Watercolor tattoos are a hot button issue in the world of ink.
At first, they were first dismissed as a gimmick or passing fad.
Some traditional tattoo artists even pushed back against the idea.
They said these designs wouldn’t last, both literally and figuratively.
There are even think-pieces that warn patrons against getting watercolor tattoos.
But the technique has held strong since 2010 when it broke out onto the scene in a big way.
In today’s highly visual world, artists and canvases alike are constantly looking for the next big thing.
Something new, something expressive, something original.
Watercolor tattoos are eye-catching.
They stretch the imagination to new and exciting possibilities.
With this innovative technique, artists can create effects never seen in tattooing before.
We’re going to explore everything there is to know about watercolor tattoos.
But let’s start at the beginning!
Watercolor Tattoos: What Are They?
Watercolor tattoos get their moniker from the painting technique of the same name.
In a watercolor painting, pigment is watered down.
Then, the watercolor artist layers it in washes to create a soft, textural effect.
The little inconsistencies in a watercolor painting create feelings of whimsy and movement.
They feel somewhat abstract.
Even if an image is quite literal, the looseness of the color makes everything look less defined.
Almost like you were looking at its reflection in a pond.
It’s a versatile technique.
Some watercolor paintings are incredibly dense.
They can even be overwhelming in their level of detail.
Others make use of negative space.
You will often see playful, or even violent looking spatter in a watercolor piece.
The final result is expressive, less contained than a conventional piece.
In tattooing, the artist uses their tattoo gun in very much the same way.
With a traditional design, they will start with a black outline, then color it in.
The theory is that the black outline acts as a barrier. (more on that later.)
With watercolor tattoos, the outline is less obvious.
You may see a watercolor design that:
- “Hides” the black outline under layers of pigment.
- Has a very thin, imperceptible black outline.
- Has an outline, but colors bleed and splatter outward from it.
- Has no black outline at all.
The result is soft, striking, and dreamy, not at all what people expect when they think of a tattoo.
It can be used in a variety of ways:
- To create abstract designs.
- To make literal designs less tattoo-like in the traditional sense.
- To bring certain elements of an image to life.
Why Do People Like Watercolor Tattoos?
This concept has become incredibly popular over the years.
You can see the influence on the tattoo world, even in work from other genres.
Many tattoo artists are a little more playful with their technique these days.
Of course, it’s no surprise the trend took off.
There are so many reasons to love a watercolor tattoo:
It’s Not Your Grandpa’s Tattoo
Some people call it classic, others call it cliché.
Certain images are just expected in the tattoo world.
Bold outlines and saturated color fills.
Medieval looking script in smokey grey tones. Hearts with banners.
There’s nothing wrong with sticking to what works.
But every generation wants to make their mark on the world.
Watercolor tattoos are innovative and unprecedented.
It makes sense that they’d be desirable for a new crop of tattooed people.
It Lets More People In
Tattoos started as a religious rite.
They were very different from the tattoos we see on Instagram today.
But, as world travelers stumbled upon the art form, they became increasingly intrigued.
This paved the way for modern designs.
When tattoos first became a form of self-expression, they were popular with the fringes of society.
Tattoos used to be limited to pirates, sailors, and circus-folk.
They were seen as the ultimate act of rebellion.
But we have to let go of the tough guy act.
As a whole, people have become a lot more accepting of tattoos.
They’re fairly normal in most mainstream circles these days.
That means we need different styles to accommodate different people.
There are mothers getting tattoos with their daughters, breast cancer survivors getting tattoos to cover their scars, and even the most tame person may have a small reminder of their favorite pet.
A watercolor tattoo can be an appealing choice for someone who wants a little skin ink, but isn’t drawn to the “death before dishonor” designs from yesteryear.
It Expands the Possibilities
There are certain effects a traditional tattoo just can’t achieve.
For a more classic design, artists can utilize watercolor techniques.
It adds texture and movement, and can bring certain elements to life.
A watercolor approach can make fabric look touchable and water look wet.
It can make a night sky more vivid.
In the large landscapes of sleeves and back pieces, it can add an eye-catching element to the aesthetic.
