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Why white tattoos are a terrible idea

If you believe everything you see on Pinterest, white tattoos are so hot right now. All the street cred without the commitment: What’s not to love?

Sported by celebrities like Kate Moss and Lindsay Lohan, white tattoos are the gateway ink for the tattoo virgin. My first thought before getting my first tattoo was — isn’t there a less, um, permanent way to do this? I quickly got over that when I realized everything they say about tattoos is true: They hurt like a bitch, but they’re surprisingly addicting. Now I have two more.

More: 15 Emotional stages of getting a tattoo

White tattoos vs. black tattoos

Somewhere between a temporary tatt from a quarter machine and a lifelong commitment, white tattoos toe the line. Maybe that’s why they’ve become so popular. Rudimentary tattoos have been around since Neolithic times, but white tattoos started popping up at the turn of this century. The concept is nothing new: White tattoos use only white ink, without a black outline or additional color. This means white tattoo art is basically an outline without shading, creating a subtle, scar-like tattoo in the skin.
Compared to traditional black or color ink, white tattoos take longer to create, says Josh Squires of Richmond Tattoo Shops. Squires explains that it takes multiple passes to get white ink to show up under the skin — which is perhaps why white tattoos have a reputation for being more painful. White tattoos also fade quicker than regular tattoos and may yellow over time as the ink is broken down by the body.

The big problem with white tattoos

Forget what your Facebook feed is telling you for a minute. Sit down with any reputable tattoo artist, and they’ll tell you a different story. Jules Bodenchuk, tattoo artist at As You Like It Custom Tattoos and Fine Arts in Boulder, Colorado, points out the biggest issue with the white tattoo fad (and any other Internet trend for that matter): What you see is not what you get.

“White tattoos are increasing in popularity, but unfortunately from a pretty under-informed perspective. Although I see the value in any loved tattoo, this trend leaves a lot to be desired, particularly over time. Many pictures of white tattoos floating around on the Internet were taken directly after the tattoo was finished, which is misleading for a few reasons,” says Bodenchuk.

She explains, “First, the skin is raised, which puts any highlight from light sources on the tattoo itself, making it more visible. Also, the skin around the tattooed area is usually a little red from irritation, which adds contrast in the moment, but will not be there once the skin is no longer irritated. Finally, in the process of healing, layers of skin cover the tattooed area, meaning your bright white tattoo will end up just being a highlight of your own skin tone (usually a version of yellow, as most people have a yellow base to their skin tone).”

More: 7 Steps to cover your tattoo with makeup

Don’t waste your money, says Jake Johnson, 20-year tattoo artist currently working at Tigger’s Body Art in Dallas. “You might as well just tattoo with water. It’s not painting a wall. It’s staining your skin. I get asked about these a lot because people see them on Pinterest and other Internet sites.” He continues, “I tell them: Just because you see it on Pinterest doesn’t mean it will work. Those photos are right after they’re done, but they usually don’t look like that a week later.”

When to get a white tattoo

Right about now, the outlook is pretty bleak for fulfilling your tattoo dreams inspired by your “White Ink” Pinterest board. Tattoo artists will still do white tattoos — since it is a rising trend, after all — they just want you to know what you’re getting into.

Johnson doesn’t pull any punches when meeting with a new client who has that white tattoo gleam in their eye. He’ll take their money, but he warns, “I tell them, ‘If you really want it, I’ll do it but it’s a waste of money.’ It won’t show up the way you think it will. It’s very rare that it works, so you’re wasting your money.”

It’s possible to see some success with a white tattoo when you have realistic expectations and when you choose the right location. White tattoos fare better on areas of the body where the sun can’t reach, like under the upper arm, and are likely to fade within a couple of weeks to a few years — which Bodenchuk considers a big waste compared to black ink. She adds, “Any time I do a white tattoo, I require people come in for the tattoo twice to really get as much pigment in as possible, and I do not offer my usual free touch-ups (which, of course, doubles the cost and the pain — so you really need to want it!).”

Celebrities love them, and tattoo artists hate them. Can’t we all just get along? Even I can see that the white tattoo trend doesn’t make any sense — because I’m not in the practice of flushing $200 down the toilet — but white ink does have its purpose in the tattoo shop. White ink was never supposed to be used as a stand-alone color, but within larger artwork, it can really make your tattoo pop. “The best way to use white, outside of just mixing into other colors, is to use it as a highlight in a tattoo,” says Bodenchuk. “It won’t be white, but it will give you the lightest light possible, which is desirable in any piece of art to create dynamic contrast.”

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