Written by Danielle Harvey
When I was 23, I got my first tattoo from a friend of a friend, in her house, on a couch covered in garbage bags. I had landed on wanting flowers on my thigh. A rose and peony, because they’re my mom’s favorite flowers. I wanted something pretty and delicate on a part of me often described as thunderous. Also, because I figured that when she inevitably saw them, she would scream less because I “thought of her” (entirely laughable in hindsight).
While I was waiting for my appointment, a litany of fears came bubbling to the surface. Will my grandmother still love me? What if it gets infected and I lose my leg? Will I be able to get a job outside of retail? As a recent graduate who was still trying to figure out how she was going to earn her coin, this last fear really stuck with me.
I’m not sure what career I had in mind when I feared that my thigh tattoo would prevent me from getting it, but I remember feeling so afraid of being perceived as anything other than a model citizen to prospective employers. Two years out of university and on my ninth year working in retail, I was desperately filling out job applications and handing out resumes. From start-ups to corporate offices, I was determined to change my current career situation.
As the rejections came steadily flowing in, I decided to seek the help of a family friend for a mock interview. From there she had gleaned two critiques: I had to lose weight and soften my demeanor. As an excitable, fat, black woman, I was too physically intimidating.
The comment haunted me afterward and came echoing back when I was flirting with the idea of my first tattoo. Did I really want to make myself more intimidating? More “other”?
As a child of Caribbean parents, I was always raised to believe that in order to succeed, I had to assimilate. My father took elocution classes to sharpen his laissez-faire Bajan drawl, while my Dominican mother often opted to speak French, rather than be ridiculed for imperfect English. Neither encouraged us as children to lean into our culture, as the key to success in North America, they believed, was the ability to blend in. So, when I was 13 years old and started wearing red eyeliner and dyeing my hair purple, suffice to say they lost it. Everything they had tried teaching me about fitting in was out the window when I first heard My Chemical Romance. I was immediately infatuated with rebellion and individual self-expression, an obsession that dictated my every waking moment and all led to the point where I was ready to get my first tattoo.
To say that I was prepared for my first tattoo would only be partly true. At that point, I only had one other friend with tattoos, and the circumstances under which she had gotten hers were far sketchier than even I could handle. All of my information about tattoos had come from the internet (where people still think black people can’t get tattoos), and the soft boy who worked at the Apple store around the corner from my work (a story for another time).
I had romantic ideas about my body being a living art gallery of fascinating pieces by artists who could decorate this (take out body) temple that I had only been taught how to hate. I had also decided very early on that I wanted all of my tattoos to be done by women and/or people of color. Little did I know how difficult that would be to pull off.
Tattoo Instagram accounts regularly feature either gratuitous shots of skinny white women, or examples of how an artists work translates on their white clients, to which I definitely can’t relate. Finding a black female tattoo artist in Toronto turned out to be a really daunting task as I quickly realized that the tattoo industry is a white, male-dominated field. This got me thinking; if I was having a hard time pulling this off in the most ethnically diverse city in North America, then what does that say about the industry at large?
For a while, I compromised: I have three tattoos from a reputable white male Toronto artist that I love, and during that time, he served as my guide to getting tattoos. He shared with me information that I had no idea were things to ask an artist about as a black person, as well as things to watch out for. What colors would work best with my skin tone, what overworking my skin would do, and what aftercare would lead to the best possible heal with my skin type.
All of this information is important when getting a tattoo, and yet all of my Googling and research left me at a loss. It’s easy to feel as though the tattoo industry straight up doesn’t care about black clients, because by and large they’re doing nothing to aid black folks who want quality pieces. As time goes on and my collection grows, the public perception towards tattoos is changing, and it’s time that the industry does too.
It’s been four years since I got my first tattoo, and since then, I’ve gotten 12 more from other women and artists of color, both of whom are (thankfully) becoming increasingly less difficult to find.
The goal was simple: during Black History Month, I was dead set on solely posting content featuring black creators and customers. My teammates were eagerly on board, and they understood the bigger vision for what I was doing. By using our Instagram profile with over a million followers as a platform to elevate black creators, our hope is to showcase that tattoos look good on every skin tone, whether they’re permanent or inkbox. Additionally, this is a chance to provide black creators and artists with the opportunity to grow their online presence, which in turn could serve them up more opportunities to bring diversity to an otherwise predominantly white industry.
At inkbox, we preach love and inclusivity, but we know that we can be better than yesterday. This is why our initiative towards inclusive representation doesn’t end once the month is over. From here on out, following Black History Month, we will pledge to continue to feature black customers, artists, and creators in at least 15% of our Instagram feed (this number being based on the 13.4% population of black people in the United States), with the hope that this makes more people feel seen and represented when they visit our page.
Fortunately, we’ve had black creators express their excitement at the chance to participate in our attempt to do better and be better. Even friends and family members showed up to help me achieve this goal by modeling or introducing their own networks to the brand. Sure, there were those who said it wasn’t enough, and I had my anxieties about accidentally Rachel Dolezal-ing the company keeping me up at night. But all in all, I’m proud to say that when given the chance to do so, I used my seat at the table to do what I felt was right.