#BlackLivesMatter, and that also means #RepresentationMatters. These are connected statements, as many at the forefront of #BLM are also fighting for representation for various groups. However, representation sometimes gets cast aside within the fight of #BLM or any civil rights group. We fight for cis straight black men to not be brutalized or victimized, but then we sometimes leave out women. There are times when we include women, considering their similar and unique struggles, but at times it’s only the cis straight women. Queer men and women are often excluded, and so are trans men and women to an even greater degree. These forgotten individuals are constantly put on progression’s back burner or completely erased from the fight. They show up to fight, but few people to none show up for them.
This is all to say that representation of all underrepresented groups is an extreme necessity in the face of any issue of progression. When we’re fighting for women we must consider if we’re just including those who are white, or if we’re making sure to include Black, Latinx, Asian, etc? Then within that, are we also including trans and queer women as well? The same goes for men of color.
The calls for equal representation ring louder and louder with each passing day and each mounting and glaring omission. From #OscarsSoWhite, to comic books, the Grammys, Barbie, and bad asses from galaxies far far away, it matters who is included or excluded. Just a quick run through of a Twitter search can show an even more diverse number of instances of why this matters so much to different people–just be careful of the hottest hot takes that might take your eyebrows off.
While I’ve been very aware of issues of representation, I began to think about it with renewed passion as of late due to a fairly new interest of mine, tattoos. I’m 27, soon to be 28, and didn’t get my first tattoo until my 27th birthday. From there I’ve gotten a few more over the nearly one year time period. As I began to gain more interest in the art, I followed more and more artists on Instagram. I read up on it more, talked to friends who have more than me and have been getting them longer, and even started watching sometimes shunned reality shows based around tattoos.
The more I saw and learned, the more I came to realize that black and brown skin is nearly absent from the scene despite very active participants–applying to both client and artist.
While it’s pleasurable following all of these Instagram accounts displaying beautiful work, it’s also a bit deflating. Unless the person you’re following is a black artist, you’ll likely find your feed void of any work featured on dark skin. The same dearth of art on dark skin can be found in portfolios hosted on personal or shop sites as well. This is even more of a problem after looking into issues that may arise if an artist has not worked with darker skin before. The issues can manifest as being too rough with someone who could be more prone to scarring, or not tailoring the design of the tattoo to work best with darker shades which may cause loss of definition and clarity once healed. The absence of dark skin becomes even more glaring if you’re looking for color work. Having such a difficult time seeing yourself reflected in works throughout the field can make potential clients feel self-conscious about reaching out for appointments or more information.
After finding a few sites and forums created specifically to answer some of the issues around being a POC wanting tattoos, it became clear that many of the things I heard concerning why there’s such a lack of dark skin representation were wrong in some way or another. I had heard that artists find it too difficult to photograph their work on dark skin, thus leaving those clients out of their portfolios and Instagram feeds. Some white artists said black and brown skin was just too hard to work on, so they avoided the work or suggested simpler ideas–ideas which they didn’t deem good enough for display. There were those who said darker skin wouldn’t hold color at all or only very dull shades of one or two colors. After doing research, I found out most of these and other assertions were either flat out wrong or partially incorrect to varying degrees. “Color Outside the Lines: A Tattoo Documentary” helped in answering questions, but it also increased the desire to see a more inclusive culture for POC.
Some of the aforementioned beliefs are echoed repeatedly through shows such as “Ink Master”, where you see artists avoid dark skinned participants because they feel they can’t do their best art on non-white skin. It’s even seen as a strategy to give someone a black client if you want to see them do poorly. Simply put, dark skin is considered sabotage.
Instances such as those above feed into a recurring cycle that only serves to remove representation of darker skin from a beautiful and growing art form. Continued dissemination of false or misleading information makes it more likely advertised art work on black and brown skin will continue to be minimal, and with the absence of these skin shades it’s easier to consider these inaccuracies as having merit.
As tattooing continues to gain popularity and mainstream acceptance, I hope representation within it grows. Those with darker skin shouldn’t be forced to search out a small but growing group of artists of color in order to have a comfortable and inclusive experience. #RepresentationMatters which is why my most recent tattoo sticks out in my mind just as vividly as my first. It was the only time the artist asked to take a picture for their portfolio and Instagram feed, not just if I wanted them to snap one for my sake. That moment kept coming back to me over the past two weeks or so, and it kept reminding me how important having yourself represented within an area is. This artist was excited to see her work on my skin and excited to document it for herself, followers and future clients. Coming across a portfolio that includes someone of a similar complexion, or darker or lighter, while in search of an artist may be what someone needs as a deciding factor. I hope running across a photo of the piece I had done is helpful to the next person.