How to Find a Tattoo Artist Who Celebrates Melanated Skin

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Your body is a temple, but it may look more like a museum these days. Decorating your body with permanent pieces of art has peaked in popularity, and collecting tattoos is now a more normalized form of outward self-expression and body reclamation, right up there with tried-and-true beauty-world modifications like shaving your head, dyeing your hair bright pink, or having someone puncture multiple holes in your ears.

Kandace Layne, @kandacelayne

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How did you get your start in the tattoo industry, and what inspired you to pursue this path? I was inspired by books on Japanese tattooing that I read in bookstores and at the library when I was 12 or 13. I read as much as I could about what it was like to be a tattoo artist, and I read that the best way to go about it was through an apprenticeship. So that's what I decided to do. I started my apprenticeship when I was in high school at a street shop in Atlanta.

Did you feel you saw yourself represented in the industry? Was there anyone you looked up to or anyone who mentored you?I remember watching things like LA Ink and Miami Ink and seeing no one who looked like me. There was Kat Von D and the women she had on her show; that was as close as it got. I did a lot of reading online and found out about the first Black woman to tattoo (in a mainstream American sense), Jacci Gresham. Finding out about her made me feel so hopeful and inspired. It was hard to find any other Black women tattooers at the time. I apprenticed at City of Ink for two years and worked there for a total of seven years. There, I met many artists from many backgrounds who all helped and inspired me. Almost every person who worked there during my apprenticeship took me under their wing. I still feel so lucky to have had that experience. So far in my career, I have had the honor of working with at least four other amazing Black women throughout my time at City of Ink. I think that was a really rare experience, and that is actually kind of sad. In the future, I know there will be a lot more diversity in mainstream tattooing, so that is also hopeful and exciting.

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What do you wish more people understood about tattooing dark skin? I think the biggest thing for me is that sometimes artists may make Black clients feel like their skin tone is an issue. That simply isn't true. The biggest misconception I encounter is that color doesn't show up on brown skin and that tattooing Black people is harder. It's not harder; it just requires adjustments, which artists should be doing for their clients anyway.

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What are your favorite types of pieces to work on? I really enjoy henna- inspired tattoos because I grew up in a Muslim household, so henna has always been something I loved. I really enjoy covering and decorating scars or other areas of insecurities people may have and help them reclaim and celebrate their bodies. I also have fun with sigil- and veve-inspired tattoos, girl heads, mandalas and dot work, botanicals, and illustrative portraits. These are just things that interest me and allow my creativity to run wild.

What are your favorite products for keeping tattoos healthy as they heal?I like this stuff called After Inked or Hustle Butter!

Debbi Snax, @snaxink

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How did you get your start in the industry, and what inspired you to pursue this path? I started tattooing randomly, to be honest. I never thought of tattooing as my life path. I knew I wanted to be an artist in some way growing up, but I had no real direction. Once I met my mentor and really started researching and studying this art form, I became so addicted to it. Tattooing changed my life. I truly can't see myself doing anything else.

Did you ever feel you saw yourself represented in the industry? Was there anyone you looked up to or anyone who mentored you?As far as being a young Black artist, I did see myself represented in this industry. Coming from Atlanta, there are a lot of Black artists here doing great things. I had the unique opportunity of being mentored by one of the best tattooers in the city, in my opinion, Juan Carlos. Juan exposed me to every style of tattooing, and I ended up being immediately drawn to American traditional. But as I studied this style, I realized I did not see my likeness in any of the flash or in any of the artists creating it, so subconsciously I began to create my own.

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What do you wish more people understood about tattooing dark skin? I wish more people understood that tattooing dark skin is not a burden. It's not something we as tattooers should dread. We should be open to all canvas, no matter the skin tone, because it's our job. I used to get a lot of people coming to me with misconceptions but not so much anymore. Black and brown people are educating themselves on what good tattooing is and are expecting the tattooers they choose to know what's up.

What advice would you give to Black aspiring artists? What advice would you give to Black individuals searching for a tattoo artist?The advice I would give to young Black artists is never give up. Anything you want is possible if you put your all into it. Be passionate about your dreams, dedicate yourself, and work hard towards your goals and it can happen. Hard work and determination beat talent every single day. And for anyone looking for a tattoo artist, research your artist! Take your time and look at different artist portfolios. Be clear on what you want, and make sure that person can do what you are asking for.

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What are your favorite types of pieces to work on?My favorite types of pieces to work on are probably full-body African American pin-ups and lady heads with fros or wraps. I gravitate to this and love to draw and tattoo these because I think Black women and their features are phenomenal. I believe Black women and Black people in general deserve to be able to see their likeness in their tattoos and on their bodies. I hope to show people that white, European women are not the only standard for beauty.

Do you have any favorite products for keeping tattoos healthy as they heal?My favorite product to use for aftercare right now is Hustle Butter or just plain unscented African shea butter or coconut oil. These products are great for melanated skin and help my tattoos pop after they are healed.

Quiara Capellan, @fairytatmother

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How did you get your start in the industry, and what inspired you to pursue this path? I have been a visual artist all my life and began tattooing myself because I could not afford to get tattooed often. It stuck since I was pretty good at doing it on myself. Once I felt comfortable enough to tattoo others, it stuck as a career option for me because it meant I could work as an artist full time.

Did you feel you saw yourself represented in the industry? Was there anyone you looked up to or anyone who mentored you?Growing up in NYC, most of the time I was being tattooed by men. It was very rare that I saw a woman in a shop who was not a piercer or someone working the front. I did have a mentor for a short period of time, but the shop was not a safe space for me and I cut my apprenticeship short after a few weeks.

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What do you wish more people understood about tattooing dark skin? Tattooing dark skin, from a technical standpoint, is no different from other skin tones. You don't need to go harder or work it more.

What advice would you give to Black aspiring artists? What advice would you give to Black individuals searching for a tattoo artist?If you are thinking about tattooing, go for it. Don't let anyone tell you no. But just know it will not be easy. It will require a strong mental stamina and dedication. But you can do it. There is a community here for you. For the individuals searching for an artist, do not give up. Stack your coin and keep searching. The right person will be there for you. Make sure they have clear examples of work on your skin tone and are listening to what you are asking for and can communicate to you clearly. Also, make sure that what you are asking for is something the artist can achieve. Do your research. Never be afraid to ask for a consultation before you commit to a tattoo appointment.

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What are your favorite types of pieces to work on? I love big color pieces. I'm straying away from certain types of tattoos; I used to be able to tackle many styles but felt stretched out too thin. I want to focus on nature-themed pieces and figures. I absolutely love tattooing butterflies and florals.

Do you have any favorite products for keeping tattoos healthy as they heal?My studio mate Tann and I create a shea-butter-based salve in-house that we give to clients after they come in for a tattoo. A full-size product is available online. It has made healing my tattoos so much easier, and clients tell me that, since using it, their healing processes are so much smoother and the tattoos are bolder.

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