Tann Parker, Founder of Ink the Diaspora, on Racism in the Tattoo Industry—And How to Combat It

Ink the Diaspora
Credit: Instagram / @okthen________

As tattoos have risen in popularity to become a mainstream form of self-expression, the tattoo community has, thankfully, become a bit more diverse. There’s a growing number of inclusive tattoo shops, and queer, black, and brown artists. Still, despite that progress, the industry is largely homogenous. It’s dominated by white, cisgender men—and it’s been that way for over a century. According to Tann Parker, a New York based consultant and up-and-coming tattoo artist, that homogeneity has made it very difficult for a more diverse set of tattooers and clients, particularly black folks, to really thrive in the industry. To help, Parker launched Ink the Diaspora in 2018. 

Ink the Diaspora is a platform that showcases tattoos on dark skin and the artists behind them. It’s is aimed at increasing representation for QTBIPOC (Queer, Transgender, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) individuals in the tattoo community, because for people with darker complexions, that visibility is often very hard to come by.

Here, Parker talks to us about their work in the tattoo community, why it’s still so predominantly white (hint: it’s because of systemic racism), and what shops and artists can do to be more supportive of people of color.

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This is my “small” collection of 2019 tattoos recap. Last year I had a lot of change happening around me and it did leave me financially destabilized. But I did have ups that stabilized me and gave me the opportunity to invest back into my self and ITD. I can recognize one of my privileges and it’s being able to meet and get tattooed by amazing tattoo artists who align with the message of Ink The Diaspora. Thank you to the tattoo artists who I’ve collected from in 2019, @finest_trash_ink @pina.tattoo @kwongtattoo @flesh_and_fluid @liannadefleur @browstress (face freckle tattoos) @sema.tattoo @tamarasantibanez @tattoosbycake @venusofchillendorf ❤️❤️❤️ This privilege is something I will continue to share. A lot of you have shared tattoo artists with me from all over, thank you for that! And as I work on a master list that will be accessible to everyone and focus on tattoo artists of the diaspora who show work on dark skin tones (because it’s about showing the work without having to be questioned, rather than a description in a bio). I want the IG page to show tattoos on brown and dark skin individuals who identify as Black or Indigenous queer women, trans, non-binary or gender non conforming. I believe storytelling is very powerful when being used with archiving photos of bodies that are tattooed and dark skinned. For the new year and decade I’m affirming the many more artists I will collect from and different cities I will travel to bringing ITD popups. There are so many shops and tattoo artists I wanna work with but can only do so much by myself running ITD. So if you are reading this and wanna work together you can always DM or email me. I got to work with tattoo artists in different ways this year with my consultanting work and I would love to do more. Also if you just have questions about it in general, I’m here. Thank you for supporting Ink The Diaspora 🖤 -Tann Parker 💞 #inkthediaspora

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What was the catalyst for creating Ink the Diaspora? What’s the goal of the account?

“I got my first tattoo at 18 years old, but back then I wasn’t collecting [tattoos] as avidly as I am now and I wasn’t doing a lot of research before choosing a shop or artist. I would just go to the one or two shops I knew or tag along with friends who were getting tattooed. But even then, I felt the tattoo experience could be better, especially for people who look like me and who share my experience as a marginalized person. 

I’m a queer, non-binary black person who has been getting tattooed for a decade. Over those 10 years I’ve experienced a general lack of knowledge around how to tattoo people of color. Some tattoo artists are really aggressive when they’re giving tattoos to people with dark skin, for instance, and that can lead to scarring, but they don’t know any better because they’ve always tattooed white people who have less sensitive skin. I’ve also seen the intense lack of representation for dark skinned people in the industry. All of this is the result of the systemic racism that exists in the tattoo community. I created Ink the Diaspora to provide more representation for dark skinned people who otherwise have a hard time finding tattoo artists. And over the past two years, it’s resonated with a lot of people.”

Why is there still so little representation of brown and dark skinned folks in the tattoo community?

“There’s a lack of representation because the people who modernized tattoos were all racist. Literally, the reason is racism. And the reason there’s still so little representation is because the racist practices popularized by the tattooers who modernized this industry haven’t ever really been challenged. Before, unless you were willing to get a tattoo from a white artist at an agressive shop, you just didn’t get tattooed. Unless you wanted to do traditional work, you didn’t become a tattoo artist. 

To be fair, it is changing a little bit now, finally. People seem to be realizing that the traditional way of doing things is bullshit. And there has been some progress. There are women tattoo artists, and black tattoo artists that have helped open doors for more minorities to enter the industry. But that hasn’t dismantled the systems of racism that still exist. And that racism is the reason there’s still so little representation for people of color.”

What are some ways for tattoo artists and shops better support clients and artists of color?

