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Whiteness in Tattooing and How to Help Solve It

Whiteness in Tattooing and How to Help Solve It
Guides6 min Read


We look at ways to fix issues of racism within the tattoo industry and offer advice on tattooing darker skin tones.

The beautiful thing about harsh realities is when people come together to evolve the world, others, and themselves, for the better. During the recent Black Lives Matter protests, and even before, various industries have been rightfully pinpointed as hot spots of systemic racism, including the tattoo industry.

So, for those who are looking for more information or aren’t sure how they can develop the industry from within, we bring you this piece on specific issues within the tattoo community, as well as advice and resources to help. This is a very brief overview, but we hope it will help get people started in evolving the industry to what it should be: inclusive and empowering.

Important Educational Resources

MAD PAIN podcast via Doreen Garner
Tattooer Discussion Group: Antiracist Action for White and nonBlack POC via Discipline Press
How to Tattoo Darker Skin Tones via Quiara aka fairytatmother
Free Reading Resources for Non-BIMPoC Allies via Mari Nagaoka aka gravewine
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack by Peggy McIntosh
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
What is White Privilege Really? by Cory Collins
Ken Hardy Tasks Here and Here

Why the Industry Has Roots of Racism

The tattoo industry has roots of racism because, fundamentally, there really isn’t a social system in existence right now that doesn’t have strains of racism and/or inequality running through it. Although the tattoo world likes to think of itself as existing in a bubble, it doesn’t. Racism is often learned through family or schooling...and therefore, people can grow up, be racist, and be a part of any community...including tattooing.

However, tattooing also has a history that has been white washed by widely accepted stories such as the Captain Cook Myth. We’ve all heard it: Captain Cook sails to Polynesia, “discovers” tattooing, and brings it back to the West. There are so many issues with this particular anecdote, not least of which is the fact that an ancient tradition continually practiced cannot be “discovered”. It also perpetuates an owning of Indigenous cultural techniques, rituals, and symbology by White people; this is part of how tattooing reflects colonialist attitudes.

Vintage photograph of Japanese tattooing
Mezzotint of the late 17th-early 18th century Iroquois/Algonquian leaders known at the time as the “Four Indian Kings” including Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow (below). Link: (via Anna Felicity Friedman aka tattoohistori
Inuit tattoo

In 1846, Martin Hildebrand opened up a tattoo shop in New York, 1884 saw the opening of Tattoo Ole in Copenhagen, Denmark, and in 1894, Sutherland Macdonald opened a shop in the UK. All of these, and a few more, are the beginning of tattoo culture as Westerners know it now. Street shops covered in flash, machines buzzing away, and sailors sauntering in through swinging doors. It was the beginning of an inner-sphere of gate-keeping artists who strove to keep the techniques of tattooing under wraps.

Tattoo Ole
Sutherland Macdonald tattoo poster
Coleman's Tattooing

The tattoo industry has hugely opened up since the early 1900’s, mostly due to modern social media platforms, but gate-keeping still heavily affects Black, Indigenous, Mixed, and People of Color who are not represented, accepted, or supported within the tattoo industry. This lack of diversity is a reflection of greater society; it helps illustrate how smaller pockets of underground culture still often uphold damaging systems or ideologies by manifesting the same behaviors of the mainstream.

What can you do about this particular issue of racism within tattooing? The main key is educating yourself, and others. Sometimes this means having difficult conversations with co-workers or employers. Sometimes it means enlightening yourself more deeply. For example, actively work on being mindfully diverse and inclusive. Supporting Black artists and Black owned business is a really powerful direct action to take. And, even further, you should be respectful of Indigenous cultural rituals, traditions, techniques, and symbols.

Read more - Conscious Intention: Reprogramming Systemic Racism in Tattooing

Specific Issues of Racism in Social Media

Because social media platforms are such a huge part of the tattoo industry these days, it is helpful to know how these tools represent racist systems. Because people are creating these algorithms, AI systems, and platforms, human biases become inherent in the system’s technological make-up. For example, Google recently apologized after an AI system from the company produced racist results due to the training data used to ‘teach’ the AI.

It’s important to not only be aware of these issues, but also to mindfully offset them. For example, on Instagram, this may mean posting, liking, and actively sharing tattoos on dark skin tones. As Tann Parker of Ink the Diaspora explained, “There is a reason we mainly see tattoos on white skinny feminine bodies. The algorithm is biased and favors whiteness and anything that upholds fatphobia. Internalized yt supremacy shows up in many different ways for folks. Combating it is a daily practice.”

Stay Soft lettering tattoo by Becca Iturralde aka softbarrio #BeccaIturralde #softbarrio #lettering #staysoft #handpoke
Chrysanthemum tattoo by tanvotattoo #tanvotattoo #floral #flower #japanese #chrysanthemum #color
Tiger tattoo by Keko Animal #KekoAnimal #tigertattoo #lettering #fire #ignoranttattoo #blackwork

It’s not just the algorithm that is at fault: it’s also artists choosing to not post images of darker skin tones. Essentially, you’re choosing ‘likes’ over visibility. The choice and action here is simple: artists need to be more proactive about sharing tattoos on Black, Indigenous, Mixed, and POC skin. It’s not only promoting a skill set or ability, it’s helping a huge community of people feel seen, heard, and included.

