My journey to getting more than half my arm tattooed in black ink began in Nashville, in 2014. Fueled by foolish hope and a bit too much booze, I walked into a shop there and got a bright-red heart tattooed on my bicep.

Fifteen months later, I wanted it off. When I spoke to some artists about cover-ups, many recommended a rose, which I didn’t want. So I chose laser removal, despite being told red ink was difficult to remove. Six laser sessions later, and about $1,500 lighter, I was left with scarring and a heart that, at best, had only faded to pinkish-red.

I thought about turning the heart black, which seemed melodramatic, so I went further and settled on a large black band around my arm in memory of a late friend. Black bands have long been worn to honor the dead, to signify the wearer is grieving. None of the artists I spoke to wanted to do that, however.

“Go see Hoode at Black Vulture,” one of them told me. “He does stuff like that.”

So, in 2018, the artist who goes by Hoode tattooed black ink from mid-forearm to the bottom of my shoulder, working in some other designs — and he wanted to go further if I’d let him.

Most people collect tattoos like fine works of art, adorning an empty wall of skin with an assortment of colorful pieces, for life.

But tattoos don’t need to be colorful, or last forever, and since I last saw Hoode in Fishtown, he’s become a “blackout” specialist, often covering large swaths of skin in black ink. People are traveling from all over the world to Black Vulture Gallery on Girard Avenue for his simple yet striking work.

“I’ve been doing it for a very long time, decades, but they never really caught on, at least not in the U.S., until recently,” he said on recent spring afternoon at a bar beside the shop.

Hoode, a Philadelphia native who’s been tattooing for decades, said he was always good at “saturation,” packing a lot of ink into the skin. That’s not as easy as it sounds — Hoode declined to let The Inquirer film him at work, because he doesn’t want to give away his techniques. While he still works with color, blackout work fills his appointment books. He estimates he’s done over 1,000 different blackout tattoos and has 168,000 Instagram followers.

“I would say blackout is 98% of what I do,” he said.

One of Hoode’s biggest customers, Richie “Bones” Grossman, has black ink crisscrossing most of his face. He estimated that 70% of his body is covered — even between his legs — and people, generally, are more interested than horrified.

“I’ve never really had any bad interactions,” he said.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman, in a Medium.com post about two of his tattoos, didn’t explain the large black bar on his right forearm. It appears to be a blackout, though there’s no hard definition. Fetterman couldn’t be reached for comment, but Twitter detectives found the black tattoo covered up some Nine Inch Nails lyrics that used to be there: “I will make you hurt.”

Hoode said he didn’t do that tattoo.

Heavy black tattoos, some artists and websites have pointed out, are among the oldest traditions in the art, dating back thousands of years. For a long time, across most of the world, black was the only color available. The word “tattoo” even has roots in Samoan and Polynesian culture, where large pieces were done with black ink. The popularity of black “tribal” tattoos in the 1990s is directly linked to those early roots. Artists like Chester Lee from Singapore have merged blackouts into a style described as “neo-tribal.”

Hoode said many tattoo artists don’t like the “blackout” style, feeling there’s little art involved. When Hoode did blackout work on celebrity tattoo artist Kat Von D, of the reality series LA Ink, she faced some backlash on social media from fans who didn’t like the aesthetics. Hoode was working on Kat Von D again when she came to Philly this month and in a new Instagram post, she urged her 8.2 million followers to be positive.

In recent years, many have questioned whether tattoos such as Asian dragons, Polynesian tribal tattoos, or Chinese lettering are forms of cultural appropriation, not simply borrowing, if inked on people outside of those cultures. Blackouts have been called into question, too, with some suggesting that too much black ink could be tantamount to blackface.

“It is also [insensitive] to think that blacking out your skin as a white person is a ‘trendy’ thing when, for centuries, being dark-skinned in this nation has been a curse and cause for pain, strife, economic slavery and injustice, stolen wealth and legacies, ruinous incarceration rates, violent death, and dreams deferred,” Elisheba Mrozik, a Black tattoo artist in Nashville, told the website Byride in 2021.

Jacci Gresham, a Black tattoo artist who’s run her own shop in New Orleans since 1976, said blackouts have been popular in Europe for decades and she’s seen their popularity grow in the United States. Gresham, 75, said she’s never done a blackout and isn’t interested in starting, but isn’t troubled by the trend. Most tattoo artists, all over the world, use a lot of black ink, she said.

“I think it’s just a really simple way to cover up tattoos you don’t like,” she said.

There was really only two ways to remove a tattoo before blackouts became popular. The first is to cover it up. and often that means getting a much larger tattoo that blends into the original. Some artists specialize in this. The second option is laser removal, in which a laser is used to “break up” the ink under your skin, allowing your body to absorb it. Lasers work best on older, black tattoos, and often takes multiple sessions to see results.

For, Grossman, a Bucks County native who graduated from Council Rock High School, old tattoos were reminders of a past life he wanted to forget — he’s sober today — and black was a way to start over.

“For me, I felt like it was an evolution of my soul and my spirit, to move on from things,” he said.

That’s the same reason Kat Von D choose her blackouts.

“Feels so good to finally cover up so many of the tattoos I got back when I used to drink,” she wrote on Instagram after her first blackout tattoo was completed. “Those tattoos meant nothing to me but landmarks in dark times, and I’m so lucky to have the best blackout artist @hoode215 cover them up for me!”

Hoode said those are common stories but sometimes people just want a new look. Sometimes he incorporates black into and around existing tattoos, to make them “pop.”

“For a lot of people, it’s a clean slate, a fresh start,” he said. “A lot of people come in with sleeves they’ve been wearing for 30 years and they’re tired of it.”

Joseph Ward, of Delanco, Burlington County, said he chose blackouts because he was sick of looking like everyone else who had tattoos. His first attempts at blackouts with other artists went terribly he said, and he’s since gone to Hoode to black out most of his torso, just below his chin.

“Right now, I’d say I’m 35% covered,” he said, “and I’ll probably get to about 50%.”

While blackout tattoos would seem to be the last option, a final tattoo with no return, there’s always room to innovate — some artists have started tattooing in white ink over top of them.

Frequently asked questions about blackout tattoos

How much does a blackout tattoo cost?

Most artists charge per hour. That fee can vary depending on the artist’s skill and availability. Customers can expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $250 per hour, but it can go even higher. The more famous the artist, the higher the fee. Hoode declined to say how much he charges for blackouts but said the style does not cost more than a regular tattoo.

How do I care for a blackout tattoo?

While modern ink is always improving, sunlight will fade tattoos and people who want to protect the colors can wear sunblock. (Dermatologists do not recommend putting sunblock on healing tattoos.) It’s best to just stay out of the sun for a few weeks while it’s healing. If you have dry skin, it could be more noticeable on a blackout tattoo.

How painful is a blackout tattoo?

All tattoos are uncomfortable to an extent and some body parts — ribs, ouch — are more sensitive than others. Pain tolerance also varies greatly. In my experience, the blackout work was less painful than other tattoos.

What are the downsides to a blackout tattoo?

Some dermatologists say that tattooing that much ink in your skin can run the risk of infection if it seeps into the bloodstream. I have never had an infection or allergic reaction from my half-dozen tattoos. Other dermatologists say a blackout tattoo could make it more difficult to diagnose skin cancer.

Random tidbit: Strangers have often touched my arm without asking. My freckles are still visible through my blackout tattoo.

Jason Nark