What is the low-down on brown ink tattoos?
February 14, 2008 1:55 PM   Subscribe

I am planning an extensive tattoo and would like to have it done in brown ink. I have seen a few that look beautiful but the tattoo artist I have chosen is advising me against it as he said it will not fade out well (he says it will degrade fairly quickly and fade unevenly). I'm in a quandry because I'm not crazy about black tattoos. Does anyone have personal experience with this? I haven't been able to find much online about it. Here is an example of what I like.
posted by livinginmonrovia to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Do you mean Henna?
posted by drezdn at 2:05 PM on February 14, 2008

I definitely do not mean henna...
posted by livinginmonrovia at 2:15 PM on February 14, 2008

Not knowing anything about tattoos, I'd advise against having a tattoo artist (or doctor, dentist, etc.) do any work where they are not confident in the end result. Why not get the opinion of another well respected artist who is comfortable with brown ink and discuss your concerns.
posted by whatisish at 2:22 PM on February 14, 2008

1: Some people are allergic to red tattoo ink. Red ink is an ingredient in brown ink. If you are allergic and get a brown tattoo, it will fade and blotch badly.
2: Some older tattoo artists think that if a colored tattoo isn't outlined in black, it will fade. This is not true.
All colored tattoos are believed to need more care than black to prevent fading, but with good care they can last and stay vibrant just fine. Treat it well and it should do fine, if you are not allergic. Lotion and sunscreen are your friends.
Also, what whatisish said makes a lot of sense. Find someone who says they can do it, and whose portfolio backs it up. Look at lots and lots of photo albums of real work, not just flash on the walls, until you find someone who does the style that you want well. Then expect to pay well for good quality work.
posted by agentofselection at 2:25 PM on February 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Henna's not tattoo. It's very cool, but they're different.

I know that brown ink is used in cosmetic tattoos, for women who never again want to make up their eyebrows or whatever. But if your tattooist is advising against it, then I'd listen. You can call around to different shops, maybe, and see if anyone else has more information about it. Different inks do react differently from each other, and if I were planning a big piece, I'd sure want it to not fade or get blotchy. I'd say either go with a different color, or wait a couple of years to see what happens with brown inks - formulations change, and they may come up with one that's stable, or more stable than the ones currently available.

Or what whatisish said. Go start looking at portfolios.

I have tattoos but nary a brown one in sight.
posted by rtha at 2:27 PM on February 14, 2008

agent said exactly what i was going to say. if your artist doesn't feel comfortable doing THIS tattoo for whatever reason, choose someone else for THIS tattoo.

my guy doesn't do portraits, so if i ever wanted a portrait, i would go to someone else.

one thing i've noticed with brown in tattoos (on other people) is that it fades out to a reddier brown than it was originally. so if you want a chocolatey brown, you're probably not going to get it.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 2:33 PM on February 14, 2008

I have a brown tattoo.

It's henna colored, but permanent ink. In three years, it hasn't faded or gotten blotchy at all, and it still looks nice. However, everytime people see it, they think it's fake, since it's a henna color. Or they think it's a scar. (And that's annoying...)

You can get some excellent work from a really good artist in blacks and greys. Mark Heggie (in Michigan) did some fantastic work on my fiance.
posted by santojulieta at 2:37 PM on February 14, 2008

Ooh, I just checked Heggie's site, and if you take a gander at his tattoo portfolio, check out the third row down, all the way to the right. That is a great example of really good black and grey. My fiance's sleeve was way dark four years ago, but has mellowed out substantially and is surprisingly tasteful now.
posted by santojulieta at 2:41 PM on February 14, 2008

Hm, that "brown" ink does look like it'll fade faster. My boyfriend doesn't like pure black tattoos either, this is one of his two. It's got black, brown and tan shades, and the style of shading looks like it'll fade nicer. If you don't want black ink, try something like that.
posted by herbaliser at 2:45 PM on February 14, 2008

Wow... you know, I have more than a few tattoos, I'm friends with an artist, most of my friends would be called "heavily tattooed" people. And now that you say it, I can't recall EVER seeing a brown-ink tattoo.
Not sure why, but it makes me wonder if your artist has some basis for his misgivings.

But, if you've seen it done and like it, why not go to one of those artists?
posted by Kellydamnit at 2:50 PM on February 14, 2008

It's pretty standard wisdom throughout the industry that tattoos should have black outlines or, if they're a single color, be solely in black instead of another pigment. Your artist has provided you the most common reasons—that other colors will age badly, fade unevenly, and lose their structure in the skin. I'm not surprised that your artist was unwilling to do an "extensive" tattoo in only brown, especially if you've planned any level of detail; detailed linework is the first casualty of aging in tattoos.

I'd recommend you do more research before forging ahead. Check through BMEzine.com for photo reference. Look for older pieces, at least five years old, that lack black structure. See how well they've aged. Would you be happy with something similar on your body for the rest of your life? Talk to artists who've been practicing their craft for many years; talk to tattoo collectors who have similar pieces.

If you're comfortable with the worst-case scenarios, you should be able to find a talented, experienced artist who's willing to bend the "rules" for you. I'd expect him to voice concerns, at which point you'll assure him that you've done your research and you're aware of the dangers. Don't be a jerk (or surprised) if the artist refuses. Just move on. And always, always look carefully at portfolios. You'll want someone with several years' experience and a good amount of skill.

