Black tattoo artists push for diversity in white-dominated industry
Although tattooing has been around for centuries, the practice was mostly underground before gaining recognition as a legitimate art in modern history.
Although it’s a fairly common industry these days, discriminatory hiring practices and racial stigma are some of the challenges that black tattoo artists say they face in the predominantly white field of tattooing.
Even color tattoo artists in New York, considered the birthplace of modern tattooing after a nearly four-decade ban, according to The New York Historical Societysay the field needs more diversity.
Richard Parker, owner of the tattoo studio The enriched art in Brooklyn, New York, and brand, Think Before You Ink, said being an artist brings “its own struggle” — but being a black artist just adds another layer of hurdles.
“Overall, we’ve been left behind in an industry that actually stems from our tribal heritage,” Parker told ABC News.
The lack of diversity can also affect customers due to the inexperience of many tattoo professionals on black and brown skin, which “has left many darker-skinned customers struggling to find someone who can actually provide them with quality work,” Parker said.
For black women working in the field, the issues of inclusion run deeper, as the industry is not only white-dominated, but also inundated with men.
Jacci Gresham, who is considered America’s first black tattoo artist, is still working and living her dream at the age of 75. She has run her business in New Orleans for over 50 years after opening her own tattoo shop in the 1970s, making it one of the oldest tattoo parlors in the state.
“I had problems because of the color…I had problems because I was a woman and I was trusted…They just weren’t used to women being in this area. Not to mention black women,” Gresham told ABC News.
Gresham is from Flint, Michigan, who grew up in a time when tattoos weren’t widely accepted. She said she used her artistic background to study architecture before pursuing her true passion for tattooing.
Today, she lives in Mississippi and regularly visits her New Orleans studio, Aart Accent Tattoos & Body Piercings, after her home was flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She said well Although her business temporarily lost power and the roof was destroyed, she is grateful that her shop remained standing despite the deadly hurricane.
Gresham, who has no biological children, said she hopes one of her biggest impacts is being a trailblazer in the industry.
“My kids are the people I trained to tattoo,” she said.
Although there has been progress in recent years for black tattoo artists, Kandace Layne, owner of Magic Mirror Tattoo Studio in Atlanta, said the industry still has a long way to go to become more inclusive.
“It’s hard for anyone to get an apprenticeship, but it’s even harder for black women to find a place that will teach them and find a place that will treat them with respect,” Layne told ABC News.
The 27-year-old said one of her main motivations for taking the plunge to open her own boutique was after she struggled to find opportunities elsewhere. Now, Layne runs a boutique that prioritizes service for women/women, LGBTQA+; and Black, Indigenous and People of Color
“I felt creating my own space was the best way to meet my needs,” Layne said, adding that she worked in some places that made her question her worth.
But there are those in the industry who are working to make the tattoo business more inclusive. Helios Tattoo Supply in New York is a manufacturing and supply company that provides artists with items such as needles, machines, ink and maintenance products.
Craig Petralia, Founder and CEO of Helios, originally from Long Island, New York, has worked in the industry for more than two decades. The father-of-two said he aims to create a family atmosphere to support multiple artists, many of whom are people of color, and the freedom to create without limits.
“We are a group of people coming together to build something bigger than ourselves…our goal is to give artists the tools to create their best works of art,” Petralia told ABC News.
Petralia’s company sponsors Ceaser Emanuel, a color tattoo artist and star of “Black Ink Crew” – a reality TV show that started by following New York-based tattoo artists and later expanded to other cities.
Parker has worked with Petralia for over five years. Helios de Petralia is also a sponsor of Parker’s tattoo studio. The two say they are determined to diversify the tattoo industry and bring more art to more people. For example, Parker, who is the father of a 5-year-old boy, says he has worked with several students in New York over the past decade to create artwork in schools and help inspire the student creativity.
Whether it’s watching his son create artwork or subjecting him to the atmosphere of his tattoo shop, Parker said being a positive influence is one of his most important jobs.
“I’m just extremely happy and proud to be able to expose him to a more original life so he can create his own canvas,” Parker said.
Parker — who is also a former cast member of “Ink Master,” a tattoo artist competition TV show — said becoming an entrepreneur is the best way to open more doors.
He says he is also trying to implement change by joining other artists involved in “The Black Tattoo Experience”, which is a collective of artists creating opportunities and space for minorities to build themselves within. Of the industry.
“More of us come together and trade secrets as a community to build each other up [and] sticking together is what will further diversify the playing field,” Parker said.