With the Black Lives Matter movement gaining new momentum in recent months, the conversation around racism has moved into aspects of our everyday lives —including our jobs. Many Black and Brown people, myself included, have been reflecting on our relationships with others in the workplace, as well as finding where we fit within that community.
The issues that we face as people of color spans across all different lines of work. For those in the tattoo industry, racism can look like many different things: from discriminatory hiring practices in tattoo shops to whitewashed images of clients on Instagram, and even the racist imagery and cultural appropriation seen in many common designs. Among tattoo artists of color, conversations surrounding these problematic practices and holding artists accountable are nothing new, but renewed, widespread interest in diversity and inclusion has brought these discussions to a wider audience, and led to much reflection and calls for change in the tattoo industry.
Tattooing's Representation Problem
Arguably the most obvious form of racism in tattooing is the lack of representation for Black and Brown skin — both in terms of who is hired at tattoo shops and the images shown in many artists’ portfolios. The latter can be especially prevalent on Instagram, where many artists only post photos of finished tattoos on lighter skin tones or even desaturate their images so their entire feed is in black and white.
Kandace Layne, an Atlanta-based tattoo artist, started her career by apprenticing and working at City of Ink, a Black-owned tattoo shop, for seven years. Although she says there was always diversity at City of Ink, she continues to see the erasure of Black folks throughout many other parts of the tattoo community. In Layne’s observations over the years, she’s found it rare for white-owned tattoo parlors to hire anyone who isn’t also white.
She believes the problem is perpetuated by the education system for tattooers. If an artist does their apprenticeship in a predominantly white studio that doesn’t frequently tattoo clients with darker skin tones, the apprentice will simply never have had the experience to do so. "Tattooing Black skin needs to be something that everyone learns," she says. "It is strange to me knowing that some people have completed apprenticeships that never even touched on it."
Jar, a Dominican American tattoo artist living and working in the Bronx, says that the biggest misconception they’ve heard is that people of color, especially those with darker skin tones, can’t get tattooed. She says that a lot of her clients have told her they were previously turned down or told that the colors they wanted in their tattoo wouldn’t work on their skin tone. But Jar debunks that theory, saying that many colors work perfectly well on Black and Brown skin tones, it just takes some additional education to understand which ones. "I decided I wanted to tattoo people of color predominantly because I understand color theory," Jar says.
Layne says she always notices when an artist doesn’t post any examples of their work on clients with darker skin tones — especially when they work in a diverse city like New York or Atlanta. "It’s just really strange that there are artists who want to pretend Black people don’t exist," Layne says. "They want to pretend there are no Black clients, no Black tattoo artists when our ancestors have always done multiple forms of body modification."
For white artists who are confused about tattooing on deeper skin tones, Layne suggests that even just following more BIPOC tattoo artists on social media could help them learn more about it. Layne adds, "I recently saw someone say online that a Black tattoo community doesn’t even exist, and I think that most artists think that."
This perceived lack of diversity is so pervasive that Tann Parker — a self-taught hand-poke tattoo artist based in Brooklyn — started an Instagram page called Ink The Diaspora to highlight tattoos done on darker skin tones, especially focusing on bodies that are marginalized in other ways as well.
Parker’s page is a curation of many artists, rather than a promotion of their own work. "It’s an aesthetic page, but I’m trying to promote this aesthetic of seeing tattoos on dark-skinned people [and] queer individuals. It’s my way of combating colorism in the tattoo industry," they explain. Parker says the tattoo shops they feature on the page can see a boost in business from clients who are eagerly seeking artists who will work on Black and Brown skin.
Racist Imagery in Flash
As is happening with many aspects of our everyday lives, people in the tattoo industry are reexamining the racist and appropriative histories behind some of the most commonly seen designs. Parker notes that a lot of art has been recycled from decades ago and repurposed as "traditional flash sheets." Specifically, they mention a popular image of a Native American person with a religious headdress, as well as a disturbing image of a shrunken head that resembles an Indigenous person.
