“I’m glad I’m tattooing you. I want to practise working on more Black people.”
This was one of the first things my white tattoo artist said to me before he began working on my skin. It should have been my sign to walk out of the shop, but I stayed. My face must have reflected the warning signals in my mind because he quickly followed up by telling me his girlfriend was Black. I wondered if he knew his girlfriend’s race did not bring me comfort.
Nonetheless, I didn’t turn and run. Instead, my tattoo artist drew the black curtains around his station, creating a personal workspace in the studio and giving me privacy to undress and tape my nipples. I was paying this man to get a word etched over my rib cage. I had heard the ribs were the most painful place to get a tattoo. I had also heard your first tattoo was always your worst.
But I was determined to have a great first tattoo. My research? Googling “safe tattoo studios in Ottawa.” I immediately noticed that all the studios’ portfolios exclusively featured tattoos on white or fair skin. Where was the proud “after” shot of a job well done on melanated skin? And where were the photos of melanated tattoo artists?
The tattoo artist asked if the needle hurt. I said no, but the closer he got to my right breast, the more I wanted to tap out. But I didn’t. Eventually, there she was. Thin, delicate, black, sexy. Each stroke and loop created tiny waves until the word “Godspeed” was scrawled onto my skin. It was deeply personal—a congratulations for staying alive through difficult adolescent years and a promise that I would keep going. I loved her.
Unfortunately, she did not go the distance. By the time spring rolled around, the edges of the tattoo had blurred, and it started to look more like a smudge than a word. I would hear, “I didn’t know you had a tattoo!” which would be closely followed by, “Wait, what does it say?”
“Godspeed” quickly became a riddle that teased anyone who saw me raise my arms.
I soon realized this wasn’t a case of a novice tattoo artist. As I grew older, I struggled to find BIPOC tattoo artists but received more tattoos anyway. When I bumped into other tattooed Black people, I found we had some shared experiences. White tattoo artists did not agree when we said our tattoos weren’t dark enough. Our tattoo lines healed with less precision. Images and scripts blurred and bled together. Scars, rather than art, marked the spot.
Tattooing is one of the few jobs where the pigment of a client’s skin actually matters. But the colourism and racial bias ingrained in the industry stops many tattoo artists from learning how to work well on clients with dark skin. If you’re not fair skinned, it takes more effort to get a tattoo you deserve.
It’s already bad enough that tattoos can be seen as unprofessional. In North America, they have historically been stigmatized, treated as dog whistles for those who were othered and pushed to the outskirts of society. Nowadays, it’s generally accepted that tattoos are an art form and a mode of self-expression. But trying to engage with this art form as a Black person and being denied the same access as everyone else is demoralizing. It’s hard to explain the embarrassment of being ostracized within a group that understands what it means to be an outcast.
For me, the only solution seemed to be finding a tattoo artist who shared my skin tone.
I sifted through Reddit threads to try to find solutions, but I instead found users accusing people like me of being racist for trying to find an artist based on race instead of pure talent. They refused to understand that hiring someone who doesn’t share your dark skin can sometimes mean gambling with how well your tattoo will heal. The Black tattoo artists Reddit did recommend were often fully booked or had limited openings. I quickly realized that the supply of artists was not meeting the demand for tattoos.
The issue isn’t that Black people aren’t interested in becoming tattoo artists. But breaking into the white-dominated tattoo industry is hard, and navigating the discrimination within it is even harder. A hostile work environment is what caused Vancouver-based tattoo artist Zion Greene-Bull to quit the management job they held at a studio full of white colleagues.
“Anti-Blackness is so rampant that it can be hard to find anybody who will take you on,” explains Greene-Bull, who says their queerness also made it difficult to feel comfortable working with some artists.
Unfortunately, the racism limiting BIPOC tattoo artists from developing their careers also keeps BIPOC tattoo clients from getting tattoos they deserve. Greene-Bull, who has light brown skin, says they have gone to tattoo artists seeking colourful tattoos only to be told by the artists that they don’t know how to do the job or that the colour won’t work on their Black skin.
“They can refuse you if you’re Black, with little to no repercussions,” says Greene-Bull.
