The tattoo industry, like many global industries that generate billions of dollars a year, also generates an incredible amount of waste. While the tattoo art form is arguably one of humanity's most important, and oldest, creative expressions, it’s still a semi-selfish act. We cover our skin with decoration so that we may articulate our inner natures but almost always at the expense of our ecosystem. This actually doesn’t have to be the case. I spoke to four different people in the tattoo community about how we can evolve to embrace a more eco friendly standard within tattooing.
Deepest thanks to Dina from Gristle Tattoo, Naemi of Das Baumhaus, Lee of Tapestry Tattoo Collective and Marie Brennan for sharing their thoughts with us.
Why is sustainable and eco-friendly tattooing important to the health of our community, and the world at large?
Dina, owner of the Brooklyn based vegan studio Gristle Tattoo, mentions that it starts with mindfulness about what people are using and where it comes from, “Everyone needs to be conscientious of where things come from and where things go when they're done with them. The planet has a finite amount of land and resources for use and we can't continue to pollute and destroy it. Everyone needs to be thoughtful.” Naemi of Das Baumhaus, another vegan tattoo studio based in Hannover, Germany, agrees, “For most people, tattooing is a spiritual process or just art. This doesn't fit well with waste and harming nature and animals.” She also mentions that the tattoo industry is the perfect place to start. “Sustainability is getting more and more important, especially in our generation. Most tattoo artists – and particularly the ones that publicly display their work – are always up to date for new stuff. Luckily, the tattooing scene is full of people who are living an alternative lifestyle. I noticed that all of them were remorseful because of all the hygienically necessary waste of the tattooing process.”
For Lee, who is part of the queer owned and operated Tapestry Tattoo Collective, sustainability is a huge part of their working process. “Sustainable tattooing is one piece in the big global puzzle of changing social norms regarding garbage and our ability as a species to impact the earth's health. The technology in bio-plastics and compostables has arrived and using these materials needs to take an urgent shift into the mainstream but the lack of awareness up until recently has made it easy for governments and big polluters to keep ignoring this inevitability...The tattoo industry is the perfect climate to champion the issue of single use plastics because as tattooers we produce a large amount of plastic waste daily - from gloves and station barriers down to the smallest pieces like ink caps and nipples all of these things go to a landfill. I love my job and I think that the tattoo community I know is really good at standing up for social justice so bringing green tattooing into the mix to me feels like a way to further build community around something important.” And for Marie Brennan, painter, poet and talented tattooer, the same is absolutely true. “I think we're at that point with the issues around the kinds of waste the tattoo industry generates--the information is there regarding the negative impact plastics and other disposed products have on the health of both human and other than human communities, so it's time for us to shift those practices as responsible professionals.”
What are some tools of the trade that most people don’t really realize are highly wasteful?
From plastics to paper, there are several items within the tattoo artists toolbox that cause eco-issues. Marie, who also curates Zero Waste Tattoo, a profile dedicated to giving artists the resources they need to create an eco friendly tattoo, says that if she could choose just one tool of the trade, it would be razors. “You don't get a fade at the barber's using a plastic razor right? So even if you don't want to move over to using stainless steel razors...which by the way get the job done waaaay better...you can still do what one of my smart followers on Zero Waste Tattoo does--ask your client to shave ahead of time.”
For Dina, it’s a hard pick between what really creates all the waste. “There are so many things that are required to make a tattoo that are highly wasteful that people may not think about - paper towels, ink cups, covers such as clip cords, lamp, arm rest, machines, bottles, tables, etc., gloves, stencil paper and the packaging all of these come in. That doesn't even account for all of the paper used for creating a design and paper towels, cleaning supplies and gloves used to clean the shop. It can take up 1/2 kitchen sized bag of trash for a tiny tattoo to several bags of trash for a larger one.” Naemi agrees, “Most people are focused on the cling film in the tattooing process, because it’s plastic. Well, yes it’s bad, but nobody thinks about the paper towels because at least they're biodegradable. Based on my experience, I can say that all tattoo shops are buying paper towels and printing paper made from fresh fibre and not recycled paper, not knowing that, I can speak for Germany only, for most of Germany’s imported cellulose Brazilian rainforest trees are being cut down. This is simply unnecessary.”
Lee points out that much of a tattoo studios refuse is created out of a lackadaisical approach to resources or pure convenience. “When I talk about single use plastics used in tattooing a lot of the conversations tend to start around needle tubes - because the use of metal tubes and autoclaving has declined so much - people often think of this as an area of where sustainability was traded for convenience. It's true, tubes are a huge issue but so is every plastic barrier used to protect ourselves and our equipment. I would argue that gloves are one of the most wasteful items; on average tattooers are using at least three pairs per client if they change them between setting up, tattooing and tearing down afterwards. But it's not really about one single item because everything used to protect ourselves while tattooing is single use. The question is, how do we make biohazardous plastic items safe to dispose of?” And without asking those particular questions, and bringing up important topics such as those above, the garbage continues to pile up...
So, how can artists replace their wasteful habits and supplies with ones that are more eco-friendly?
Naemi echos Lee’s sentiments of awareness over convenience, “What seems to be a hygienic acquisition is a disaster for the environment and a slap in the face for the zero waste movement. Today, everything is disposable, so nobody needs to clean their tools, buy expensive machines for cleaning and risk failures during the sterilizing process. While that may sound great, it means you have a huge bunch of waste for every single customer. We should go back to stainless steel, as much as possible. We do not need a new tongue depressors/spatulas, plastic cup and disposable razor for every customer...By using stainless steel tools, I even save a lot of money because I don’t have to buy disposable ones all the time.” She also mentions biodegradable tools as much as possible, animal friendly products, and using tattoo suppliers, like Killerink, who truly care about their ecological footprint.