Who Started The Watercolor Tattoo Trend?
There’s no way to know who started this trend, exactly.
The techniques had always existed, they just weren’t used the same way they are now.
And of course, artists in the scene are likely to be influenced by each other.
Sometimes without even realizing it.
That said, there are a few infamous artists people credit as the OGs of watercolor ink.
In the story of watercolor tattoos, Amanda is credited as a pioneer.
A visual artist beyond the tattoo world, she has done projects with some of the world’s most prestigious art galleries.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Rubin Museum of Art, and The Whitney have all collaborated with her.
She’s no stranger to unconventional mediums, and has created pieces on fruit and fabric.
Originally an odd-ball in the tattoo scene, Wachob was never going to hold herself back with the limitations of traditional designs.
During her apprenticeship, she noticed herself wanting to go beyond the black outline.
If a client wanted something more realistic, she thought, it just wouldn’t look as natural with a thick black line around it.
As she learned, she started thinking of a concept: abstract art as tattoos.
When she finally took the idea and ran with it, it was a major success.
People responded enthusiastically to the tattoos.
People would often say they’d never seen anything like them.
This started around 2008 and snowballed from there.
Wachob doesn’t work in watercolor with her canvases.
But, as more and more people used the term to describe her tattoos, it stuck.
She began to explore the aesthetic more deeply, and would do the technique more purposefully.
Other artists took notice of Wachob, and the reactions were mixed.
Some admired the watercolor pieces, others were confused by it.
Still more were inspired, and wanted to harness those watercolor washes for their own work.
June Jung combines single line work, pointillism, and watercolor techniques.
Her tattoos are instantly recognizable.
She has a specific aesthetic that’s often copied but rarely rivaled.
She typically works with natural themes.
This Los Angeles based artist is a bit of a hippy- she favors flowers, insects, and animals.
The organic subjects of her designs suit the watercolor tattoo medium so well.
Jung owns her own tattoo shop- June Jung Art in LA.
She was raised in South Korea, and followed her artistic heart to NYC.
It was there that she attended FIT for art.
Jung started her journey as a tattoo artist around 2010, when the watercolor craze hit.
She comes up a lot in conversations about watercolor tattoos, because it’s something she does so expertly.
Perhaps because she entered an already changing landscape, Jung was able to dive right into these unconventional aesthetics.
She did not seem to feel intimidated by the people or designs that came before.
Maybe it was her newness to tattooing, mixed with her background in fine art, that led to her innovative techniques.
Like her contemporaries, Duskin is intrigued by the line between fine art and tattooing.
She has said in interviews that she always wanted to bridge that gap.
She co-owns Ghostprint Gallery, an art gallery in Richmond Virginia.
At Ghostprint, Duskin’s ideas about art are built into the exhibitions.
They showcase traditional ‘fine art’ alongside unconventional pieces on the cutting edge.
The tension between one art form and another is interesting.
It sort of echoes the tension in the tattoo world as new techniques come into the scene.
Tattoo art has been pushed to the side for so long, and isn’t always recognized as a ‘proper’ art form.
Now, as fine art techniques enter the world of tattoo, they aren’t considered ‘proper’ for that arena.
It’s fascinating to consider where the borders are.
What makes one thing more artistic than another?
What makes one thing more appropriate for a tattoo than another?
These are the questions Duskin’s work seems to ask.
Duskin’s tattoos are a sight to see.
Like June Jung, she seems to favor organic material, especially living things.
Many of Duskin’s tattoos are of winged creatures, and the level of detail is astonishing.
Duskin says it often takes multiple sessions to get her tattoos just how she likes them.
Gene Coffey puts the “water” in watercolor.
His work is full of drippy, beautiful messes, and expressive explosions of ink.
When he first started, he was a “made to order” style artist.
He needed to adapt to whatever style his small clientele asked for.
This is typical for an apprentice.
That grounding in more traditional styles is important.
It helped Coffey develop his skills.
His work outside of tattooing is experimental pop art.
He never thought of his canvas work and tattoo work as intersecting.
They’re still very different, but he learned over time, those lines can blur.
Coffey tells a tale of his early days as an artist.
