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Tattoos on Dark Skin: The Issue of Racism versus Artistic Liberty

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Featured tattoos used with permission by Chris Mensah (floral half sleeve) and Antonio Randrianasolo (rose forearm, black & grey).

No one likes the race topic because no one wants to be called out for being racist. Nonetheless, we need to confront problems head-on in order to solve them. In tattooing, we typically see a majority of white tattooers and clients. Is this majority due to tattoos looking brighter and more visible on light skin, or is there something more sinister behind the statistic?

What occurred to me the other day while reading posts on Instagram is the sheer lack of portfolios featuring darker skin. Almost all well-known or celebrity tattooers do not include a single tattoo on black skin in their portfolio. This got me to thinking: is this coincidental, or do they refuse to tattoo a skin tone that doesn’t show their tattoos off as well as white or lighter skin?

I decided to investigate this question further, and found an NPR article that explains this issue from the perspective of a black woman, Oshun Afrique:

“[Oshun Afrique] won't get work done by artists who have no black people featured in their portfolios. She wants to see people with skin the color of hers, a deep, reddish brown.

Finding artists with darker skin tones in their portfolio can be difficult. To make the point, Afrique takes out her iPhone and opens up Instagram, scrolling through profiles of tattoo artists. She stops at the account of Caitlin Thomas, who has 150,000 followers.

‘Going to her Instagram, her work is really good,’ Afrique says. ‘But I would never get anything done because no one looks like me.’"

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Tattoo image used with permission by Chris Mensah

Oshun Afrique’s testimony proves that this exclusion is being noticed by tattoo clients. If black and other dark-skinned clients are noticing the lack of representation in artist portfolios, talented artists are more likely to miss out on valuable clients like Afrique because of their artistic choices.

“None of the tattoos featured on Thomas' Instagram are on brown skin. Showing only white skin in a portfolio sends the wrong message about beauty, Afrique said. ‘I feel like it kind of feeds into an underlying desire that society has put on you to have lighter skin,’ she said.

On the reality television show Ink Master, [. . .] 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.

The people who get tattooed by the show's contestants are called ‘human canvases.’ The winner of Season 2, Steve Tefft, expressed frustration in Episode 12 when presented with dark-skinned black men as potential canvases.

‘I don't want the dark canvases,’ Tefft said. ‘They take away half your skill sets.’ Tyler Brewer, a tattoo artist at Kensington Tattoo in Maryland, said 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.’

Brewer said 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.’

Thomas, the artist Afrique mentioned, said her work looks best on lighter skin. ‘While I definitely do tattoo people of darker colour, it is not my responsibility to show diversity through my page,’ Thomas wrote in an email. "The pieces I choose to share are not intended for popularity but rather to showcase technique and clean line work.

Thomas edits her photos to make the skin lighter. She said it's ‘not a matter of race exclusion,’ but part of a branding strategy to feature tattoos on a consistent skin tone."

Thomas’s remarks clarify that her choice to showcase tattoos that show up well on the skin doesn’t come from a prejudiced place. She simply wants to show off her work in the clearest way possible. However, since people like Afrique are seeking representation in tattoo portfolios, things become problematic.

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Social activism has always been something I'm passionate about. I was born in South Africa during apartheid, and even though it was abolished in '94, the effects are still felt today. Now as an owner of a tattoo shop and having dealt with many tattooers who specialize in multiple styles, I am torn. I’ve personally made it a point to hire a diverse staff.

With that said, I respect a tattooer’s right to choose who they tattoo, based on the premise that it’s their art. If any of my artists know a tattoo will not look good or heal well, I am the first one to tell them to refuse the tattoo respectfully. Most of my artists, however, happily tattoo all skin tones. I decided to check out our Instagram for Grim City Tattoo Club, knowing that I had recently edited about four beautiful tattoos on dark skin. That was when I noticed none of these tattoos were on our Instagram! I realized immediately that I was guilty of the same thing — white-washing my skin tones and only posting images of tattoos on lighter skin. Since this realization, I have decided to make it a point to ask that my artists photograph their work on people of colour, so that I can post the photos on our social media. In doing so, I am doing my part in trying to show people with darker skin that they are welcome in our shop and in our industry.

What’s Your Opinion?

Is it racist to avoid tattooing someone with darker skin because it doesn’t show off your work the way you want? Is it racist to do the tattoo, but not post the tattoo in your portfolio? Is Photoshopping images for portfolios or Instagram to make dark skin appear lighter an acceptable practice?

If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend checking out Color Outside The Lines: A Tattoo Documentary.

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Tattoo image used with permission by Antonio Randrianasolo

Memphis Cadeau

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of PainfulPleasures.


All images were used with permission from the following tattoo artists:

Travis Cadeau, Grim City Tattoo Club owner & artist
Chris Mensah, DC-based custom tattoo artist (formerly of Pin-n-Needlez Tattoo, DC)
Antonio Randrianasolo, Fluid Ink Tattoo Studio artist