Tattoos trace a history across race and mainstream

Ancient origins of modern trend

Isabell Rivera OW Contributor | 7/26/2019, midnight
To have a tattoo these days would be considered mainstream. Even a face..

Across Africa, tattoos have different meanings and are made with different techniques. Most tribes will choose the design for the person to wear it. For thousands of years in Africa, the practice of tattooing was seen as protection against bad spirits, representing the social status in a group or tribe, and also reflecting personality traits and it was even believed to cure diseases.

But in modern times, how different is tattooing in the Black and White culture? Skin color is an obvious factor. Applying tattoos on dark skin involves a different process than tattooing on White skin. Black skin is also at greater risk of develop keloids (overs-growth of skin around a scar). Colors, for instance, won’t be as vibrant, therefore some designs must be larger to maintain the artistic imprint.

White tattoo artists who have not worked with dark skin often have difficulty applying their craft to its true, colorful potential. Also, many Black persons may feel more comfortable getting tattooed by someone of the same skin color, because the most important aspect of the process is bonding with the artist you chose to get the job done.

Popularity of ‘Ink Master’

Thanks to shows like “Ink Master” and “Black Ink Crew,” African-American tattoo artists have made a name for themselves. The first Black tattoo artists who won the contest “Ink Master 2016,” was Anthony Michaels. However, according to an article by National Public Radio (NPR) many “canvases,” as they refer to on the show, don’t feature Black skin, which has drawn concern from some Black tattoo clients.

These days however, tattoos are largely mainstream. This can be good for business as well as the customer because the latter has become a more accepted member of society. Conversely, tattoos can still upset some individuals of a more conservative nature. Unfortunately, what has not changed is how some people associate tattoos and people of color.

Being a tattooed Black male can still elicit certain biases. It is a similar situation for women of color who may face derision at work. Many young Black men applying for employment may be falsely associated with gang activity or being an ex-felon.

And although these days many women, such as L.A. Ink Latina Kathrine von Drachenberg (“Kat Von D”), as well as Katrina Jackson (“Kat Tat”) of Chicago's Black Ink Crew, rose to fame in the industry that remains primarily male dominated. Sexism, racism and misogyny still abound within the industry.

“I can’t say I’ve heard any negative comment first hand, but I have had to deal with certain stereotypes,” said Richard “MADE RICH” Parker in an interview. “Ya know…people thinking that Black artists are less talented more so because the color of your skin, but I think that’s a stereotype in every business.”

Overcoming a ‘bad stigma’

Besides the obvious difference between Black and White skin, there are also bias and stigma associated with what’s considered “cultural appropriation.” For example, getting a Polynesian tribal (such as the exact same one as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) would be considered inappropriate since those types of tattoos are designed for each individual—based on goals and achievements—as well as inherent fears. Such tattoos are recognized as a symbol for guidance and protection.