The Significance of Being Seen: Ink the Diaspora

The Significance of Being Seen: Ink the Diaspora

In this interview with Ink the Diaspora, we talk about the importance of support for dark skinned people in the tattoo community.

It's asked on multiple social platforms consistently. People wonder, and speak up, or they stay silent...which is even worse. You can scroll through many a tattoo blog; image upon image of inspiration, but have you ever noticed the glaring gap of cultural diversity? "Where are the black people?" "Why don't you show images of ink on brown skin?" And the answer is actually pretty simple...it's systematic racism and classism within society. It's so deeply ingrained that even in what are supposed to be inclusive, progressive communities, there is a deep and terrifying lack of representation. 

On March 30th in Brooklyn, NY, a pop-up tattoo flash event will take place. Part of the juggernaut of empowerment that is Ink the Diaspora, this event and many others, are being proactive about bringing marginalized community members to the forefront. Brown, black, womxn, trans, queer, non-binary...this is for them. A safe space created by its founder Tann, who is devoted to the visibility and support for those who often find no open venue for their voices or bodies. 

In anticipation of the upcoming event, Tann sat down with me to talk more about the mission and importance of the project. 

I want to challenge the social norm of people thinking that because you are dark-skinned, your tattoos are seen as less significant.

So, can you talk about the impetus behind creating Ink The Diaspora? Why did you start it, and what is your mission behind the page?

The idea for Ink The Diaspora came one night back in early 2017 when I was stuck feeling like I had no creative outlet to express myself. My background is in clothing design but at that time I wasn't inspired in creating anything after I had graduated college in 2015 with my BFA in Fashion Design. That was when I was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety/social anxiety. I was too emotionally drained and confused to pursue sewing as a creative outlet. I remember the night pretty well when I first came up with the idea of the project because I sat at my desk under my lofted bed at the time thinking, "This is it. I have to channel my energy into something creative that I care about." I started to go over a list in my head of what I like, and things I was interested in. I knew it had to be something where I was expressing a lot of myself but also sharing a narrative that could help others. I remember laughing to myself and saying "I guess I am going to become a blogger." It all came together in pieces. At one point I was looking at what tattoos I had at the time. I knew I enjoyed collecting tattoos and that I wanted to capture a narrative behind that. I first referred to the project as ‘Gertude Ink’, as a dedication to my grandmother on my mom’s side. It wasn’t until August 2017 that I was in Doreen Garner’s art studio that I told her about the project I was thinking about starting. She gave me the name Ink The Diaspora, and that’s when the project had its real start. I was able to think about the details of what the project would be about and its mission.

For those who don’t know, why is diversity and visibility important for marginalized communities? And why do you think there isn’t a lot of support for those groups within tattooing?

Showing visibility for marginalized groups helps build the tattoo industry. I think marginalized people play a big role in the future of tattooing. It’s welcoming a different group of individuals into tattooing and collecting. Diversity in the industry is important because collectors sometimes want to get a tattoo from someone that looks like them. I believe a lot of artists in the tattoo industry tattoo under the traditional veil of tattooing. The standard of how you go about becoming a tattoo artist. They are taught how to tattoo only on white individuals. I think within that world there isn’t any reason to go about bringing in diversity because its roots are heavily rooted in white supremacy. (In context to the start of colonizing body modification.) So, welcoming ‘others’ into this group isn’t likely unless they are willing to prove they want to be a part of it.

What have been some of your own experiences within the tattoo community and how do they relate to society at large? What do you love about tattoo culture, and what do you wish would change?

