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Interview by: Friday 24 August 2018
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The History of Black and Grey

Mark Mahoney, aka the ‘founding father’ of Black and Grey, will be special guest at this year’s London Tattoo Convention. Ahead of our three-day celebration of ink and art, we examine how a rudimentary jailhouse technique became a mainstay of the modern tattoo industry and highlight some of the artists to see at The London Tattoo Convention.

Black and Grey tattooing is one of the most recognisable in the industry. Not limited to just one style, Black and Grey can be applied to anything from realism, portraits, Japanese Irezumi and more.

Although the actual execution can vary from artist to artist, it typically uses a single needle and black ink, with further shades achieved using water to create what is called a “wash”. By using these varying shades artists can build up depth and texture that often lends itself to impressively 3-D and intricate designs.

One of the benefits of Black and Grey tattoos is that they, typically, suffer less from deterioration than brighter colours and have a crisper feel for a lot longer. Artists can use white ink for highlights, and on occasion, in the ink – however this is not considered traditional.

Black and Grey (or Black and Gray in the US), is also sometimes known as Jailhouse tattooing due to its unusual origins.

Although there was a culture of tattoos in prison dating back into the Victorian era, in the 1970s the quality and volume of tattoos in American prisons increased dramatically. There was a rise in handcrafted tattoo machines, usually created from salvaged motors from cassette players, and prison artists were able to create more intricate fineline work at a much faster pace.

However, there were many restrictions on the craft itself given the nature of the setting – tattooing in prisons was, and still is illegal, this meant they were often only able to use a single needle. Tattoo machines would be crafted using whatever was available whether it be guitar strings, paperclips, rubber bands and pens amongst other items.

Colour-wise, they were also restricted to whatever they had at their disposal. Many items used for improvised ink included boot polish, cigarette ash, pen ink – all of which were black and grey – leading to the development of the monochromatic designs we recognise today.

Despite the limited number of tools and resources they had, inmates were able to create hyper-realistic and detailed imagery, of numbering different styles and forms.

Another function of tattoos in prison was for inmates to align themselves with different factions and subgroups. From the Chicano style of religious imagery and skulls used by Pachuco to the infamous fascist markings of the Aryan Brotherhood, tattoos could inform – and intimidate – as much as they would express an artistic vision.

It was around the late 70s and early 80s that the external tattoo industry started to take note of the jailhouse style. At this point, there was a sharp rise in the mainstream of fineline tattoos and the associated techniques and methods around them.

Mark Mahoney of Shamrock Social Club started his career in this era and has become known as the “founding father” of Black and Grey. From beginning his career tattooing bikers in Boston (where tattooing was illegal at the time), to moving to the underground punk scene in New York, he was able to see, and develop, this prison style of tattoo into a celebrated and revered art form.

Nowadays, Black and Grey is represented heavily in mainstream tattooing, with many parlours and artists having it as part of their main repertoire. At the London Tattoo Convention, you’ll be able to discover many artists that specialise in the technique, ins a range of styles and mediums.

Among them is Nick Imms, aka Little Nick, owner of The Church in Redditch.  He has created super-realistic portraits of everybody from Notorious B.I.G to David Attenborough.

"Black and grey, to me, is one of the most timeless styles. It appeals to me as it's satisfying to use tones to create a piece of work,” he says. “I really enjoy the way it ages and look over a few years as they settle into the skin. I appreciate the simplicity of black and grey and that it will stand the test of time."

For slightly different variation on the Black and Grey practice, Susanne König, of Redwood Tattoo in Manchester, takes imagery of animals, mermaids and notable figures and turns them into quirky, Scandi-inspired illustrative work.

And if you were looking for something a bit more avant-garde then check out the work of Paul Goodwin from NR Studio, London. Again, he will also be one of the artists at The London Tattoo Convention and his abstract pieces incorporate minimalist and geometric elements and use Black and Grey to create 3-dimensional structures on the human body. On the technique, Paul says “Black and Grey looks the way I want my tattoos to live and age in the skin.  I love the textures and deep black I can achieve with just a few shades.”

“My style is at its core minimalistic - so I love the way that the tools I use fit into this idea. Using Black and Grey washes adds a certain look that fits with my style.”

The Black and Grey movement started out as a way of prisoners to express themselves in what is an extremely straight-laced and regimented environment. However, the style and technique has developed and flourished over its nearly 50 years to become not only front and centre of the industry, but as creative and fantastical as the needle and mind of the artist allows.

Fineline tattoo by 'founding father' of black and grey, Mark Mahoney

Fineline tattoo by 'founding father' of black and grey, Mark Mahoney

Large-scale black and grey work by Nick Imms aka Little Nick

Large-scale black and grey work by Nick Imms aka Little Nick

Illustrative black and grey tattoo by Susanne König aka Suflanda

Illustrative black and grey tattoo by Susanne König aka Suflanda

Geometric and decorative black and grey tattoo by Paul Goodwin

Geometric and decorative black and grey tattoo by Paul Goodwin

Three to See – Overseas Artists at the London Tattoo Convention

Carlos Torres

This award-winning artist runs his own gallery, The Raven & Wolves, in Long Beach, California and says, “I came into tattooing through my love of art.”

Matt Jordan

Originally from Christchurch but now based in Auckland, Matt specialises in large-scale black and grey. He is widely recognised as one of the finest exponents of realism.

Ellen Westholm

Ellen has built up a reputation as one of the leading Black and Grey artists from her studio in Gothenburg and through appearances at conventions around the world.