Over the past few years, as tattoos have gone from a subcultural phenomenon to a mainstream form of self-expression, tattoo artists have started practicing a much wider range of styles. A decade or two ago, if you walked into a tattoo shop it was likely that nearly all the artists there exclusively did American Traditional style designs (the kinds of tattoos you’re used to seeing on old school bikers and sailors). Today, that’s no longer the case. Now, you can get pretty much any style you can dream of, from realism and minimalism to abstract, glitch, and, of course, watercolor tattoos.
“The name of the style speaks for itself,” Baris Yesilbas, a New York based tattooist, says of watercolor tattoos. “It’s inspired by and resembles watercolor paintings. In watercolor tattoos different shades of color connect with each seamlessly, fading out at the edges instead of ending in sharp, solid lines like in a traditional tattoo.” However, while watercolor painting has been around for millennia—it was popularized in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but our early ancestors were painting using watercolors as far back as Palaeolithic era—watercolor tattoos are relatively new.
Below, we explore the style—discussing its origins, debunking myths around it, explaining the process of tattooing it, and even sharing some of our recommendations for great watercolor tattoo artists.
From rebellion: the origin of watercolor tattoos
Watercolor tattoos were popularized by artists acting out of defiance toward the traditions of the tattoo industry.
Even just 10-15 years ago, the majority of tattoo shops across the United States specialized in old school, American Traditional designs. There’s no doubt that American Traditional tattoos are iconic—with their bright colors and solid black outlines, they were the backbone of the tattoo industry in the U.S. for a very long time—but as tattoos started to become more mainstream, contemporary tattoo artists opted to distance themselves from this conventional style and the artistic limitations it imposes. It’s precisely this move that has led to the growth of watercolor tattoos.
One artist who challenged the norm is New York’s Amanda Wachob, a tattooer and fine artist whose work has been on display in museums across the globe. During her apprenticeship 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,” she tells Inside Out. But at the time, she was primarily tattooing renditions of figurative oil paintings and her clients wanted tattoos that looked like the art they presented to her at their initial consultation. Black outlines would ruin that.
“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 people 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!’.”
The process: watercolor tattoos from start to finish
Tattooing is a process that, for most artists, involves the same set of tools and the same basic application method. These tools include (but aren’t limited to) needles, inks, stencils, and cleaning supplies. And the general application of a tattoo involves the artist dipping their needle(s) into the ink and then poking that needle into the skin. That’s a long winded way of saying that in terms of the actual tattooing process, getting a watercolor tattoo is technically no different than getting any other style of tattoo.
Watercolor designs can take a lot longer to tattoo than other styles—like minimalism—though, because of the amount of filled-in color they require. “A full watercolor piece, with all of its shading and blending, will generally be much more involved and time consuming [than a simple, single color design]”, explains Wachob. That said, executing a watercolor tattoo isn’t necessarily more complex than tattooing other elaborate styles like full-color realism or embroidery. Basically, any piece that incorporates fine details, shading, or multiple colors will take longer to tattoo. Luckily for their clients, both Yesilbas and Wachob consider themselves fast tattooers. They say that a palm-sized piece shouldn’t take either of them longer than an hour or two to complete.
The process of designing watercolor tattoos can also be quite different from other styles. Typically, tattoo artists draw out their designs—either on paper or digitally—in advance of a client’s appointment. Wachob, on the other hand, often paints her designs for clients because her watercolor tattoos more closely resemble paint than pencil. She then traces the painting and, like most artists, converts that into a stencil which she transfers to her client’s skin.
Debunking the myth that watercolor tattoos age poorly
A quick Google search for ‘watercolor tattoos’ will return dozens of articles warning that watercolor designs age poorly. According to the artists who specialize in the style, though, this is pure myth. The reality is that all tattoos age, regardless of style, and watercolor tattoos don’t necessarily age better or worse than any other kind of tattoo.
“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,” explains Wachob. “This will happen to all tattoos, regardless of their style.”
As someone with several different tattoo styles on her body, Wachob admits that she actually wants to get all of her pieces with black outlines removed. “They are slowly expanding into grey blobs,” she says, “but my color work still looks bright. It doesn’t bother me that the color pieces have softened a bit, because it makes them look even more like paintings.”
If you want to keep your watercolor tattoo looking as fresh as possible for as long as possible, you need to take care of it the same way you would any other tattoo. Yesilbas recommends carefully following your artist’s aftercare instructions until the piece is healed, and then keeping it moisturized and avoiding sun exposure, which can fade the ink. If you must be in the sun, he encourages clients to use sunscreen to prevent the premature aging of their tattoos.
Where can you get a watercolor tattoo?
If you’re considering in getting a watercolor tattoo, we recommend choosing an artist who specializes in the style. Although the two tattooers we talked to for this guide both work in New York, there are tons of talented watercolor tattoo artists around the globe. Some of our favorites include: Russian artists Pis Saro and Dasha Ebalotnaya; Toronto-based tattooers Shirley Liang and G.NO; South Korean tattoo artists (known only by their first names) Saegeem and Jenny; and Italy’s Marco Pepe and Claudia Denti.