My experience within the tattoo community has been shaped by my own navigation. I was never interested in going to different tattoo shops. My most defining moment in the tattoo community was getting tattooed by someone out of their home studio back in 2013. It was a teacake (cupcake on a teacup plate) on my forearm and the artist revealed they didn’t have much work done on darker skin clients. But they felt that they knew what they were doing. Before we started my tattoo the artist’s boyfriend was in the apartment and made a backhanded comment referring to my response to why I wanted the teacake. The artist did try to neutralize the situation and told him to be nice. But that wasn’t what made the experience for me. It was when we were talking about potentially doing a cover-up of my first tattoo and the artist gave me the advice of them having to scar me in order to cover my tattoo that had slight scarring already. And that's when I knew white tattoo artists don’t know everything there is to know about tattooing. That is something I wish would change in tattoo culture. White tattoo artists are not gate keepers to tattooing and they don’t possess all the answers and knowledge that comes with tattooing. I do love parts of tattoo culture, the expression of new styles from artists is exciting to discover. And I now love participating in flash events at shops.

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White tattoo artists are not gate keepers to tattooing and they don’t possess all the answers and knowledge that comes with tattooing.

Who are some artists who you feel really stem the tide against systematic racism/sexism/classism within tattooing?

Doreen Garner is definitely my inspiration because of the work she is doing tattooing. She has dedicated a project to only tattooing Black people.

I respect the vocalization of tattoo artist Brittany Randell brings to her platform about the care in tattooing people with dark skin. The professional practice of not scarring a client and going against the deception of having to tattoo harder in order for lines to be seen on darker skin people.

I really appreciate the work the tattoo artists at Constellation Tattoo in Portland, Oregon, in use their resources and following to help other marginalized groups. They offer financial support to groups and individuals in need in way of fundraising hosting a tattoo flash. That solid act of generosity is so humbling to see from a tattoo studio and community give back what they can. TATTOOS!

If you could talk about the iconography and symbology within black/brown/POC tattooing that, probably, most white artists wouldn't fully be able to understand or resonate with that would be great...since, this is part of the reason why it's important to have diversity. Sharing and learning about culture is awesome, as is an artist who can accurately replicate it, but sometimes people want an artist who directly understands their culture due to living it, ya know what I mean?

Getting a tattoo from a tattoo artist that looks like you is so important. Especially when someone is getting a cultural significance tattoo. It’s important for Black and PoC communities to get a tattoo from someone who shares the same cultural background. The practice of certain styles, symbols, and patterns that have cultural significance should be something that is shared amongst people who are in the diaspora. People are collecting tattoos for different reasons and wanting an artist that reflects them is realistic in this day and age we live in. For myself, I don’t think I would have been inspired to collect more tattoos if I had not been introduced to Doreen Garner. The lack of representation of non-white artists just embeds the tattoo industry in its colonized history. Black and PoC tattoo artists are needed in the tattoo industry.

You also run Black Playground and other projects that support tons of different artists all over New York...how did these events come together?

Black Playground is so special to me. I knew I wanted to do something art fair related to celebrating Black History Month in 2018 but didn’t know where to start on my own. So I expressed what I was thinking to my friend Mo and she believed in what I was saying and understood it. And together we organized Black Playground for two years in a row. The name was inspired by the atmosphere of working at Playground Coffee Shop but reimagined to support Black artists and creatives with a financial opportunity. It’s important to me to create an environment to show the representation of Black people making money from their own creativity.

What are your future hopes for Ink The Diaspora? Any goals, events, collabs, etc coming up that you’d like to share?

My goals for 2019 are to make Ink The Diaspora into a business. Starting off doing more tattoo consulting and event planning. I’m working towards building a website for ITD and want to have it ready by the end of the year. I recently asked followers of the project to help me with funding getting the project off the ground and building it more into real life interactions. I’m still accepting donations to building the project. My Vemno is also open for donations. 

I have my first tattoo shop popup at The Bed-Stuy Tattooing Co. on March 30th from 11 am - 9 pm, 208 Malcolm X Blvd Brooklyn NY. There will be 7 guest artists for the event, as well as the shop owner, Kevin. The artists will have flash to choose from or regular designs.

I'm always open to collab with like-minded artists and shops that want to carry the mission of Ink The Diaspora. It’s a tattoo club that prioritizes visibility of seeing tattoos on brown and darker skinned people.

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