This now popularized category of tattoo style originates from ancient tribal tattoos and folk arts and continues to be a modern favorite to this day. At its most basic foundation, blackwork is simply black ink pigment contrasted against the negative space of blank skin. Absolutely no color is used to execute this style. Although, stippling techniques may create an amazing illusion of depth. Inspiration for ideas can be found in ancient culture’s symbolism and meanings, the Dark Art Movement, etching/engraving styles, calligraphy, and illustrative or graphic arts.


Blackwork is often commonly mistaken for blackout tattoos – a method and aesthetic style that completely masks the skin beneath a solid, opaque patch of black ink. Blackout differs in how extensively it covers the body and doesn’t showcase a distinct design. This means that all designs consisting solely of black ink, which feature negative space (also known as ‘skin breaks’) fall into the blackwork category. So, to sum up, in the same way that all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti; all tribal tattoos are blackwork, but certainly not all blackwork is a tribal tattoo.


In particular, Polynesian tribal tattoos swirling, abstract patterns are largely responsible for the art of blackwork coming into being. Made to compliment the natural contours of the body, every dot, line, symbol, and even placement of the tattoo changes its meaning. Tribal men and women alike adorned their bodies with ink. Oftentimes, these pieces were based around a person’s own character traits or life story, legendary accomplishments, depicting lineage, spiritual beliefs, and tribal affiliations. The upper half of the body represents human spiritual nature, whereas the bottom half of the body represents our physical grounding on Earth. Tattooing was a ritualistic process only performed by shamans and priests and in some cultures, only by women, due to the sacred nature of their tattooing traditions. Tribal tattoo influence can still be clearly seen in modern Blackwork tattoos.


Also pivotal in the development of Blackwork tattooing was the origination of Spanish Blackwork embroidery. Black threads (sometimes combined with gold silk) contrast against light-colored linen fabrics. The immensely intricate designs were often geometric and floral in nature. However, it should be noted that the name does not belay its actual country of origin. Several centuries before Spain claimed the name, the North African Moors people were already embroidering clothing with similar motifs. The Moors’ unique style eventually reached the Andalusia region, often seen on raw linen with the exception being the use of tan or blue thread in some cases. It was from this region that the ornate patterns emerged into common use. Many once believed the original name to be derived from Katharine of Aragon’s Spanish heritage. She is responsible for introducing Blackwork to England upon marrying King Henry VIII. Around this time, embroidered clothing was reserved exclusively for the upper class; with royalty even going so far as to arrest anyone lower than a knight’s standing who dared to don Spanish Blackwork! However, upon Katharine and Henry’s divorce in 1533, in what can only be assumed as petty vengeance, “Spanish Blackwork” was simply shortened to “Blackwork.” The strict rules on who was allowed to display the style began to loosen. Despite the confusing origin, Spanish Blackwork made such a powerful impression that its creativity lives on visibly today in our tattoos.


The ornamentation and decorative style of Henna can be traced back roughly 4,000 years, during the Bronze Age of humankind. The paste used to apply the impermanent tattoo is a combination of dried and powdered Henna leaves from the plant itself, water, fresh lemon juice, and eucalyptus oil. The application of Henna dye is called Mehndi, which often adorns hands and feet, sometimes extending onto the arms and legs. After application, the mixture naturally dries over time and crumbles away from the skin, revealing an intricate pattern lingering in brown pigment. Henna may be considered a version of Blackwork due to the lack of chroma. Typically, its use is for decorating a bride and groom’s hands/feet as a pre-wedding ritual. Designs tend to be floral and flowing, primitive, or even tribal depending on the artist. Ancient Mehndi art form and present-day Blackwork tattooing share a lot in common stylistically, a link unbroken by thousands of years.


The Dark Art Movement goes hand in hand with Blackwork art. Macabre subject matter comes mysteriously alive through ink in one of the most surreal and grim styles. With pure black ink, the possibilities for stunningly beautiful and grotesque art are endless. This movement is one unto itself with subject matter ranging from demon skulls and gore, horror movie characters, to witchcraft runes, to thought-provoking tarot card readings. Imagery pushes the boundary of what is known and perceived by the conscious mind. What sets it apart is the message behind the art. Often the intention is to protest conventional mindsets. Dark Art raises questions of controversy for this very reason; many times the subject matter is misunderstood or disputed by viewers unfamiliar with the movement. This style connects fringe communities together through a strong visual identity. The Dark Arts Movement continues to inspire awe and fear into the hearts of all tattooed today, untangling the depths of the human psyche, Blackwork being predominantly used.


Despite the wide array of inspirations and time passed between them, these movements and folk arts are as relevant today as they were thousands of years before. We have a long history of artistic techniques to thank for the quickly achievable Blackwork tattoos made in shops nowadays! Modern aesthetics have learned much from the past, and the better we understand our past, the better we can appreciate the present styles. Whether you’re looking for a tribal Blackwork tattoo, a standout floral piece, or maybe something dark and spooky, Blackwork is all about your personal expression and connection to the past, as well as the present.


Post written and sourced by Joy Payne, Header image by Lucky Malony