Like Naemi, Dina also deeply supports the lack of animal products, not only from the standpoint of compassion but from a rational outlook on our environmental health. “Animal agriculture is the most significant contributor to global climate change. Stencil paper, for example, typically uses lanolin from sheep to keep the ink on the paper. To have enough sheep to produce lanolin for products, not just stencil paper, farmers clear land. They do that by burning down the Amazon and other areas to clear land for the sheep and all the other animals they farm. The pollution from farms isn't limited to the farm area: it goes into the air, seeps into the land polluting water supplies and spills into neighboring residential areas. It also diverts potable water from other surrounding community needs. And that doesn't even take into account all of the animal suffering. So that little drop of lanolin required for that one sheet of stencil paper has a very high environmental cost in the end.” She’s thankful that there are many suppliers who are acknowledging the increased demand for vegan products and the awareness it can cause within the industry.
Lee and Marie make sure to note that this initiative can’t simply stop and stay within the tattoo studio; it should fully encompass the community and industry as a whole. Lee further explains, “I think what's important to note here is, it's not the responsibility of individual tattooers to change the industry: it's the responsibility of the suppliers and manufacturers who have the power to make this change. Consumers want better options and often the role of sparking social change comes from grassroots organizing because companies, across many industries, are only thinking about profit margins...What tattoo artists can do is support sustainable companies, educate themselves on the issue and talk about it in their communities. Divesting financially from petroleum based plastic products is the best thing we can do.” Marie agrees that the approach has to be inclusive and connective, “I definitely advocate for creating community around this: sharing ideas, practices, products, etc. through social forums.” For her this also means taking it one step at a time to fully integrate a new product into her process so that it’s a seamless embrace of a new way.
What are your favorite ways that you’ve changed the way you work to be more sustainable?
Marie and Naemi are big advocates of a return to stainless steel. Marie says, “The big game changer is using an autoclave again. It's how I started in the tattoo world but was lured into the disposable realm for awhile as it did make my day easier. But, really, it doesn't take too much imagination to think of how destructive that waste stream of plastic tubes is, so it's a big relief to be autoclaving again.” Naemis agrees mentioning, “I love to use all the high quality stainless steel stuff instead of using cheap plastic. The stainless steel razor is doing its job even better than the disposable ones. So for me it also turned into an improvement of my workflow.”
It’s also no wonder that technology should be a big help in the transition from a ultra wasteful tattoo studio to one that is more eco-conscience. Dina explains, “One of my favorite changes was from paper consent forms to an iPad a few years ago. It saves a ton of paper and ink and is easier to organize and store.” But she also mentions that on top of using all vegan products, they also use biodegradable goods whenever possible.
Lee took it one step further and has actually opened up Good Judy Inc. “...it's an eco-friendly tattoo supply company...Good Judy started for me, out of desperation. After becoming more active in environmental and social justice issues the reality that I was creating a lot of garbage myself became unavoidable to look at. I felt deeply conflicted; I was tattooing all these images inspired by nature but that process left a mess which deeply impacts the very thing I loved drawing. At first I thought that if I looked hard enough I'd be able to find a tattoo supplier somewhere and just take the financial hit if it was really expensive but I couldn't find any suppliers that had more than one eco-friendly product and usually it was a lot more money...For me I hope that Good Judy makes tattooers feel better about their work and even proud to be actively protesting climate change each time they use it. Every time I set up my tattoo station with plant-based products I feel a sense of relief that there is still great potential in the future. Down the road I hope that if this company is successful it can be used as leverage to put pressure on municipalities to have better garbage disposal, to have more money invested in commercial composting. We need more big voices standing up for climate justice.” Good Judy currently carries gloves, barrier film, razors and ink cups but Lee is always doing research to grow. “Everything we do has an impact on our planet but we do have the power to make those impacts smaller and smaller.”
What does “ethical tattooing” mean to you?
Without missing a beat, Dina puts it simply and concisely, bringing it back to being a mindful tattooer with every step in the eco tattoo process, “Ethical tattooing means doing the least amount of harm you can to other sentient beings and the environment: being thoughtful.” Marie takes a similar perspective describing her working process as trying to find a more healthy and harmonious relationship as an artist in this world, “In attempting to make beauty in the world I feel compelled to ask questions about what I leave behind in all of my art practices. Thinking about how my paintings or tattoos age is part of that, but so is learning about responsible pigment use in both circumstances, as well as what materials I take from the world and what waste I give back. For most of human history this was not an issue: taking and giving happened within the sacred balances established by a given land base. As art is my most sacred practice, that is my ultimate model for ethics.” And for Naemi, harmony is found within being a dedicated vegan, “Unfortunately, you can't live without causing a certain amount of harm. But you can reduce it to its minimum...The freedom of one party stops where that of the other begins, so I think it shouldn't be an option to take care of the environment, it’s our duty.”
Lee also mentions that ethics goes beyond ecological politics, it also engages socio-politics and the health of human relationships. “For me ethical tattooing intersects across many different areas - not only being a welcoming space for queer, femme and POC folks but also by thinking about the kind of art I make and how the physical process of tattooing impacts the earth. It feels like a challenging but exciting time for activism right now, people aren't just standing up for environmental issues, or women's issues or queer issues; it's felt that all of these things intersect and impact each other. That's what I try to bring to my work everyday along with the openness to reflect on ways I can be better and learn from mistakes.”