The Brown Paper Bag Theory (Tattoo Edition) by​: Kristen Woodhouse

(Follow @thexbutcher)

How does being black & female in the tattoo industry affect your journey as a tattoo artist? This may be a very foreign question to many. Black, female tattooers make up such a small percentage of the tattoo industry that seeing things from our eyes is a rare occasion. When I first started in the tattoo industry about a decade ago there was already a typical mold in place for what a "serious" tattoo artist looked like. Clients sought out artists that had a big, burly masculine appearance and if you were a white artist it sealed the deal for most. Even black male tattooers were taken far more serious than any black female tattooer. So, me, being the ambitious 19 year old that I was at the time saw that as a challenge that I was gladly willing to accept. Most people who walked into the shop I worked in at the time automatically assumed that I was either a receptionist or shop help. Completely dismissing the possibility that I could be the very one that was doing their tattoo. To survive I used the fact that my appearance was similar to that of spotting a unicorn as a marketing tool. I made sure that with every 5 tattoos that I posted I followed that with a dope photoshoot of myself in all my tattooed glory. I went from the black girl at the shop to officially branding myself as "Krissy The Butcher". Even though its many years later I get the "Are you the receptionist?" look sometimes and feel obligated to retaliate with multiple portfolios, accolades, & proof of technique to ease their anxiety and build theirs trust. It is common knowledge that black women in the corporate world have to work 3 times as hard to gain the respect that their white, male counterpart so i guess the tattoo industry is no exception.  Being that our skin color alone places black, female tattooers in a subculture by default let's dive deeper into the idea of skin color as related to tattooing. First we must address the deeply rooted ideas that many black woman have been bred to believe through history. Insert "The Brown Paper Bag Theory"!!  Back in the day the black women deemed most worthy were those who were lighter than a brown paper bag. Light eyes, light skin, and long hair were the most desirable features and as you can imagine have caused centuries of deeply embedded insecurity and rifts within the black culture. Some of the common misconceptions in the tattoo industry have intertwined into the hang ups about skin tone in the black culture.  When I first began in the industry what white tattoo artists said was law and being that they dominated the industry, they naturally where tattooing many of the blacks in my neighborhoods. A lot of similar trends where repeating with black clients that would eventually make their way into black tattoo shops for another perspective. "They said I'm too dark to get this tattoo". "I was told color won't show up on me at all". "My tattoo is over-worked and the skin had raised & formed a keloid". These beliefs started to connect to the insecurity that, once again, light black skin was more desirable than dark black skin. But I'm lucky that the veteran black tattooers that I apprenticed under showed me the key that connected the magic of melanin to the art of tattooing. I was first taught to respect the power of melanin. Melanin protects the skin from damage, so some techniques must be done with more care and at a slower pace to get effective results. Next, scale and contrast could be utilized to aid in color application that was once though to be impossible. Bigger scaled pieces are more successful from a composition standpoint than smaller, intricately lined pieces. Finally, placing bolder black linework and solid blocks of black shading next to bright colors can allow the to stand out more on darker skin tones. Tattooing on black skin tones became something that once thought that could not be done at all to that done by skilled artists who trained specifically on this particular skin type. We effectively over the years took reinserted ourselves back into the art form! In my career being knowledgeable in working with all skin tones has became an asset and has broadened my clientele to newer heights. I can appeal to more than just one niche market. 

Even with all of the training and knowledge that I have in tattooing black skin tones I still feel the need to handle the topic carefully. Feelings still can be hurt even when I simply try to give my artistic advice. On many occasions clients will bring in a reference of the exact tattoo they want but the skin tone will be that totally opposite of theirs. My artists expertise will always be to spell out the options of designs that are better suited for their own skin tone. Dark skin tones have a place in this tattoo industry, it just must be showcased more often! 


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