There are less obvious examples too: Recently, Tann says they’ve come to see clown tattoos as racist as well. Clown imagery was often used to mock Black folks, through the over-exaggeration of hair and makeup.
"I'm thinking a lot about cultural appropriation in tattooing," Layne says. "I think sharing cultures is positive...but when people are tattooing designs or elements from other cultures, it’s important to know what you’re tattooing and do it justice, especially when it’s not yours." She adds, "This especially includes making sure you don’t whitewash other cultures deities and making sure the person getting tattooed understands what they’re getting and not just doing it because it's 'cute.'" Layne encourages other artists to research images they aren’t familiar with, and recognize that "some [designs] are so sacred to other cultures that they may not want people tattooing certain designs or motifs without permission or initiation."
Jar echoes this sentiment, saying, "I used to tattoo anything on anyone, but as an artist, and a queer POC, it’s my responsibility to protect the community and stop spreading [appropriation]." Now, she asks people about the piece that they want and what it means to them, in a conscious effort to avoid creating appropriative imagery. Jar believes all tattoo artists have the responsibility to clients to encourage them to make a good decision and be intentional with what they want to put on their bodies.
Parker notes that many artists aren’t held accountable for cultural appropriation because "they do such great work." They use the common example of white tattoo artists whose style emulates traditional Japanese tattooing. "Is that tattooer learning and living in Japan, absorbing that knowledge?" Parker says. "Traditional tattooing like that is its own cultural process, but [a white artist] just ripped that off."
Combating Racial Injustice as a Community
As the conversations surrounding anti-racist work in the tattoo community continues, some white artists have voiced their allyship with the BlPOC community, while pledging to make an effort to "do better" in their own practice.
Layne reflects on the behavior of many artists who may have previously participated in racist or culturally appropriative practices, saying that although she was offended, she realized it was simply ignorance. "It’s just ignorance and sometimes you gotta let people be where they're at, if that makes sense. You can try to get through to some people, but what you tell them might not click for a long time. Either way, I try to plant the seed and move on," she says. "I am doing what I can and I will continue to do that, and I hope it inspires others to do the same." Layne feels that the hours that artists spend with their clients could be used to open the conversation. She says, "If white tattooers tattooed BIPOC more often, they probably would have more of an understanding of who we are and what our lives are actually like. We are all unique in our own ways."
As for Parker, they are continuing to run Ink The Diaspora, while also making plans to open their own shop. (Their studio, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club, is now open in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn.) They say that a lot of folks now have been asking them for tattoo artist referrals, or even wanting them to use the page to call people out for racist or predatory behavior. "I understand that people want me to alert the community, but people can’t just keep DMing me...I don’t want to center my page to be a callout," they say. Taking on something like this is not an easy feat, and can be emotionally exhausting for one person to deal with. Parker says that they have been setting boundaries because often people engage with them as a platform, and not a person. Like a lot of us, they take breaks when they are feeling overwhelmed, which can be a great form of self-care. They say, "I’m mostly working to build this platform to my intentions, think about things, and introduce more to it."
Both Parker and Jar emphasize that an inclusive future for the tattoo industry must also go beyond skin color. "A trans person could go to a Black, cis artist and still be misgendered and face discrimination," Parker says, noting that one of their goals in opening a private studio was to create a safe space for people of all genders and sexualities. Similarly, Jar opened a private studio after hearing from queer clients that they felt uncomfortable in traditional settings. "I wanted to make a safe place for these people," they explain. "That’s my sole purpose with tattooing. I’m trying to heal my community one tattoo at a time."
Ultimately, the onus is on everyone giving and getting tattoos to create positive change. For white folks who aim to be allies, it’s your responsibility to not only call out other white people but educate them on how to be better. For Black and Brown folks, we should strive to work on holding each other accountable and not let each other perpetuate these ideals. "I keep telling people," Jar says. "You know how growing up there are those artists we are constantly looking up to? We always said we wanted to be them — but we’re them now!"
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Originally Appeared on Allure