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What color is original tattoo ink?

Tattooing has become an increasingly popular form of body art and self-expression. While there are many colors and shades of tattoo ink available today, the original tattoo inks used throughout history were limited to just a few pigments. In this article, we’ll take a look at what the original colors of tattoo ink were and how they were produced.

A Brief History of Tattooing

Tattooing has been practiced across the globe since ancient times. Some of the earliest evidence of tattoos comes from Ötzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummified body discovered in the Alps between Austria and Italy. Ötzi had several simple tattoos including lines and crosses on his skin created using the soot of burned wood or coal.

In Ancient Egypt, simple tattooing using dark inks was practiced, especially among women. The mummified remains of Ancient Egyptian women revealed tattoos depicting abstract designs and shapes as well as animals like bees and lotus flowers. The ink used was likely soot-based as well.

Tattooing traditions using natural pigments were also documented among Pacific Island cultures and Native American tribes. Common tattoo ink colors included shades of black, gray, and earth tones.

As global exploration connected distant cultures in the 18th and 19th centuries, the practice of tattooing spread throughout Europe and North America. Professional tattoo artists emerged, experimenting with new inks and techniques.

Original Tattoo Ink Colors

Because tattooing traditions arose independently across the world, the original inks used varied based on locally available resources. However, the earliest inks tended to be derived from soot and other dark-pigmented substances.

Here are some of the most common original tattoo ink colors:

  • Black – Made from soot, burned wood, oil residues, or iron oxide pigments. The most common original tattoo ink color.
  • Dark brown/black – Produced from roasted nuts, seeds, and other organic matter.
  • Gray – Ash, soot, and graphite mixed to achieve lighter black/gray shades.
  • Blue-black – Indigo, logwood, and gunpowder could produce a bluish-black pigment.
  • Red/brown – Rust, iron oxide, and reddish clays used to create earthy reddish tones.
  • Green – Malachite, verdigris, or plant-based dyes produced subtle greens.

As you can see, black and darkened pigments derived from burnt and organic materials dominated original tattoo inks. Ink recipes were simple, using whatever pigmented substances were readily available regionally. While vivid and complex multi-colored tattoo inks emerged in the 1900s, tattooists relied on basic plant, mineral, and carbon-based pigments for centuries.

How Original Tattoo Inks Were Produced

Tattoo artists through history had to be resourceful when creating their ink pigments. Tattoo inks were manually produced from scratch using innovative techniques.

Here are some of the main methods used to produce original tattoo inks:

  • Burning/charring – Materials like wood, coconut shells, and sugarcane were burnt to produce black soot and ash pigments.
  • Roasting – Nuts, seeds, grains, bark, and clay were roasted to create deep brown and black carbon pigments.
  • Leaching – Ash was mixed with water then filtered to leach out soluble dark pigments.
  • Grinding – Charcoal, ash, and natural earth minerals were manually ground using mortars and pestles and mixed with liquids.
  • Fermentation – Iron oxide-rich clays were fermented with water to extract reddish-brown pigments.

In some cases, tattoo inks were derived from everyday materials like the soot from oil lamps or cooking fires. Local geology and plant life provided clay-based ochres, indigo, henna, and green pigments. Discoveries of new mineral deposits offered new ink color possibilities to resourceful tattooists.

Why Were Original Tattoo Inks Darker Colors?

There are a few key reasons why early tattoo inks were primarily limited to darker black, brown, and gray pigments:

  • Ease of production – Dark soot and ash were the easiest pigments to reliably produce from burning.
  • Tradition – In many cultures, darker tattoos were the norm and held cultural significance.
  • Injection – Soot-based inks were readily injected under the skin.
  • Permanence – Black carbon pigments held up the best over time.
  • Visibility – Dark tattoos showed up the clearest on human skin.

Brighter and more vivid tattoo inks that we see today had to wait for modern organic and synthetic pigments. While mineral-based colors like red ochre and malachite did exist, they were more labor-intensive to produce and did not inject or retain as well.

Modern Tattoo Ink Pigments

Today’s tattoo inks still utilize natural pigments along with safe synthetic ones. Here are some of the most common modern tattoo ink pigments:

Color Modern Pigments
Black Carbon black, iron oxide black
White Titanium dioxide
Red Iron oxide reds, naphthol reds, cadmium red
Blue Phthalocyanine blues
Green Phthalocyanine greens, chromium oxide green
Yellow Organic azo yellows
Orange Organic azo oranges
Purple Carbazole dioxazine purples

Modern tattoo inks contain high-quality, intensely pigmented ingredients that create vivid colors. While still relying on traditional pigments like carbon and iron oxides, tattoo ink manufacturers can now produce a huge range of bright, stable shades.

Quality Standards for Modern Tattoo Pigments

Today’s tattoo inks are highly regulated, especially in the United States and Europe. While specific standards can vary, here are some general quality guidelines:

  • Pigments must be non-toxic and safe for injection under the skin.
  • Metallic compounds and potentially hazardous elements like lead or mercury are strictly prohibited.
  • Inks cannot contain carcinogens or contaminants that could accumulate in the body over time.
  • Pigments must be uniformly ground into stable dispersions that will not clump or settle.
  • Inks must pass sterility, microbiology, and antiviral testing to prevent infections.
  • All ingredients and pigments must be accurately disclosed.

Reputable tattoo ink brands adhere to high product safety and purity standards. However, some cheaper inks still contain concerning contaminants, which is why patronizing professional tattoo parlors is so important.

How Tattoo Ink Colors Are Standardized

Achieving consistent, standardized tattoo ink colors requires careful quality control during manufacturing. Here are some of the main ways tattoo pigments are standardized:

  • Precise pigment measurement – Pigments are carefully weighed out in batches using precise gram measurements.
  • Uniform particle size – Milling and grinding equipment are used to create even particle sizes for smooth consistency.
  • Thorough dispersion – Powdered pigments go through extended wet-milling and mixing steps to disperse particles.
  • Quality raw ingredients – Stringent specs are placed on pigment purity and properties.
  • Color matching – Spectrophotometry and computer color mapping ensure color accuracy.
  • Lightfastness testing – Inks are tested to ensure they resist fading over prolonged light exposure.

Following meticulous protocols results in tattoo inks that produce the intended colors consistently during tattooing. This helps artists reliably achieve the colors their clients want.


While vivid tattoo inks are available today, tattooists originally depended on simpler soot, plant, and mineral-based pigments to create body art. By burning and charring organic materials, early tattoos were primarily shades of black with some brown and gray. Over centuries of innovation, tattooists unlocked the potential of ingredients like ochre and indigo for a broader palette. Modern chemistry now allows virtually any color to be safely used in tattoo inks.

However, the origins of tattooing are rooted in the deep blacks of burnt wood and healing traditions. Next time you admire the colorful complexity of modern tattoos, remember the creativity and resourcefulness required to produce original tattoos from ashes and earth using fire, water, and determination.