Why do some tattoo artists balk at dark skin?


The tattoo competition show Ink Master isn’t exactly a beacon of progressiveness. The weekly reality series, hosted by former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, is jam-packed with casual sexism—from calling women “girls” to emphasizing the need to “grow a pair of balls”—and appears to actively avoid nuance. But with a finale that brought in 2.4 million viewers last month and an eighth season in the works, the show has clearly found a devoted audience.

Which is why we need to talk about its approach to skin color.

Every episode, competitors must execute a tattoo on a “human canvas”—that is, a client. But whenever there’s a canvas with darker skin, no one wants to tattoo him or her.

Why? Because for the dozen or so artists competing for $100,000, tattooing dark skin is apparently a strategic disadvantage. Competitors explain that tattoos don’t show up as well on dark skin, and therefore, they cannot showcase their talents as well as on light skin. And so, competitors will often sic each other with dark-skinned “canvases” as a form of sabotage.

Take the third episode of the sixth season, in which contestants were asked to create a tattoo inspired by stained glass. While most of the artists used a panoply of colors in their creations, one of the competitors opted to only use black and grey. “Bright colors just don’t stand out on dark skin,” the contestant explained, justifying why his caramel-skinned client’s tattoo was not as vibrant as every other tattoo.

Or take the episode from the second season when a contestant was faced with four professional athletes as human canvases, three of whom were black. “I don’t want the dark canvases,” he announced. “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.”

Or take the episode all the way back in season one, when a contestant noted, “My ideal canvass would be, like, paper-white skin.”

As a tattooed person of color myself, I find this aversion to dark skin incredibly demoralizing and borderline racist. Obviously Ink Master doesn’t represent all tattoo artists, but I can’t just let these contestants’ responses go. So I talked to a few tattoo experts to get their take.

While tattooing dark skin requires some finesse, it’s a skill that artists can master with a little effort, according to the experts I spoke with. Tattoo artists’ reticence to work on people of color likely stems from their training (or lack thereof) in technique and application, combined with their general understanding of color theory.

“There’s no difference in terms of the way the skin will take up color,” Eric Bernstein, a laser surgeon and clinical associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, explained to me. “The only difference is the melanin just gets in the way of seeing the ink.”

You see, unlike a to-do list written on the back of a hand, tattoos don’t sit on top of the skin. The tattoo ink is inserted all the way into the dermis, the middle layer of skin, which is why 1) tattoos don’t just “rub off” and 2) getting a tattoo hurts.

“There’s always a layer of skin on top of the [ink], which acts like a translucent layer on top of whatever color you put underneath the skin,” said Mario Barth, the Austrian-born, award-winning tattoo artist who’s been applying tattoos for four decades and boasts Lenny Kravitz and other celebrity clients.

Melanin—you know, the stuff that makes us brown people brown—is produced in this translucent layer, also known as the epidermis. Tattoo ink is injected below the layer of melanin, so the color of someone’s skin sits above the tattoo ink but below the surface of the skin.

With that in mind, it’s important to note that we all have individual skin tones and undertones—some people have warmer tones, others have cooler tones, and it shouldn’t matter because we’re all beautiful rainbow snowflakes. But when it comes to tattooing, tone is everything.

“You have to learn to compensate for the undertone of each skin tone, regardless of whether you’re Spanish or Japanese,” Barth explained. “Whatever they are, whatever color shade they are, it doesn’t matter. You have to compensate for that translucent layer.”

Sounds easy enough, but as you might imagine, this becomes more challenging as skin gets darker. The brightly colored tattoos that stand out on pale skin are often neutralized on darker skin.

But Barth believes that if an artist is clever enough, he or she can figure out how to adapt the color of the ink to the color of the skin to enhance the image. Of course, finding an artist who understands skin tone and color theory that well can be difficult—these are skills that come with practice.

“Most tattoo artists don’t really take the time to learn how to tattoo dark skin,” said Dawn Hockaday, founder of Sista Ink Mag, an online platform that celebrates and connects tattooed women of color. “You do have to do things differently. You can’t use the same needles, you can’t do the same kind of smaller details. You have to do the close-up, bigger, shaded type pieces. A lot of tattoo artists may have a black client come in every once in awhile, but it’s not on their radar.”

Given this color conundrum, a lot of people of color (myself included) opt out of colors altogether and simply go the black-and-grey route. These designs are pretty straightforward, although tattoo artists will often change the way they shade certain areas on darker skin, trading in the softer gradations that white folks can get away with for bolder transitions.

There is one challenge that both artists and clients must be aware of when tattooing some people of color, regardless of a tattoo’s color palette: the client’s proclivity to developing keloids, a type of fleshy scar that can emerge as a result of skin trauma. Keloids are much more likely to occur in clients with African heritage.

“You need to be careful,” Barth warned. “The darker the skin, the easier the skin gets keloided.” The key to avoiding these scars, he said, is to ensure that the artist doing the tattoo is highly qualified—which, again, means actively working to improve one’s skills.

So how did modern tattooing evolve to inadvertently exclude people of color? Particularly given that the art form independently originated in many communities of color, from Egypt to Polynesia?

In the United States, modern tattooing exploded in the late 19th and early 20th century, aided by the motorized tattoo machine—which was based on Thomas Edison’s autographic printing pen and adapted for tattooing by tattooist Samuel O’Reilly. Amid this big ink boom, tattooing was built to decorate pale skin.

“It was essentially a white cultural item,” said Clinton Sanders, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Connecticut and the author of Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing. “It started, of course, with sailors who were, for the most part, light skinned. Then it moved to the upper classes, all of whom were white skinned. It pretty much excluded dark-skinned peoples.”

That’s right—a little more than a century ago, tattoos were the hot trend for rich white folks! But as technical innovations made tattooing cheaper and more accessible, the rich got over it, and by the 1920s, as Sanders writes in Customizing the Body, “tattooing fell into disrepute in the Unites States.”

More recently, however, the number of people of color getting tattoos in this country appears to be increasing. According to a recent Harris Poll, 14% of black respondents reported having at least one tattoo in 2003, and 21% of black respondents reported having at least one in 2012. Meanwhile, 13% of Hispanic respondents reported a tattoo in 2003, and that number increased to 30% in 2012. (For comparison, 16% of white respondents reported having a tattoo in 2003, and 20% reporting having one in 2012.)

And celebrities of color who sport ink, from Rihanna to Nicki Minaj to The Rock—among many other music artists and professional athletes—are helping to gain more visibility for ink on darker skin.

The point? There’s no excuse for tattoo artists to shirk these skills. Other than laziness, of course. As Sista Ink‘s Hockaday explained, learning to tattoo on a range of skin tones is something to be proud of. “It’s taking your craft to the next level.”

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