Earlier this month, both Rachel Leishman and I wrote posts about preparing for getting some nerdy tattoos with Tony at West 4 Tattoos in NYC. Not only was Tony an excellent tattoo artist, but for me, even as someone with several tattoos, it was my first time getting tattooed by a black person. As I’ve walked into many tattoo shops, I see more women and more men of different races, but black tattoo artists, and tattoo artists who are not afraid of black skin, are still unicorns in the industry.
In an article by NPR‘s subsection Code Switch, there is an article called “For Tattoo Artists, Race Is in the Mix When Ink Meets Skin.” In it, they bring up the fact that, when it comes to tattooing black skin, it’s still seen as less appealing than white skin. A lot of this shows up in the portfolios that artists put online which don’t often highlight black skin.
“On the reality television show Ink Master, a program similar to America’s Next Top Model, tattoo artists compete for the chance to win $100,000. Many of the tattoos completed by contestants are featured on the show’s Instagram. Out of the hundreds of tattoos posted, there isn’t a single piece on black skin.”
One of the tattoo artists mentioned is Tyler Brewer, at Kensington Tattoo in Maryland, who said that the majority of pieces he has seen featured in popular portfolios are done on white skin. “Some people may assume that’s the case because you can’t do the same quality of work on darker skin,” he said. “I don’t believe that to be the case.” However, he does add that he “wouldn’t be able to take on something extremely bright and vibrant that I could on a white man on a black man. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do color on dark skin.”
Another artist mentioned is Caitlin Thomas, a popular Australian tattoo artist with 145k followers, who said in an email response to Code Switch that “her work looks best on lighter skin.” She continued, “While I definitely do tattoo people of darker colour, it is not my responsibility to show diversity through my page. The pieces I choose to share are not intended for popularity but rather to showcase technique and clean line work.” Thomas also edits her photos to make the skin seem lighter, “not a matter of race exclusion,” but part of a “branding strategy to feature tattoos on a consistent skin tone.”
So she tattoos people with dark skin, but not ones that showcase enough technique or clean line work to be worthy of showing, because it would make her lack “consistency”? Since this article originally came out in 2016, Thomas has added one dark-skinned person to her Instagram portfolio.
One of the reasons I have yet to get a color tattoo is because I rarely see color tattoos, from these high-end places, on darker skin. Mind you, I do overall prefer the way black and grey look in general, but I remember, even before getting a single tattoo, hearing my white friends with tattoos say, “Well yeah, tattoos just don’t pop the same way.”
One of the many things that were so reassuring about Tony as an artist was that not only did he understand my skin, but he wasn’t afraid of it, either. He took the time to get the shading right, to make sure that the lines were perfect, and to give it the kind of depth it could have had on a lighter skinned/white person. “It just takes time,” he said while I was in the chair. “To get the color you want, with this, you can’t rush.”
Going back to that same NPR article, it mentions Christopher Mensah, owner and tattoo artist at the Pinz-N-Needlez tattoo shop in Washington, D.C., and he says that when he used to work at white tattoo shops, he would hear things like “dark skin is more difficult to tattoo,” and that goes back to skills that tattoo artists are unwilling to learn.
Common excuses are the restriction of the artist’s palette, the “blurriness” of dark skin, and a lack of experience with the “medium.” And they extend from individual shops to the national platform: on the second season of Ink Master, the show’s eventual winner balked at the prospect of working with dark-skinned black men. (“I don’t want the dark canvases,” Steve Teftt said. “They take away half your skill set.”). […] it’s worth wondering who, exactly, we imagine can wear tattoos. And why.
After I got my tattoo, my skin was red, and while I didn’t swell up badly, my skin had this glow to it that came up in pictures. Instead of just rolling his eyes and not putting my picture in his profile, Tony cleaned me up and said to come in the next day, after it had healed a little bit. I did, smiling the whole time about the fact that I now had a dagger and a spear on my arm. The next day we took video and pictures, and all the while, I felt like this tattoo was just one of the most perfect things I’d ever gotten.
It has been through seeing black artists like Rihanna, who actually have nice quality tattoos, that I’ve realized that I can have tattoos and still be feminine and cool like my white counterparts. I’ve been lucky to have been tattooed by awesome and inclusive people, and that comes down to finding artists like Tony, who are great at their work on any skin tone.
So, I highly recommend him and West 4 tattoos for anyone in NYC looking for a tattoo. The shop is filled with non-white tattoo artists who excel at what they do, for whatever skin you have, which is what true artists should be like.
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