“Offer your time and space. It can be something as simple as offering your space and resources for free to tattoo artists of color. For example, if there’s a traveling artist of color coming from out of town and you’re a majority white tattoo studio, consider letting them use your space without taking a profit. You don’t have to take these black artists’ money, especially if you have a massive shop and already make a ton of money. 

And if you’re a white tattooer with a majority white clientele who wants to show that you’re inclusive, willing, and able to tattoo people of color, again, consider offering your time for free. Offer to tattoo dark skinned folks for free and then commit to posting each tattoo to your Instagram or portfolio.”

Your Instagram bio says you’re a tattoo consultant—can you explain who your primary clients are and what you help them with?

“After launching Ink the Diaspora, I started getting approached by people about tattoos. They would ask if I was a tattoo artist, which at the time I wasn’t, so instead of tattooing them I’d offer to help find someone who could. That’s basically what I do—I’m providing people with a service that connects them to tattooers. 

Most people who hit me up want to find an artist who’s either black or queer. They want to give their business to a more diverse set of tattooers. For instance, I have white people hitting me up because they want to find a black tattoo artist; they want to give their money to a black tattooer. And I respect that, so I’ll provide them with a list of people. But making those lists is a labor and time consuming, especially if I’ve never been to that city or area. So that’s been my main role as a consultant and it came up naturally once I started the Ink the Diaspora page.”

Over the past two years that you’ve been running Ink the Diaspora, have you seen any significant progress in the industry?

“I think recently, social media has helped amplify conversations around racism in the tattoo community, but I still don’t think much real progress has been made. Tattoos are more popular than ever, but black tattooers and black clients are still a subculture in the larger industry, so I feel like there’s more progress and change that needs to happen within the mainstream tattoo community. It just feels like these big players—the tattoo shops and artists with millions of followers who make bank and are always on TV and in the media—aren’t really listening to what we have to say.”

There’s been a lot of talk in the community about how tattoo artists often desaturate photos of their tattoos before posting them, especially when they’ve tattooed darker skinned folks. Why do you think that is?

“The core of the problem is that so many white artists think black skin is too difficult to tattoo and photograph. They’re focused on perfectionism and taking an aesthetically pleasing photo of the tattoo, but they don’t know how to photograph darker skin clients. It’s really the result of a lack of knowledge that stems from the fact that they’re used to tattooing just one kind of person; someone who’s probably white and pale. Instead of learning to tattoo and photograph dark skin, they just desaturate their photos to eliminate the melanin and make the tattoos more clear, which is a very disturbing thing. 

And there’s also the opposite side of the spectrum where tattoo artists sometimes darken their photos to make people who are white with pale skin look like they have color. They’re changing the photos to make their clients look like they have melanin in their skin. That’s digital black face and it’s equally, if not more, disturbing.”

Lower stomach snake tattoo by Doreen Garner on Tann Parker.

What action needs to be taken by white tattooers to dismantle the systemic racism within the tattoo community?

“They need to relinquish a lot of their privilege and power. They need to realize that they aren’t the only experts in this industry and let go of their egos. For a long time, white tattooers have gotten all the press and publicity in this industry—they get asked to go on TV and talk about their craft as if they’re the only people who know how to tattoo. But that’s not true. They need to relinquish some of power and give space to queer artists and tattooers of color; to marginalized people who aren’t being seen. Basically, they need to realize that they aren’t the end all and be all of the tattoo world. 

And the media needs to make this shift too, because as long as shows like Ink Master show tattooers complaining about having to tattoo dark skin, and as long as tattoo magazines decide that only white models are cover worthy, nothing will change.”

Who do you think are some of the best tattooers actively working against systemic racism in the tattoo community?

“Two of my favorites are Doreen Garner and Jaylind Hamilton. Doreen is my day one. I just love her. She was the first black woman I got a tattoo from, actually, and we became friends really quickly. In fact, she named the Ink the Diaspora account when I told her about my idea for it. As for Jaylind, I haven’t gotten a tattoo from them yet, but I love their work. They’re in the South. They grew up in Texas and they post a lot about their experience as a black trans tattoo artist living and working in such a conservative state. I want to support anything and everything they do, plus obviously their work is amazing, too.”

Last, but certainly not least—you’re in the process of learning to hand poke! How is it going?

“Honestly, I sort of just fell into tattooing because of Ink the Diaspora. I’ve only done a few pieces so far, but I want to stick to simpler designs. My flash right now is mainly a mix of linear configurations of lines and dots, some floral stuff, and some weird, abstract faces. I’m also self teaching. At first I was going to do an apprenticeship, but ultimately I chose to self learn. I didn’t think self teaching was too far fetched since I have so many tattoo artist friends that I can ask for help if I need to. Plus, teaching myself allows for more flexibility which makes more sense for me at the end of the day.”

If you liked our profile on Tann Parker, founder of Ink the Diaspora, be sure to check out Alex Abbey’s story here (he’s a resident artist at our very own Inside Out studio). 

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