The sharing of extreme black-work tattoos on public forums is often met with a mixed response. Anyone who follows tattooists dedicated to solid black tattooing or individuals who wear black-out sleeves will know the comments of which I speak: why would you do that to yourself, it’s not art, there’s nothing to look at, and so on. As Suolk-based tattooist Sam Rivers admits: “People feel shocked to see such a drastic tattoo, be prepared for a lot of questions!” Reading some of these reactions, it came to my attention that, as other forms of tattooing increase in popularity (watercolour, neo-traditional, etc.), we are perhaps unaware and uninformed about why these forms of bold, black tattooing can be just as (if not more) beautiful as their fellow tattoo styles.

Tattooist Jasn Basn reminds us that black-work is nothing new: “it’s actually one of the oldest styles of tattooing known to man, and it’s just coming full circle in a dierent form.” For him, and Germany-based tattooist 3Kreuze, the process of creating work of this kind transports us back a time of tribal tattooing, when marking your body was a prolonged ritual of self-awakening, a very dierent experience than our modern-day receiving of smaller, intricately-designed tattoo pieces.

For a tattoo aesthetic that utilises only one colour, there was clearly so much to say about solid black-work: the pain, the ritual, the transformation. I was keen to speak to these three tattooists who were dedicated to black in very dierent ways. Sam Rivers, Jasn Basn and 3Kreuze are all committed to an art-form that celebrates the use of this single colour solidly across large areas of the body. I knew they could shed light on this all-encompassing aesthetic and allow us to explore why it’s a special act of devotion from both client and artist.

Both Jasn and Sam often utilise heavy black alongside intricate pattern-work: “most of the time I use black-work to create negative space areas,” says Jasn. For him, these solid black areas create a balance between light and dark, detailed and simple. “Large areas of blacked-out space create more contrast,” confirms Sam. In his work, solid black can ensure that everything else is “more readable.” Having bold, black areas doesn’t just allow the eye to focus on nearby pattern-work but also makes certain that the design can be appreciated from a distance. For Jasn this is “a huge aspect of tribal tattoos for millennia.” From afar, the tattoos’ flow can be appreciated, and the heavy black-work allows the entire piece to “accent the natural structure of the anatomy.”

Whilst creating something that is “aesthetically pleasing” is the top of Jasn’s list, tattoo artist 3Kreuze believes that pure black represents something much deeper than its aesthetic form. As well as tattooing solo, he’s recently formed a new tattoo art collective ‘Brutal Black’ with tattooists Valerio Cancellier and Cammy Stewart. Together, the three artists tattoo large-scale, solid black body-suits on individuals across a short period of time. Their last project was in Germany and it continues this Autumn in Italy with a brand new canvas. If you’ve followed the project online (search Instagram @BrutalBlackProject) you’ll see instantly that the tattoo experience about so much more than the tattoo itself. For 3Kreuze, it’s about “the pain, the blood, the crying, screaming and begging,” which he says are all necessary for the beautiful end result. The Brutal Black Project confirms that this approach to tattoo art isn’t just about the final product on skin, it’s about the journey undertaken by tattooist and client, the marrying together of souls through a savage yet spiritual ritual. 3Kreuze’s original attraction to this work was an attempt to create something “more interesting than flash stolen from old dead tattoo pioneers”. For many, tattooing is the use of similar imagery, the repetition of classic flash, the mimicking of particular rules and techniques. 3Kreuze’s strong black-work, however, challenges these older traditional tattoo forms through its omission of what we usually consider the core elements of many modernday tattoos: a particular image, a limited time in the tattoo chair, bold outlines, shading, colour blending, contrast, dierent tones and saturations. With work that blacks-out large sections of the body, there is no room for these usual considerations. “Go big or go home,” says 3Kreuze. Read any tattoo blog or magazine article and you’ll see that tattoos also often have specific meanings to the wearer-they are more often then not representations of loved ones, memories, concepts and ideas. With these radical tattoo approaches, however, artists and clients are looking past ‘the why’. There is no meaning, no history, no sob story, “just a body filled with black ink,” says 3Kreuze, “that’s it.”

As well as making a strong statement against traditional tattoo forms and the concept of meaning, solid blackwork challenges an aspect of a digital-age tattooing that is all too common-copycats. Every single day the same tattoos are recycled, re-traced and re-tattooed, and this made 3Kreuze specifically love his primitive art-from “from the first day I saw it-you can’t steal a culture, design or idea, as it’s just big, black spots on the body.” His artistic approach may have a strong motive in terms of his own personal challenging of previous tattoo approaches, but that’s not to say that the artist still puts his client’s motivations first. The individual being tattooed, and their connection to the project, is just as important: “I always take time to talk with the person before-hand... I need to know [them] before we work together. A big session like this, ideas grow together during the process.” Artists aside, how does this work like this make its wearers feel and why are they drawn to it? I spoke to model Kate (aka Mandala Kitten) who is in the process of blacking-out sections across both of her arms. “Having sold black makes me proud,” she says. Kate is adorning her arms in this way to blacken-out old work that couldn’t have been covered any other way. I wondered-was a solid black-out tattoo always a cover-up, or were there other motivations present?