Tattoo by Autumn Blaze aka dirtybandaid #AutumnBlaze #dirtybandaid #heart #rose #compact #clouds #cute #kawaii #sparkle

Tattoo by Autumn Blaze aka dirtybandaid #AutumnBlaze #dirtybandaid #heart #rose #compact #clouds #cute #kawaii #sparkle

And if you’re having issues attracting more skin tones into your studio, maybe think about why that is. Many studios make sure to actively promote that they are for every body and every skin tone. They promote safety and inclusivity...they don't just make these as performative statements. They actively evolve and educate themselves for the betterment of the community at large. As actual, or perceived, gate-keepers of the tattoo industry, white tattooers are culpable for the issues within this trade and they have a major responsibility to empower diversity within tattooing.

Another huge aspect of social media’s impact on racism in tattooing comes down to Photo Filters. While removing red is a widely accepted standard, this can often desaturate many skin tones. For darker melanin, this can mean a significant whitewashing. Whether a subconscious choice or not, many people are choosing feed aesthetics over visibility for BIMPoC clients. Foregoing whitewashed photo filters, or using less desaturation, may seem like a small change, but it has a huge impact. At the end of the day, making people feel more included is a huge responsibility of the industry, shops, artists, and community at large. All of our small changes, our direct actions, help evolve the whole tattoo world in such a healthy, empowering approach!

Below is a really perfect example of photo filter misuse: the client's original hue looks dark, but by the third picture, the skin tone looks almost completely white.

Via BangBang - Example of how photo filters change skin tone.
Via BangBang - Example of how photo filters change skin tone.
Via BangBang - Example of how photo filters change skin tone.

How to Tattoo Darker Skin Tones

One of the very large impacts traditional gate-keeping tactics has had on the industry is that many artists simply are not trained or educated on tattooing darker skin tones. Many tattooists incorrectly think that tattooing on BIMPoC clients means digging the ink in further, causing trauma to the skin, that color isn’t possible, and that a design needs to be extremely simple.

None of that is true. There are plenty of resources out in the world, but Quiara, also known as fairytatmother, has been kind enough to put together a Guide to Tattooing Darker Skin Tones. Download it, share it, and, per Quiara's request, donate to For the Gworls, in thanks for freely sharing incredibly important information!

Guide to Tattooing Darker Skin Tones by Quiara aka fairytatmother #tattooingdarkerskintones #bimpoctattoo
Guide to Tattooing Darker Skin Tones by Quiara aka fairytatmother #tattooingdarkerskintones #bimpoctattoo
Guide to Tattooing Darker Skin Tones by Quiara aka fairytatmother #tattooingdarkerskintones #bimpoctattoo

Your best bet beyond simply reading Quiara's guide, reading through the Important Educational Resources, and researching other available informative means, is to learn about color theory, do free color swatches for people, as well as reach out to artists who have a skill set that can support your growth as a human and tattooist.

Color swatch by Brittany Randell aka humblebeetattoo #BrittanyRandell #humblebeetattoo #blacktattoer #blacktattooartist #tattooondarkskin #colorswatch
Color swatch by Brittany Randell aka humblebeetattoo #BrittanyRandell #humblebeetattoo #blacktattoer #blacktattooartist #tattooondarkskin #colorswatch

Tattooing, of all things, should be inclusive. This is an ancient practice, spanning all cultures and countries. It is the art form we use to embrace our bodies and to visually express ownership of ourselves. It's the community where we find chosen family and understanding, where we embrace belonging, where we can continually grow and learn. Everyone deserves that. So, do your part. All those little steps and changes founded in kindness, compassion, altruism, and love enable revolutionary change.

Chest tattoo by Wolf Gore #WolfGore #chesttattoo #bee #floral #illustrative
Maya and Gesiye of Bald Babes Ink working in their studio #BaldBabesInk #maya #gesiye
Heart tattoo by Meggsaladsandwich #meggsaladsandwich #heart #blessed #lettering #linework #blackwork #minimal #love
Butterfly tattoo by happywithasecret #happywithasecret #butterfly #minimal #small #linework
Back tattoo by Carlo Amen #CarloAmen #backtattoo #linework #abstract #portrait #minimal
Surreal tattoo by Skeleton Jelly #SkeletonJelly #surreal #portrait #illustrative #star
Back tattoo by parkkaro #parkkaro #linework #sun #backtattoo
Floral tattoos by Alvaro Groznyy #AlvaroGroznyy #flower #elbowditch #illustrative
Dragon tattoo by Victor J Webster #VictorJWebster #dragon #illustrative #japanese #japaneseinspired
Illustrative tattoo by Cyd Ink #CydInk #illustrative #portrait #lips #abstract
Tribal pattern tattoo by Stockholm Alternative #StockholmAlternative #tribal #symbol #patten #blackwork #linework #dot #eye
Abstract tattoo by mount year #mountyear #abstract #shapes #grey
Beetle tattoo by Quiara aka fairytatmother on Tann Parker aka InktheDiaspora #quiara #fairytatmother #tannparker #inkthediaspora #beetle
Floral tattoo by Lucasbmsoares #lucasbmsoares #floral #illustrative #flowers #ornamental
Portrait tattoo by fairweathertattoo #fairweathertattoo #portrait #ladyhead #selflove

Justine Morrow
Written byJustine Morrow

Social Producer, Journalist, Editor, and Curator for Tattoodo I am here to support you 🌻 IG: @lathe.of.heaven