This is a popular request in most tattoo studios, often refused. If you want this, you'll have to work for it.

(Note, also, that the Flickr photo is tagged "henna"; perhaps it is not permanent?)
posted by kwaller at 2:51 PM on February 14, 2008

I have a huge tree done with the trunk all in browns and it looks fine... granted, it has only been four months. I also have a large all red tattoo and it also looks fine with even fading. It is 5 years old.

I suppose it all depends on your skin tone, and the reaction you have to the ink.
posted by AsRuinsAreToRome at 2:52 PM on February 14, 2008

Yes, this artist I have chosen does amazing black and gray tattoos. It' just that I had my heart set on brown. I even told him I didn't mind uneven fading...I was picture kind of like a tuscan plaster...really old art...but I certainly don't want it to be mistaken for a scar!
posted by livinginmonrovia at 2:54 PM on February 14, 2008

Kwaller, the tattoo in the Flickr photo is permanent. I've contacted the girl who has it. "Henna" refers to the color only.

Also, the artist I have chosen has 18 years experience and I've seen his work.
posted by livinginmonrovia at 2:57 PM on February 14, 2008

p.s. The artist who did the brown tattoo in the pic I like is in Hawaii, and I'm not willing to fly out there since it's going to be an ongoing project...not a one-time thing...
posted by livinginmonrovia at 2:58 PM on February 14, 2008

I had a white tattoo done four years ago, and it was pretty much invisible after a year and a half. I took care of it, but where a black tattoo fades to a more subdued dark colour, my white one faded to nothing. I presume brown would be a little more resistant than white, but it WILL fade and if it's not all that dark to begin with, it will become much lighter soon enough. I'd still say go for it, but maybe with a darker shade of brown than you had in mind?
posted by twirlypen at 3:05 PM on February 14, 2008

My old boss has a predominantly brown tattoo- some bits have very, very fine black lines to add definition. It looks great, and it's about 8 years old. Could you use very fine black shading to make it a little clearer?
posted by indienial at 3:06 PM on February 14, 2008

I am not a tattoo artist but I do know that colored inks tend to fade in sunlight, more or less depending on the color. Some colors fade more than others. This has nothing to do with the skill of the tattoo artist and everything to do with the properties of the ink.
posted by konolia at 3:52 PM on February 14, 2008

I have had a dog with brown stripes on an arm for more than 20 years. It only gets sun in the summer, but it gets a lot. It may be a little uneven, but I think it still looks good. In fact I love it. And it wasn't from a high end shop, just some dive in NH. I think you should go for it.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 4:17 PM on February 14, 2008

My tattoo is in browns and yellows, and I had it intentionally outlined in brown instead of black because I hate how black ink looks bluish under the skin after a while. Either way tattoos fade and change, but I'd rather have it fade in brownish-rust tones than in bluish-green. Just my personal preference (and perhaps yours).

It's only a year old, though, so no major fading has taken place. I can send you a picture if you're interested; just MeMail me.

(The white parts, though, which are just highlights, have never laid flat on my skin. They healed fine (except for a bit more flakiness in the beginning) and have never been irritated, but are very slightly raised, like the mountains on a world globe. If anyone has had a similar experience with white ink I'd be interested to hear it.)
posted by loiseau at 5:29 PM on February 14, 2008

(Oh, and to the wear of the brown ink I should mention I have very fair skin with freckles in some areas near but not under the tattoo.)
posted by loiseau at 5:31 PM on February 14, 2008

Having more than half of my body tattooed I would say that you should be fine. The number one cause of fade is really SUN. Stay out of the sun with tattoos and if you must expose it, slather on a high sunblock. Just be mindful that even with heavy sunblock you will still experience a great deal of color loss if you go out in the sun everyday.

I have a lot of browns in my tattoo and it's held out fine. The real problem is white which will fade in six months to a year. I've had my tattoos for about 7 years btw, no long term expert but so far so good.
posted by Holy foxy moxie batman! at 6:14 PM on February 14, 2008

I am not a tattoo artist but I do know that colored inks tend to fade in sunlight, more or less depending on the color. Some colors fade more than others. This has nothing to do with the skill of the tattoo artist and everything to do with the properties of the ink.
posted by konolia at 3:52 PM on February 14 [+] [!]

I also have to add that it does have to do with the skill of your tattoo artist too. If they can't lay your ink down properly, you are going to have problems. Very thin lines also don't tend to last quite as long, at least from what I've seen, and I know a number of tattoo artists that don't want to work with super fine lines because of that. Yes, the ink is the major part of it, but your tattoo artist being able to properly execute the design into your skin has a great deal to do with what kind of condition it will be in 5 years from now.
posted by Holy foxy moxie batman! at 6:19 PM on February 14, 2008

Holy foxy moxie batman!: The real problem is white which will fade in six months to a year.

Nah. Everyone's skin is different. White ink works best on paler skin. I'm really fair and my white looks as bright after a year as it did the day I got it.
posted by loiseau at 8:21 PM on February 14, 2008

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