You Can’t Be an Ink Master If You Only Tattoo White Skin

Season 11 of Ink Master (Photo credit: Paramount Network)

Nearly four years ago, Splinter—previously Fusion—covered an episode of the televised tattoo competition Ink Master. The crux of the show is that tattoo artists compete to offer the best tattoo, and, as Splinter notes, the artists avoid tattooing darker skin as much as they can because they think it’s a more “difficult” canvas. According to Splinter, on the second season, one contestant said, “I don’t want the dark canvases. They take away half your skill set. My stuff is dark and creepy and I don’t want to go that dark on dark skin. This is not the canvas for me.” Despite the episode being from 2012, this is an issue that very much still stands in the world of tattooing. Whether they’re choosing to manipulate images of darker skinned clients, or avoiding them altogether, tattoo artists continue to privilege white people and people with lighter skin by acting like it’s impossible to tattoo darker skin, and yet are still considered masters of the art. Now, years later, this attitude remains prevalent.

In August 2019, tattoo artist Bang Bang (Keith McCurdy), the go-to artist for celebrities like Rihanna and Kylie Jenner, found himself at the center of a dialogue about the whiteness of tattooing. He posted an image of a person of color that he desaturated so that they matched the rest of his feed, and in doing so made them look whiter. Bang Bang blamed people of color, saying in an Instagram DM, “Dark skin is hard to photograph and even harder when there’s blood and ink on a fresh tattoo,” and commented that white people are just easier to capture on film (false: the art of photography also has racist roots). This led to a dialogue about the lack of people of color in his portfolio overall, and this discourse illuminates the issue of white tattoo artists de-prioritizing clients of color.

I’m a person of color who is tattooed and pursuing more tattoos, so my Instagram following is mostly made up of tattoo artists, especially those who prioritize people who aren’t white. As such, I first learned about the issues with Bang Bang via Kelli Kikcio, a tattoo artist and tattoo shop co-owner whose Instagram I’ve been following for a year or so. Of the issue, Kikcio tells Bitch, “Simply put, Bang Bang was politely criticized by a number of Black and Brown folks and POC after recently posting a highly unsaturated photo [of a POC]. The criticism came from a place of concern over the whitewashing of the client’s skin and upon further investigation, a complete lack of client diversity on their page.”

Through a series of Instagram posts, stories, and replies, multiple tattoo artists called out Bang Bang for desaturating brown and Black people they’ve tattooed before sharing their work. The Bang Bang Instagram account responded by going the “color blind” route, writing in a post, “Let’s stop assuming the ethnicity of clients please. This post will be the last time I address this. All races, beliefs, skin tones and backgrounds are welcome at Bang Bang.” Tattoo artists, especially of color, responded with frustration, as yet again, the industry proved itself to be unwelcoming both to tattoo artists of color, and clients (or would-be clients) of color. As Kikcio explains, the incident led to a larger conversation about the role that tattoo artists play—or choose not to play—in making the industry itself more inclusive. It also prompted revelations about McCurdy’s past interactions with peers and clients.

“People had been mistreated across the board, in terms of racism, anti-feminism, and ableism,” Kikcio says. “After a few days, things died down, [but] there was no apology, and many of the original comments were completely wiped from his account. The few [tattoo artists who] spoke out were completely exhausted, and left wondering why there wasn’t greater support from the white tattooer/client community, and, as always happens with Bang Bang, his behavior and antics were not addressed [by white people] and people moved on.”

Microaggressions like these prompted tattoo consultant Tann to create Ink The Diaspora, an Instagram account dedicated to highlighting tattoos on darker skinned people and nonwhite tattoo artists, in 2017. I spoke to Tann, the founder of the account, about the ongoing whiteness of the tattoo industry. Considering that tattooing as an art has its roots in Black and brown communities, it’s especially problematic for people of color to be deprioritized and pushed out of the art. When I asked about what happened with Bang Bang, Tann explained, “This is only one of many examples to explain this concept of gatekeeping within the tattoo industry. I think white tattoo artists gatekeep certain styles of tattooing because they base esthetic on the color of a client’s skin. It’s this idea that this white male tattoo artist, who has been doing a certain style for 10 years, can label themselves a ‘master’ at it. But if someone who is starting off and approaching that same style, they have to get this imaginary acceptance from a white tattooer to be considered good at this style. It makes me think about tattoo conventions and the awards they give out for ‘best.’ Who are the people judging the tattoos, and who are the tattoos on?”