Once, while looking through his sketchbook, a client asked for an unconventional piece.
It was an abstract blob of ink, and not something anyone would have considered a proper tattoo at the time.
Coffey caused a stir at the tattoo shop with his strange piece, but the client seemed to like it.
He didn’t love the messy blob tattoo, but Coffey sort of discovered his voice through that experiment.
The willingness to try new things and go there.
He started to get a little more playful with his designs, adding a drip here or a splatter there.
Eventually, Coffey became part of a growing movement toward watercolor tattoos with fine art elements.
He currently works out of Long Island, New York.
His pieces are a mix of shadowy and soft, darkness and light.
His work is just as pretty as designs from the above artists, but there’s a dark element to them.
His work appeals to someone who lives in harmony with the discord of life.
The yin and the yang.
Watercolor Tattoo Technique
Watercolor tattoos are not done with special inks or needles.
Every tattoo artist learns a variety of techniques as they study.
To create the watercolor look, an artist needs to practice softer lines and shading.
Some watercolor tattoos are fully saturated, but on a gradient.
An artist may use multiple shades of the same color.
Artists may create these effects by watering down their inks, then layering them.
Exactly how a watercolor on canvas would work.
It’s all about practice, and studying the juggernauts in the watercolor world.
If you are looking to get a watercolor tattoo, understand it’s a technique that takes time to master.
And it isn’t a priority for all artists.
You would be wise to go through someone’s portfolio, and be sure they have experience in the style.
It’s also important to note that not every tattoo artist likes or approves of watercolor tattoos.
Is It a Bad Idea to Get a Watercolor Tattoo?
So, something we do need to address is the backlash of watercolor tattoos.
So many artists dislike this technique.
It continues to cause ripples in the world of ink, and maybe it always will.
But why? Is there any reasoning behind this feud?
Here are a few of the arguments artists make against watercolor tattoos:
The Pigment Will Bleed Out Over Time
Tattoo colors fade and blur on the skin over time.
The argument for black outlines is that they create a skeleton for the design.
Even after it has faded, it will read to the naked eye as a bird, or a plane, or a cupcake.
Without that bold black container, you may end up with a design that doesn’t look like anything.
Or at least that’s what some artists say.
Watercolor tattoos have had some time to fade and age on the early adopters.
So we can start to see the effects.
Thea Duskin herself has a watercolor sleeve.
It has maintained its soft, pretty appearance for just under 10 years.
Duskin explains that, as with any tattoo, proper care is key.
You may want to go back in a few years to re-saturate your color, but this is the case with any tattoo.
And it may not even be necessary.
It all depends on your skin type and level of care.
If a watercolor tattoo is properly done by an artist who understands the medium, it should hold up.
It Fades Quicker
Black just doesn’t fade as quickly as color.
It’s much bolder and more saturated, so it stays on the skin for a long time.
Artists argue that, with several colors next to one another, you may end up with some uneven fading.
A yellow, for example, may fade faster than an orange or a red.
And if your tattoo has a gradient look, this may drastically change your tattoo.
Barriers between colors could also lose their integrity, fading into one another.
Again, every tattoo fades eventually.
It will never completely vanish, but it will become less pigmented.
But with proper care, your colors should stay intact, even if they get a little less vibrant.
As for the color borders, be sure to visit an artist who has worked with this technique for a while.
They will know how to layer their color work properly.
It’s Just a Trend
Some artists claim this look is so trendy and of the moment, it doesn’t have any staying power.
They claim people will come to regret these tattoos as a result.
It’s a matter of personal style.
Watercolor tattoos are so popular because they’re exciting.
Some people were waiting for a look that suited them, and this is it.
Watercolor paintings didn’t disappear from galleries.
So it’s strange to say this look won’t have longevity.
You run the risk of regret with any design, that’s something you know going in.
One thing does ring true for this argument, though.
Some artists leap into the watercolor field without proper research.
Even Gene Coffey has concerns about the watercolor trend.
If you go to someone who is just trying to cash in on a trend, you may end up with an artist who doesn’t understand the medium.
Do your research and pay close attention to your artist’s body of work!
Main Themes in Watercolor Tattoos
Are you sold on the idea of a watercolor tattoo?
