The Queen Bee Tattoo Parlour – ‘White supremacy colors everything, even art’: Tattoo artists of color fight the myth that the ideal skin for ink is white
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The Queen Bee Tattoo Parlour
Sezin Koehler had the perfect tattoo in mind. She imagined blue and purple swirls running up her arm to match the colorful tattoos adorning her shoulders. After hours of planning and research, she brought her idea to a tattoo artist.
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Koehler, 42, went to several artists who said her skin was too dark to be tattooed in color. They suggested black and gray, even though Koehler already had blue and purple tattoos.
“Artists should be able to paint on any canvas,” said Koehler, a Sri Lankan and Lithuanian American cultural writer from Southeast Florida. “And if you can’t, there’s the internet, books, networks of artists who can teach you. If you want to learn, you can. So the fact is, they’re making a choice that they only want certain types of people to tattoo. And that’s racist. There’s no excuse for that.”
Racism manifests itself in different ways in the tattoo industry, experts told USA TODAY. Tattoo artists of color point to discriminatory hiring practices, racist or culturally appropriating images in tattoo designs, wage disparities and lack of respect for tattoo artists of color.
As the industry has internally called to account its own whiteness, many artists point to a major problem: a pervasive perception that the ideal skin tone for tattooing is white. Despite deep histories of tattooing in communities of color, tattoo artists say, this myth persists and exposes racism and colorism in the industry.
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Several artists of color told USA TODAY that tattooing darker skin is different than tattooing lighter shades. Darker skin often gives lighter scars, requiring the artist to switch to different areas and be gentler. Colors can also look different on darker skin, and layered color tattoos can last longer.
But claims that dark skin cannot be tattooed in color or in certain styles that require more detail are false, the artists said.
Lianna DeGuzman, a Filipino American tattoo artist in Oakland, California, said that although this story has existed since the beginning of tattooing in the United States, the issue has only come to light in recent years, especially since the killing of George Floyd last. years brought calls across industries to examine systemic racism.
“This is a long overdue conversation,” she said. “People have become too comfortable discriminating against clients with dark skin and have no consequences.”
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If tattoo artists aren’t trained to tattoo dark skin, she said, they turn away clients, leave them traumatized and perpetuate the “ideal skin color myth.” Many artists and clients refer to that behavior as “skin shaming,” a microaggression.
Koehler said that as a result of skin shaming, she no longer goes to white tattoo artists and spends more time researching artists to see if they tattoo people of color.
DeGuzman, an artist who does finely detailed work, said many of her clients have also been turned away by other white artists who say detailed tattoos are impossible on dark skin.
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“It clouds her view of the tattoo world in general,” she said. “The traumatic experience stays with them and leaves a lasting impression.”
The apprenticeship system for tattoo artists perpetuates the myth, DeGuzman said. White artists pass the story on to students in white-owned shops, which already don’t often tattoo people of color.
Quiara Capellan, an AfroLatina tattoo artist in Brooklyn, New York, said her clients of color often feel embarrassed to ask her for colorful and detailed tattoos because of their experiences with white artists.
“When an artist says they can’t do it, it’s just that they don’t know how to do it,” she said. “And that’s not a reflection on the client. It’s a reflection on the artistry and skill level of the artist. There are tons of artists who work with dark skin and know how to do color and detail work on those skin tones.
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In the past year, Capellan said, she’s seen more Instagram pages highlighting tattoos on dark skin. But still, she said, most tattoo artist feeds she sees lack diversity. Capellan said artists often de-saturate their images so their clients’ skin appears lighter in their portfolios.
“A lot of artists say it matches their aesthetic, but why is this their aesthetic?” she said. “Why does your aesthetic erase dark skin tones? At the end of the day, it’s colorism. It’s erasing someone’s blackness or someone’s identity.
Tattoo magazines, media and TV shows perpetuate the narrative that white skin is ideal for tattooing, said Tyrone Cooley, a black tattoo artist and owner of Tri-Cities Tattoo Company in Atlanta.
On the “Ink Master” tattoo show, artists often avoid tattooing dark skin. In the show’s ninth season, one contestant said, “That’s the one I wanted the least. How do you tattoo really dark skin like that?” In the same season, a contestant referred to a “skin color issue” with a black couple.
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“White supremacy colors everything, even art,” Cooley said. “They may not realize they’re racist, but it’s hardwired into them. That’s how racism often works in America.”
She said modern tattooing in the United States was co-opted from its roots in many indigenous spiritual and cultural practices, and tattooing goes centuries deep into the history of countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan, Egypt, Morocco, Ethiopia and many others.
Colonizers often showed a preference for lighter skin tones and embedded colorism in the countries they colonized, Koehler said.
This idea that whiteness is “the standard” continues in the tattoo industry today and is often the default skin tone for emojis, crayons and Band-Aids, said Kandace Layne, a tattoo artist at Queen Bee Tattoo Parlor in Marietta, Georgia.
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Layne said the word “dark” is so stigmatized that she uses words like “deep” or “heavily melanated” with her clients.
“Historically, many companies have decided not to work with black people,” she said. “There was the explicit discrimination. When tattoo artists say they won’t tattoo someone because their skin color doesn’t match their style, that means to me they’re still doing it. It’s heartbreaking that people don’t see that because, what it is. : discrimination, racism.
They have seen artists do free color tests to see how colors and inks perform on darker skin tones. And more artists are transparent about learning how to tattoo on dark skin.
Another beacon of hope that many pointed to were Instagram pages celebrating tattoos on dark skin, including Ink the Diaspora.
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Tann Parker, a black tattoo artist, created Ink the Diaspora in 2017 to inspire people of color to get the tattoos they want, despite what someone may have told them about how their skin isn’t ideal for tattooing. The site also helps connect people with artists of color and increase the visibility of these artists and their work.
“I always want to offer inspiration and hope because I love all my tattoos, but to get to that point, you have to overcome some insecurities that this industry will put you through,” Parker said.
In short, white tattoo artists don’t have all the information, even though they’re often seen as the experts, Parker said.
Other tattoo artists of color recommended tattooers swap white backgrounds on sample tattoo designs for different shades, stop filtering images to lighten skin, and seek training in tattooing dark skin. Several artists told USA TODAY that most synthetic practice skins only come in lighter tones, so they recommend printing and purchasing practice skins in different skin tones.
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While hiring more tattoo artists of color is a step in the right direction, Layne said, she is reluctant to encourage shops to do so until she changes their cultures from within.
“There’s a lot of internal work and it has to come from a genuine place, not just not wanting to seem racist for fear of losing business,” she said.
Capellan worries that most of the work to combat racism in tattooing falls on the shoulders of artists of color rather than white artists.
“Tattoo artists of color can’t make the whole change on their own,” she said. “We have been fighting this battle for a long time.” Tattoos on the queen are not only artistically appealing, they are also spiritually uplifting. Choose yourself from these amazing queen bee tattoo designs.
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