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Raychelle Duazo, a Seattle-based QPOC tattoo artist and illustrator, says that tattoo artists of color are actively trying to reshape the landscape. “Currently in the tattooing industry, I think there’s a big movement of tattooers of color trying to push for more inclusive tattooing, and that extends beyond race to queer and/or trans identity, gender expression, body type, and even [types] of tattooing (for example, ceremonial and/or ritual tattooing).” A part of the issue, Duazo says, is that there is a discrepancy between DIY artists and “professional” artists, and the industry doesn’t offer teaching opportunities to artists of color as readily as white artists. “There are plenty of DIY artists out there, many of them POC, who have been pushed out from the tattooing industry because they don’t have access to the resources, people, or teachings that would enable them to become full-fledged tattoo artists. On the other side of that, western tattooing is still heavily saturated with white men tattooers, and a lot of times, that makes it so there isn’t the proper environment or space for POC to get tattooed, whether they experience racism or general unease. There has to be opportunity for POC to be taught how to tattoo so they may hold space for their own people.”

Tattoo artists like Duazo, who connect with other POC artists, and spaces like Ink The Diaspora build these connections and increase the accessibility of tattooing opportunities. Ultimately, though, it’s on white tattoo artists to use their power to challenge the whiteness of the industry, Tann tells Bitch. How? “[By] listening and learning from tattoo artists who aren’t white. Listening to collectors who aren’t white, [hearing] their constructive criticism, and questioning [why their work appears most on thin, white bodies]. They can also give space to Black tattoo artists to practice in their space. That gives them respect, welcomeness, and safety.”

In June 2018, Mira Mariah, better known as @girlknewyork, added an Instagram Story highlight featuring the people of color she’s tattooed. The highlight began with the words “Shades of human vary. I love tattooing. POC look amazing in tattoos,” and allowed her more than 168,000 followers to tap through and see Mariah’s work on a range of skin tones. Mariah has a fairly high profile—she’s tattooed celebrities including Ariana Grande and Ilana Glazer—but made sure to run the idea for the highlight by her followers before creating it, so as not to tokenize her POC clients.

It’s not at all impossible to tattoo darker skin. It just requires that artists make it a priority to learn how to do it, and if that means expanding their expertise, it’s a worthy endeavor. “Tattooing can become more inclusive for Black and brown people by not treating someone who has visibility darker skin as other,” Tann explains. “People who have deep shades of brown and dark skin tones aren’t ‘other.’ That means having ink that is meant for people who are of darker skin. Aftercare that is for people with melanin skin. I think a start to creating inclusivity in the tattoo industry is changing the way people see other people who aren’t white. Inclusivity can’t start unless there is a fair advantage for someone who isn’t white to join tattooing.”

Duazo agrees that this inclusivity can’t be passive, but instead must be a shifting of white tattoo artists literal practices, which can include no longer tattooing racist imagery or calling out white tattoo artists when issues do arise. “I appreciate certain white tattooers in my life who recognize their visibility isn’t the same as mine and how they take a step back from that to recognize why that might be that way and at the same time, stick up for me and my tattooing career when I do experience racism in the industry.”

By choosing to desaturate dark-skinned people so they look whiter, being mindful of who your clients are—and aren’t, or not taking note of the whiteness of the industry as a whole, the tattoo industry is continuing to prioritize whiteness, and uphold it as a standard. A tattoo artist isn’t a master of the art if they can only tattoo white people, and it’s not as simple as saying everyone is welcome. In the time of social media, the portfolios of tattoo artists are readily available, and it’s not as easy to hide a majority-white client list. Tattoos have their roots in Black and brown communities, and it’s on the industry to acknowledge these roots and honor them by ensuring that those that the practice originated with aren’t stripped of their access to it by passively upholding white supremacy.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.