White Tattoo Artists and Their Black Clients

“You can’t get color” 

“Your skin is too dark.”

“With your skin tone…” 

And my favorite… “Have you considered bleaching your skin?” That was the moment I thought, that might be my last tattoo. 

I love art. And I love tattoos. I had always wanted one since I was a kid. My brothers all had tattoos and I looked up to them. It wasn't until my first solo trip to Montreal, when I was 19 and in my practicum at SAIT that while strolling through the streets of Montreal, my cousin asked, how much are tattoos in Calgary? At the time an average sized tattoo would go for $150. Montreal is considerably less, at $90. At this time I had no tattoos whatsoever and only piercings. My cousin had a couple tattoos. We popped inside this traditional tattoo shop, you know, the ones where they have flash to choose from all over the walls. I got a black outline of the Converse all Star logo on my ankle and my cousin got an elephant.

Fast-forward 15 years later, and I’m now maybe 75% covered in tattoos done by 8 different artists, all white men. The common issue that many artists have with me is not my tattoo ideas, because for the most part they’re thrilled to not be doing butterflies or dolphins, but they’ve always expressed concerns about my skin, whether it’s the tone or feel. My skin is soft and deep brown. 


The whole notion that people with darker skin tones have “tougher” or “thicker” skin, making it more difficult to tattoo is rooted in racism. Modern tattooing has traditionally been a white-and-cis-male-dominated space there’s a ton of unspoken intimidation when it comes to tattooing dark skin. The only difference between tattooing different skin tones is just having the knowledge to do so. Skilled tattoo artists are able to tattoo on all skin tones—not just lighter ones.


A lot of people think people with darker skin tones can't get color tattoos, this is completely false. It’s all about having an understanding of how color works when it comes to deeper skin tones. I have a sleeve done in complete color, so yes, color tattoos will show up on dark skin tones. Certain colors pop on different skin tones and it’s up to the artists to acquire that skill set instead of giving racist excuses.


Fine-line designs are thin—and because people think that they need to be tougher when tattooing dark skin in order for the lines to show up, they think this delicate style isn’t possible to achieve on deep skin tones. Again, this is false. In fact, I find some tattoo artists are way too aggressive during the inking process leaving scars.


The scarring issue has more to do with the overcompensation of artists when tattooing dark-skinned clients than the skin tone itself. Some artists have a tendency to run their machines higher which causes some major (and unnecessary) damage. 


It is true that darker skin tones have more fibroblasts in their skin—a cell that boosts collagen production at wound sites—which predisposes them to scars and keloids,but when it comes to tattooing, those results are more likely caused by a tattoo that wasn’t applied correctly to the skin.

Recently, I noticed that only a few artists have posted photos of their finished work. Looking through their portfolios, I noticed that their other work is considerably different from what they placed on me. A lot of the time I asked for original artwork and what I ultimately ended up with was something I later found on Pinterest. They didn’t bother to try and make something different or better, they didn’t seem to enjoy the process of designing something they could be proud of and also show off. They just wanted the job for the pay.

I can’t say I don’t hate any of my tattoos, but I no longer feel guilty that my skin is darker than their white clients. I am disappointed with blatant colorism and skin-shaming. It seems as though artists have conveniently forgotten that modern tattooing was culturally appropriated by colonizers from Asian, brown and Black people centuries ago.