Black Women Tattoo Artists Get Real About The Industry

Photo via @nish_rowe_tattoo.
Monday 12th April marked the reopening of pubs, gyms and hairdressers across England and for those who had been patiently (read: desperately) waiting for some ink, step two in the government's roadmap out of lockdown meant tattoo studios were now back open for business. 
However, for Black people – particularly those with darker skin – getting tattooed often isn’t a simple process. Alongside placement and design, we have to ensure that the tattoo artist we choose is trained in working with darker skin tones. Naturally, many of us, myself included, would opt for a Black tattooist in the belief that they’d do the best job and know our skin best. Over recent years there has been a great increase of black tattoo artists in the UK and worldwide, but they can still be a challenge to find, particularly black women, in the very cis white male dominated industry.
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Nish Rowe, a machine artist currently based at Femme Fatale tattoo studios in east London, certainly feels the weight of being one of very few in the industry. "I feel like I’m very much alone here," she tells Refinery29. Specialising in illustrative work, Nish feels that Black women tattoo artists like her have been set adrift. "What I’m learning – specifically the techniques for Black skin – I can’t really learn from anyone else. It’s been very challenging to not feel lonely at times.” she tells Refinery29.

Black skin, much like Black hair, is strong but delicate and must be handled in a completely different way to white skin because of the way melanated skin heals.

Minkx Doll
Nish’s feelings resonate with Brazilian queer tattoo artist Mani, who moved to London a few years back. "Many doors were shut to me because I am a Black migrant woman," she shares. Having begun her tattooing career fairly recently – she fell into the craft in Brazil in 2017 – the artist doesn’t feel like she belongs to the wider industry. And there’s little wonder why. As west London-based tattooist Minkx Doll highlights, even getting your foot in the door is a challenge. "I honestly don’t think many Black women artists saw tattooing as a possibility and finding apprenticeships can be an especially exclusive club – you can feel excluded from the very start of the journey into your career." Minkx Doll is still pretty new to the industry and has found an apprenticeship in a studio run by another Black artist; even so, she’s acutely aware of her positionality as a Black woman in the field. "I have noticed that Black women artists are rarely, if at all, in the lineups for tattoo conventions so I’d love to see that change – it’s most certainly an aspiration of mine."
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The difficulty of locating Black women artists coexists with the fundamentally flawed belief that Black people, particularly those with darker skin tones, cannot be tattooed or have certain colours sit well on their skin. "That’s the main misconception but there are a few others, like we can’t wear white ink never stays, that we can’t have realism on our skin, that you have to apply more pressure with the needles to make the ink show so you end up scaring the person," says Nish. She stresses that “everyone who is learning to become a tattoo artist should train on all types of skin” and, ultimately, that’s where a lot of people go wrong, along with not questioning the norms of this industry. 
"Often when you train to tattoo, you are initially tattooing friends and then it extends to friends of friends and so forth and word of mouth slowly spreads," explains the queer tattoo artist and model. "If you’re white with a white circle [of friends], you’re going to end up tattooing white people first. If you continue without working on other skin tones every now and again for you to learn how to tattoo them, you might end up as a brilliant tattoo artist a few years down the line but you still don’t know how to work with Black skin." It was this exact reason that motivated Minkx Doll to join the industry. "I noticed how poor tattoos on Black skin looked in general," she tells Refinery29. "Black skin, much like Black hair, is strong but delicate and must be handled in a completely different way to white skin because of the way melanated skin heals. Tattoos, if not applied delicately, can often cause scarring, and tattoos often blur and are usually unrecognisable, the darker the complexion." 
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The potential harm to darker skin is why Mani believes that it’s so critical to choose artists wisely as they’ll ultimately be partaking in a process that involves intimacy, pain and healing – particularly on Black bodies, which already carry so much trauma. "Searching well and finding artists who share a similar life experience to us will bring us closer to people who care a lot and will ensure that no unnecessary harm will happen," she asserts. "There will be a deep understanding of the value of our lives and respect for our bodies as bodies that are already in the healing process of the constant trauma of racism. Additionally, racially aware and politically engaged BPOC artists will never blame our skin for their lack of ability with any tattoo technique."

The artist will ultimately be partaking in a process that involves intimacy, pain and healing – particularly on Black bodies, which already carry so much trauma.

The practice of these three Black women tattoo artists incorporates an approach of care, particularly when it comes to working with Black clients, and only highlights the desperate need for networks for Black women and Black queer tattooists. Building such a network is something Nish hopes to work towards in the near future: “I’d love to hold a monthly drawing evening where, each time, we’d go to a different black owned or black occupied studio and draw together and get to know one another - solidifying a true community.” She’s started brainstorming an app hosting just Black tattoo artists where you’d be able to search different categories and filter through styles, location, gender and even whether the artist is queer or not.
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Though the landscape for Black women in the ink world has been sparse, it cannot overshadow the joy that these women find in sharing their craft with others. "I feel like my work and the encounters I have with my Black clients through my work liberates us – even if it’s only a slow and ephemeral kind of liberation – because it gives us a moment where we connect with each other and with symbols of Black resistance and Négritude that were denied to us throughout our lives." 
Likewise for Minkx Doll, there is something almost celestial and surreal about the tattooing process: "Tattooing is literally breathing life into your art. Your canvas is alive and, thus, so is your creation."

Awesome Black women tattoo artists in the UK for you to follow and share

@nish_rowe_tattoo  - London 
@mani.tattoo - London
@minkx_doll - London 
@tianna.tatts - London
@sambeetattoo - London 
@clarktattoos - West Sussex
@sarahlouisetattoos - Nottingham
@mayinkz - Manchester
@sore_points - Bristol 
@keziahtattoos - Leeds
@pencilme_in - London 
@jodiebambitattoo - Derby
@tattoosbyzipporah - London
@chantayblue - London 
@tattoosca - London 
@amaa.nitaa - London 
@neeksdarling - London
@kenzo.inks - London
@ashleytysontattoo - London 
@rizza_boo - Scotland  
@jadechanelp - London
@jess_on_tatts  - London

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