Tattoo Artists Challenging Black Skin Myths, Offering Cover-Ups For Racist Tattoos
Many tattoo artists have traditionally declined to put color tattoos on darker-skinned people because they say it doesn’t look as good, or involves more work.
“They’ve pretty much been told for so long that they're only capable of getting black and gray tattoos,” said Travis Bruce, a tattoo artist at Electric Gold Tattoo in St. Petersburg.
But Bruce is challenging the standard industry in a time when the black voices have been amplified as protesters rally in cities across the country to speak out against racial injustice and police brutality.
“(Skin color) is not a hurdle that we should be pointing out as a reason why these people can't get the same kind of tattoos that white people can get,” Bruce said.
“It's a choice that many people (tattoo artists) have made because it's the easy choice and it's very easy to tell the person what they've been told their whole lives by every other artist.”
So Bruce is offering free color palette tests moving forward. He'll tattoo a short series of colorful lines or tiny designs on a person so they can see what those colors look like once they heal.
He was inspired by Brittany Randell of Humble Bee Tattoo in Toronto, a black tattoo artist who regularly does tattoo color swatches for black and darker complected clients.
Bruce said it’s an opportunity to support Black Lives Matter beyond the headlines - not a gimmick or a special, limited-time offer. He said it’s now part of the way he’ll do business.
“Everybody has that same feeling we all get when we get tattooed, when you go, ‘I just decorated my body. I just added to my story. I just wrote another page in my story.’
"You're telling people of color, they can't write a page in their story? That's wrong.”
The color tests will take at most ten minutes, Bruce said, making it easy for at least one tattoo artist at a shop to offer the service to clients.
“I can keep it simple, and then that way, I can keep it free for everybody so that everybody of color can access that as a tool to decide, ‘Okay, well, I had this in mind, but now I do know that this color really doesn't work.’”
It’s also a way to address racist ideologies, like the concept of colorblindness, in an industry that very much has to take into account what a person’s skin color is.
“I think tattooing is the epitome of the perfect platform for it, because we are literally talking about skin,” said Bruce. “And everybody else says skin color doesn't matter. In tattooing, skin color does play a factor.”
“And to ignore that is to ignore a factor in what can create a good tattoo, to address the issue that everybody else pretends went away in the 60s, or in the 1860s when slavery was abolished.”
In 2016, Maryland tattoo artist Tyler Brewer told NPR's Parth Shah artists should learn how to tattoo all skin types.
“I have seen artists pretty much give the blow-off to clients because they were different, different being a different color. I think people rationalize their racism in tattooing and their lack of ability.”
Not much has changed since then.
Bruce’s girlfriend, Misty Baumgarter, is an apprentice at the same shop he works at. She’ll contribute to the movement with cover-ups, the latest tattoing skill she's practicing.
She's offering to cover hateful and racist tattoos – like swastikas - for a $25 minimum donation to charities that support Black Lives Matters, help bail out protesters, and more.
"I don't know what it's like when you have something so meaningful like that in a negative way,” Baumgarter said. “But I understand the change of mindset, and everybody has that right.
"So me, coming from a place where I am learning to tattoo, I think that that's where I can kind of give my hand in and help somebody get away from a past that maybe they're not so proud of."
Baumgarten said it's just one way she can help make the world a kinder and more inclusive place.
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