As we’ve discussed, flowers are popular in the world of watercolor.
They’re beautiful, colorful, and classic.
But there’s so much more to explore before you settle on an idea.
Here are some of the most popular themes and images within the medium:
Flower Watercolor Tattoos
Rose Watercolor Tattoos
Sunflower Watercolor Tattoos
Orchid Watercolor Tattoos
Hibiscus Watercolor Tattoos
Peony Watercolor Tattoos
Plumeria Watercolor Tattoos
Daffodil Watercolor Tattoos
Animal Watercolor Tattoos
Because of the wispy, soft techniques of this style, it is naturally suited to our animal friends.
Watercolor techniques can easily mimic fur and feathers, making an animal portrait more vivid.
People usually pick animals that have a mystical or whimsical reputation.
The watercolor enhances that feeling of enchantment.
A few furry friends you’re likely to see in this style are:
- Birds and Owls
- Feathers or Paw Prints
Pet Watercolor Tattoos
Cat Watercolor Tattoos
Paw Watercolor Tattoos
Travel Inspired Tattoos
Are you a dreamer with a heavy case of wanderlust?
Watercolor tattoos add a feeling of dreaminess to travel tattoos.
They capture that special feeling of discovering a new place.
Here are a few travel-inspired ideas for your watercolor tattoo:
- Hot Air Balloon
- A Map
- A Boat
Science Inspired Tattoos
Are you an inventor and innovator?
You could pay homage to your favorite scientific accomplishments with this imaginative technique.
Some scientific items you may see in the world of watercolor:
- Galaxies & Celestial Bodies
- The Human Eye
Fantasy Inspired Tattoos
With traditional tattoos, it can be hard to capture a fantastical character.
There’s something about a watercolor tattoo that looks magical and elegant.
And people have begun to utilize that for their favorite fictional beings.
A few mystical beings you might consider:
Nautical Watercolor Tattoos
Lighthouse Watercolor Tattoos
Compass Watercolor Tattoos
Octopus Watercolor Tattoos
Jellyfish Watercolor Tattoos
Marlin Watercolor Tattoos
Proper Watercolor Tattoo Care
If you go through the trouble of getting a tattoo, it’s worth protecting.
Here are some things to keep in mind before, during, and after your watercolor tattoo:
Do your research!
Take the time to find an artist who is going to do it right.
You may end up paying more, but a tattoo is on your body forever.
You are paying for this artist’s years of practice, something you will benefit directly from.
Take your time, save your pennies, and get a piece you’re excited to show off.
During the healing process, you are always told to avoid sunlight.
Even after the fact, it’s important to find an SPF for your daily routine.
The sun can fade the pigment, so either cover up or lotion up.
It’s a small step that makes a big difference.
Be Good to Your Skin!
After your tattoo is healed, moisturize your skin regularly.
Avoid creams with a lot of dyes and scents- they can be abrasive.
Keep yourself soft and supple, and those colors are guaranteed to pop.
Watercolor Tattoo Ideas
New tattoo techniques are great because they open the doors to design possibilities.
Don’t let the haters get you down!
There are plenty of amazing artists who would love to give you a stunning watercolor tattoo.
Still not convinced? Take a look at our watercolor gallery for some artistic inspiration!
1. Watercolor Skull Tattoos
2. Watercolor Galaxy Tattoos
3. Watercolor Abstract Tattoos
3. Watercolor Pet Tattoos
4. Black And Grey Watercolor Tattoos
5. Watercolor Flower Tattoos
6. Watercolor Zoomorphic Tattoos
7. Watercolor Paw Tattoos
8. Watercolor Lettering Tattoos
9. Watercolor Compass Tattoos
10. Sunset Tattoos
11. Watercolor Feather Tattoos
12. Watercolor Mermaid Tattoos
13. Watercolor Eye Tattoos
14. Watercolor Portrait Tattoos
15. Watercolor Light Bulb Tattoos
16. Travel Inspired Tattoos
17. Nature & Landscape Tattoos
18. Watercolor Contemporary Tattoos
Reputable Watercolor Tattoo Artists
Paulo Victor Skaz