“Most of my work is cover-up,” admits 3Kreuze, “the more shit the client has, the more black he will get!” In recent years especially, black-out tattoos have definitely become more common as forms of cover-ups: “people are very accepting as black-work as a cover-up option,” confirms Jasn. Black-outs, blast-overs (where you can see the existing tattoo in the negative space) and white ink over black are just some of the options when considering heavy black-work as a potential cover.

All artists confirm that cover-ups aren’t always the motivation, and “some people just love black-work” (Jasn). 3Kreuze explains that it’s not often terribly bad work that sits beneath the black-out. The intentions for the client aren’t always specifically to get rid of something horrible and unwanted, but often if they are drawn to a solid black look, incorporating or going over existing work can just be something that needs to happen in order to do the new project justice. It’s “tattoo e¡ciency” as one my own tattooists recently described. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that black covers anything. That being said, executing an area of solid black shading is an immense skill. Many aspects need to be considered and it’s not as simple as just wiping across existing work. As Jasn explains, scar tissue that may appear from the old tattoo needs to be contemplated prior to starting as it will show though and often be accentuated. Time must be taken to allow the skin to settle between sessions and “you just need to make sure you don’t damage healing tissue”. I’ve seen many unsuccessful black-out tattoos myself, so don’t be fooled into thinking that any tattooist can take on such a challenge. Smooth black-work is di¡cult to achieve and it takes, not just skill, but patience from the artist. This mental requirement is one of Jasn’s greatest loves with his art-form: “bringing that meditative, repetitive approach calms and clears my mind.” Also, as with any tattoo, seeing how an artist has created solid black-work fresh, and how it has healed, are two very dierent ball games. Watching his work evolve over the years is extremely important for Jasn and as a client, seeing how an artist’s work heals over time is key in knowing which tattooists in the world have mastered this specific craft.

One of the questions I was keen to pose as part of this exploration was-is the black-out tattoo sleeve merely a trend? Has its position on many popular tattoo influencers encouraged a new generation of black-out fans who may adorn their bodies in this way for a specific, almost celebrity-influenced, reason? All artists agreed that any concept of trend needs to be put aside, and cannot even be properly considered as these tattoos will always remain to be “huge commitments”: “blacking-out sleeves is increasingly popular but that takes nothing away from anyone getting it-this takes full-on commitment,” explains Sam. 3Kreuze confirms that there is no concrete answer to my question, as these tattoos “are not really about trend or lifestyle, they are for life and not comparable to fancy lettering copied from Pinterest.” These decisions are so huge for the client, they can never be compared to previous and current tattoo trends. As Jasn says, “of course there will always be those who do it because they see others do it, that’s human nature to fit in, but the people who get this work truly do see the beauty in it, for whatever reason.” Just like this sacred art-form, we shall come full circle and end with an exploration of the questions that gets asked repeatedly in response to this tattoo style: can we call it ‘art’? Many look at a large, solid area of black and criticize them for not being “artistic”. Model Kate confirms that many can see black tattoos like hers as “radically oensive”. For me, importance lies in the perhaps seemingly contradictory truth that art isn’t actually just about how something looks. Especially with tattooing, an art-form steeped in rich ritualistic history, the process, emotions and connections remain just as, if not more, important than the piece of work itself. Visit any art gallery in the UK, or read any art history book and you’ll see that art, in fact, follows no rule system in terms of the aesthetics. Realism, portraiture, cubism, impressionism, minimalism, surrealism-over the vast space of time that we’ve existed as human beings, we’ve constantly re-invented what it means to create art. There are an infinite number of ways to express a single concept, and this is where the true beauty of art lies, I believe especially with the artists who are boldly seeking to find new ways of doing this. As Jasn explains, blackwork of this nature can “represent the un-manifested realm of pure potential... from darkness, comes light.” Art history aside, tattoos remain to be a method in which we can express ourselves as individuals, simply “if it feels right for that person, than great” (Sam). The notion that tattoos mean different things to different people will continue to be the most interesting thing, for me, about this art-form. The truth lies in Jasn’s perfect statement: “art is subjective, everyone has a right to their own perspective.” 3Kreuze admits that we don’t need to absorb the perspectives of others as often “they don’t want to understand”. There are far more complex rituals at work here that leave no room for external opinions: “these sessions are a push to your own limits, a fight with your own body, a passion and energy to change the body and the result... is beautiful.”