But the difference between tattooing fair skin and dark skin simply comes down to technique. For Greene-Bull, the key to tattooing people with dark skin is a good source of light and an understanding of skin undertones and colour theory.
“It’s all stuff that could be common knowledge,” says Greene-Bull. “It’s frustrating to me how many people have been tattooing for twenty years and just never took the time to learn that and just turn people away because they’re racist—or racist and too proud to learn.”
Scarring or keloids, which are thick, raised scars on skin, can show up when tattoo artists press harder or overwork the skin to make colours more vibrant. This happens more often on dark skin. But there is a way around this. Toronto-based tattoo artist Vegas Ink says that, in addition to learning the undertones in people’s skin, artists need to make sure there is enough empty or “negative” space between the tattoo lining and coloured ink. (We are using their professional name due to safety concerns.) If an artist is needling a flower, the line that draws the petal border should be followed by empty space before the artist adds colour, so that it can fill out as it heals. Done properly, there should be plenty of room for the tattoo to heal and the coloured ink to expand.
To help Black people access artists who can give them adequate tattoos, Vegas launched the Rose Underground, a creative collective to showcase the work of Black tattoo artists across Canada. They reached out to tattoo shops throughout Canada to find out where Black tattoo artists were employed. They called over 170 tattoo shops, found eighteen Black tattoo artists, and then created a directory of Black tattoo artists for clients and artists to connect with one another. By 2021, they had worked with other BIPOC tattoo artists to raise over $20,000 and established TRU Tattoo in Toronto, a studio they co-own with fellow tattoo artist Sam Daveena.
As co-owners, Vegas and Daveena do not profit from the TRU Tattoo studio. They rent tattoo booths at discounted rates to junior artists. Expenses that aren’t covered by these rentals are paid for out of pocket by Vegas and Daveena’s own tattooing work. Even though it is expensive and sometimes difficult to run the business, Vegas says they want the studio to exist for Black artists so they can leave bad work environments, refine their craft, and increase their clientele. TRU Tattoo also engages in community work, offering free tattoos for transgender customers during Trans Awareness Month, fundraising for Black community members during Black History Month, and organizing mutual aid for people who need help.
Vegas also mentors junior artists and facilitates tattoo workshops and modules to support their professional growth.
“Every artist that has come into my space is a junior artist and has trauma from a shop that was run and facilitated by white people,” says Vegas. The junior artists at TRU Tattoo experienced anti-Blackness, misogynoir, misogyny, and exploitation during their previous apprenticeships. “Now they’re here, and they feel safer in this space.”
Giving and receiving tattoos should not have to join the list of racist obstacles Black people face as they navigate the world.
“I don’t believe that us necessarily existing is a radical act. But Black people deserve solace,” says Vegas. “Something as fucking simple as getting our nails done or getting tattooed shouldn’t feel violent and shouldn’t be so difficult.”
I wish my tattoo experience could be as simple as walking by a studio and spontaneously deciding to get inked. I shouldn’t have to do homework about how inclusive every artist is, but I must. It takes time to trust the person bridging the needle and skin. I want to know if the artist working on me is dedicated to our collaboration. I want to know if they feel responsible for the artwork they are about to mould with my skin.
My most recent tattoo is a trident, and I laugh every time I see it. It’s a reference to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians, one of my favourite book series. Each of my tattoos is a work of art, and each of them is important to me for different reasons. I don’t want to wonder if the art on my body is tainted because someone couldn’t embrace the colour of my skin. When I look at the tattoos I’ve chosen to decorate my body with, I want to smile. I want to remember how I’ve been shaped by my family’s faith, images I now carry on my arm. I want to remember the prayer that guided me through a year where I felt I was stumbling through the dark, now memorialized between my feet. When I stretch in the morning, I want to admire the curve of the sailboat on my upper thigh and the wink of cursive on my wrist. Picking each tattoo that adorns my body has been an enlightening and enjoyable experience—and with the right artist, I can’t wait to choose more.
Update, November 28, 2023: This article has been updated to remove Vegas Ink’s legal name.