading out at edges instead of [ending in] sharp, solid lines.”
From rebellion: the origins of watercolor tattoos
Amanda Wachob is much more than a tattooer. She’s an experimental, fine artist whose work has been on display in museums across the globe. She was also named one of the 50 most creative people in the world by AdAge. Apprenticing in a traditional tattoo shop, Wachob “was taught that the ‘correct’ way to tattoo was by outlining everything in black first, and then shading from dark to light.” But at the time, she was primarily tattooing realistic figurative oil paintings and her clients wanted tattoos that looked like the art they presented to her at their initial consultation, which the ‘correct’ way to tattoo would not allow.
“Why would I throw a black outline around it and make it look like a cartoon or an illustration when what they wanted was for it to look realistic? I started giving clients the option to leave the black line out of their tattoo.” Defying tradition in this way worked for Wachob who says that, after a while, her newly defined style started to catch on. “People would see my work and the first thing they would exclaim was, ‘I’ve never seen a tattoo like that! It looks like a watercolor painting!’.” This led to some press and, soon enough, her work was going viral to the point where her website collapsed from an onslaught of traffic.
Breaking away from tradition is what also led to Yesilbas’ style. “I love playing with colors on my tattoos,” he says. “For me it adds a character to the tattoo. Just leaving it black seems kind of soulless. Watercolors are free from boundaries and rules.”
The process: inking watercolor tattoos
Tattooing is a process that, for most artists, involves the same set of tools, including (but not limited to) needles, inks, stencils, and cleaning supplies. However, different styles of tattooing require varying methods of planning and execution.
Compared to a minimalist, black line tattoo, for example, the process for watercolor tattoos can seem quite complex. “A full color piece, with all of its shading and blending, will generally be much more involved and time consuming [than a simple, single color design]”, says Wachob. That said, executing a watercolor tattoo isn’t necessarily more complex than tattooing other elaborate styles like high-realism or anything that incorporates fine details, shading, or multiple colors. It’s more in the planning that watercolor work can differ from other styles of tattooing. While tattooers usually draw designs (on paper or digitally) for a client prior to their appointment, Wachob often paints her designs for clients because her watercolor designs more closely resemble paint than pencil. She then traces the painting and, like most artists, makes a stencil which she transfers to her client’s skin.
In terms of time, both Yesilbas and Wachob consider themselves fast tattooers and suggest that a design that is palm sized or smaller shouldn’t take longer than an hour or two; similar to other styles of tattooing. For something larger, the length of time it takes to complete depends on the tattoo’s level of detail, but in Wachob’s case, she says she’ll always book multiple sessions if she has to go past two hours “as that seems to be when most people start to feel a little uncomfortable and twitchy.”
Debunking the myth: watercolor tattoos age poorly
A quick Google search for ‘watercolor tattoos’ will bring up several articles warning that these designs ‘might age badly,’ but according to the artists who tattoo them, this is pure myth. The reality is that all tattoos age, regardless of color or detailing, and watercolor tattoos don’t necessarily age better or worse than any other style. “As soon as tattoo ink goes into the skin, our cells called macrophages attack the ink and try to carry it away because it’s a foreign substance that doesn’t belong there. That’s why a lot of older black tattoos look grey and blurry. It’s the result of the body breaking down the ink,” says Wachob. “This will happen to all tattoos, regardless of the style.”
As someone with several different tattoo styles on her body, Wachob admits that she actually wants to get all of her black outlined pieces lasered off. “They are slowly expanding into grey blobs, but my color work still looks bright,” she says. “It doesn’t bother me that it has softened a bit, because it makes it look even more like a painting.”
Yesilbas also highlights that to maintain any tattoo, including watercolor tattoos, you have to take care of it. Sun exposure is the main factor he warns clients to watch out for, and he encourages them to use sunscreen to prevent the premature aging of their ink.