Choosing an artist to trust with permanently marking your body is a big deal. You sometimes spend months looking through their Instagram, imagining their previous designs on your skin, thinking of the perfect placement – but for people of colour, this process can be a lot more stressful.
This is because there’s still a misconception in the tattoo industry that darker skin tones are harder to work with than white skin, meaning that artists can be poorly trained on – and even afraid to – tattoo melanin-rich skin. Unfortunately, as the industry is still predominantly white, caucasian skin is seen as the default and non-white tones seen as ‘other.’ Black clients are often made to feel like their skin tone is an issue; when the real issue is that artists can often be ill-informed and poorly trained on how to tattoo dark skin. We spoke to two female, POC artists to hear their advice and discuss the misconceptions surrounding working with darker skin tones, which are still lingering in the industry today.
Although melanin-rich skin isn’t harder to tattoo, artists do need to make slight adjustments to accommodate darker skin tones. Ashley Tyson, recommends using green stencils instead of purple on melanated skin, as it can help the artist see their designs more clearly. She also suggests artists use toned paper or darker backgrounds on their iPads when drawing up designs for darker skin tones.
Chantay Blue, notes that: ‘red and green stencils create a really good contrast against darker skin – without getting a glare like some purple stencils do.’ She adds that ‘good lighting is also key!’
Ashley says one big misconception in the industry is that darker skin is “tougher” and requires the artist to apply more pressure when being tattooed – which is not the case; ‘Skin is skin, and the notion of black people having tougher skin is baseless. By saying this, people are essentially being told that they need to be rougher and more aggressive when tattooing dark skin, which is ultimately going to do a lot of damage to the dermis.’ Ashley advises that artists should simply ‘trust that they know how to tattoo and allow the skin, just like any other skin to react.’ Specialising in fine-line work, Ashley has often faced the misconception that her style ‘simply will not work on black and brown skin’ – which is simply not the case.
Chantay adds that she’s also heard various misconceptions regarding tattooing melanated skin: ‘I’ve heard people say you can only get tattoos that are big and dark on dark skin, so that you can see them – which is nonsense! I’ve also heard people say you need to use a different technique altogether for dark skin which, again, isn’t true.’ The idea that more force is required when tattooing dark skin also feeds into the myth that black and brown skin scars more easily than white skin. Ashley says: ‘I personally don’t think that dark skin does scar more easily, but scarring is happening more and more frequently, as artists are overcompensating with the force they’re using and tattooing too aggressively on darker skin.’
Chantay says that this misconception is ‘scary’ and advises that artists should ‘have a light touch (when tattooing) their clients, so they’re not in unnecessary pain.’ Ashley advises that as a person of colour booking in for a tattoo; ‘if you get the sense in your gut that the artist isn’t bothered or invested, find someone else.’ She also adds that a red flag to look out for is ‘the language used when discussing what will and won’t make good tattoos. If the dialogue revolves around negging or blaming your skin for anything, give it a miss.’
Chantay says people of colour booking in with a new artist should: ‘look out for their skin being represented on the artist’s page, and if it’s not, be upfront about asking if that artist is comfortable tattooing your skin.’ She also adds that ‘any artist saying you can only get a specific style of tattoo, or a specific size tattoo, solely based on skin tone isn’t someone you should be supporting financially.’
Ashley believes that artists should ‘Use positive, affirming language and address their own conscious or unconscious bias in their own time.’ Ashley advises that if artists are unfamiliar with tattooing darker skin, they should allow extra time to make sure they and their client are happy with the end result. ‘This is someone’s precious vessel, be gentle. Do not fall into the trap of pressing too hard and causing trauma to the dermis unnecessarily.’ Ashley adds that ‘there’s no shame in artists not regularly having the opportunity to work on different skin tones; sometimes that’s down to location. However, if an artist isn’t showing possible designs and options for black and brown people to see, that won’t change.’
Luckily, there are plenty of talented artists who have extensive experience in tattooing melanin-rich skin. If you’re looking for inclusive, fine-line work, we’d recommend; @ashleytysontattoo, @tiana.tatts, @chantayblue, @tahsenaalam, @kenzo.inks, @emilymalice, @sarah.strongarms and @alexbawntattoos. For delicate, hand-poked designs @keziahtattoos, @sore_points, @slowpokes__ and @alien_ink_. Finally, if you’re after bolder or colour-work pieces @montana_blue, @rizza_boo, @sarahlouisetattoos, @mani.tattoo, @mayinkz and @bluxion404.