Skip to content

Tattooing bursts through the color barrier

asset.jpeg

Tattoo artist Roni Zulu. He said he encountered racial bias against dark-skinned clients and artists in the tattooing community. His work embellishes the skin of Janet Jackson, Dennis Rodman and Christina Aguilera, among other celebrities. (Liz Huston/Courtesy Zulu Tattoo)

asset_small.jpeg

Tattoo artist Miya Bailey said his black clients have grown bolder over the years. Many of them get the full length of their arms tattooed. (Duwayno Robertson/Courtesy Miya Bailey)

When Monique Dillard dredged up the courage to get her first tattoo 14 years ago, she had two fears: that it would be intensely painful and that the colored ink would look dull on her light brown skin. Neither happened, and Dillard became addicted to getting tattooed. “It’s a rush,” she said. “Like sex.”

As her skin art collection grew, Dillard got strange looks from fellow black students at college. Word came back to her that a few of them thought she was "trying to be white."

"I was one of the few black people, let alone black women, who had tattoos," said Dillard, 34, a cosmetologist who lives in Washington. She now has 11 boldly colored images permanently etched onto her chest, back, stomach and arms. Most of them are tributes: five panthers, in memory of dead relatives, and the numbers 1 and 4 surrounded by flames on her inner left forearm, a reminder of the street where she grew up. "I notice now a lot more African-American people are getting tattoos, especially females,” she said.

Some of them, in Dillard’s opinion, have gone overboard. “Women are tattooing their faces and their necks,” she said.

There was a time when tattoo artists dealt almost exclusively with white men. Now, thanks to celebrities and tattoo shop reality television, body art has burst into the mainstream. One recent survey found that more than a third of Americans ages 18 to 25 have at least one tattoo. And more tattoos are showing up on skin of all colors, including very dark skin. The industry is adjusting to the tastes and needs of dark-skinned customers.

Last month, the first issue of Urban Ink, “a tattoo magazine for people of color,” hit newsstands. Its editor in chief, Paul Gambino, links the expansion in the types of people getting tattoos to the rise in cultural icons exposing their body art.

"In the early to mid-90s, the whole tattoo explosion was basically spawned by the white rock community," Gambino said. "Later in the 90s, the NBA, the NFL and the whole rap scene got very into tattoos.”

Rapper 50 Cent was No. 3 in the top 25 celebrity tattoo list organized in 2005 by vanishingtattoo.com, an online repository for almost any kind of information related to tattoos. The list was compiled by tracking Web references to the celebrities and their tattoos. Rappers Eminem, The Game, Bow Wow and Method Man as well as the boxer Mike Tyson made the list. The results surprised vanishingtattoo's founder, Vince Hemingson, a documentary filmmaker.

"I didn't even know who half of these people were, because I'm a middle-aged Anglo-Saxon guy," Hemingson said. "It's an astonishing testament to the power of popular culture. These are the young men who are emulated."

Body modification in some form can be found in the histories of all ethnic groups. It once signified, and in some cases still forms part of, rites of passage--the initiation of an individual into a tribe.

But very dark-skinned people tended to eschew tattooing in favor of skin art that was more visible on their complexion, said Dr. John Rush, an anthropologist and the author of "Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding and Implants."

"In most parts of Africa, scarification, by simply incising the skin in a specific pattern, is the body modification of choice," Rush said in an e-mail message.

After its importation into Western culture, tattooing moved away from its roots and for the most part became an individual statement, rather than a group one.

African descendants in the West, many of whom had adopted Christianity, continued to avoid the practice for reasons other than the color of their skin. Tattooing had become associated with early seafaring ne'er-do-wells, who had picked up the practice from their encounters with indigenous tribes in other parts of the world. Later, black and Latino gang members used tattoos as group identification.

"That made tattooing seem negative, so it got pushed underground to where only bikers and criminals were getting tattooed," said Roni Zulu, a tattoo artist who runs the shop Zulu Tattoo in Los Angeles. Zulu is an almost revered figure in tattooing circles. His work embellishes the skin of Janet Jackson, Dennis Rodman and Christina Aguilera, among other celebrities.

But, he said, he has encountered racial bias against dark-skinned clients and artists in the tattooing community.

“Many shops would display rebel flags, swastikas and other symbols of hatred,” he said. “It is slowly changing; the younger generations are becoming less tolerant of bigotry.”

Miya Bailey, a tattoo artist in Atlanta, said that over the years his black clients have grown bolder. He’s part of the collective that runs City of Ink, a tattoo shop and art gallery that caters to a growing black upper class, including many business owners. They have the money and the freedom for elaborate skin art.

"When we first started, everyone wanted to get the cross, the praying hands and the names," he said. "We don't have to do that kind of stuff anymore; most of my clients get full sleeves," a full tattoo of the arm from wrist to shoulder.

Artists are learning special techniques to get the best results on dark skin, which is more likely to scar or change texture from any form of skin trauma, including tattooing. But Eric Rignall, who since 1997 has run the shop Inkstop on New York’s Lower East Side, suggests another reason for post-tattoo scarring on dark skin.

“It was the ignorance of tattoo artists in thinking that they had to turn the machine up and leave the needle in longer to make the ink stay in better on darker skin,” he said. “That’s a misconception. You linger too long with the needle, it’s going to raise scar tissue on anybody, black or white.”

Tattooing involves the insertion of ink between the outer and secondary layers of the skin. Getting a brilliant tattoo on dark skin is a matter of choosing the right color tones for the particular shade of skin.

“You’re actually changing the pigmentation of the skin,” said Sailor Bill Johnson, vice president of the National Tattoo Association and a tattoo artist in Orlando, Fla., for more than 30 years. “Novices think, ‘Oh well, if you put light, bright colors in they’ll show up better.’ Well, it’s totally the opposite. The darker, bolder colors would show up on darker skin.”

Tattoo removal, which is done with a laser, is a lengthy, tedious process, with only a small chance of total success, said Eliot Battle, a dermatologist who practices in Washington. And it is even more difficult on dark skin.

But as much as he might be tempted to, Battle doesn’t tell anyone not to get a tattoo. “I do advise them to choose their experts wisely,” he said. These should be artists and doctors who meet hygiene and safety standards and, if you’re dark skinned, have a lot of experience dealing with nonwhite skin.

Potential complications aren’t deterring people like Courtney Lauretano, 25. A half black, half Italian Bostonian, she has three tattoos, including the Italian flag and her last name in script across her back. She raves about her experience with tattooing. Her skin heals quickly after tattooing, Lauretano said, and the colors look vibrant long after the procedure.

"Ink just loves my skin," she said.

E-mail: epa2106@columbia.edu