Since thousands of years, tattoos allow us to see the body as our canvas. They can be used as an adornment, or as camouflage. Someone’s tattoos can speak volumes about their experience, just as they can reveal so much about the artists who made them.
Many tattoo artists started in other fields, which is not surprising. Tattooing is a stable and rewarding form of artistic labor that encourages closer interpersonal relationships. For that reason, young queer and non-White artists are exploring how the artform can complement the body’s natural curves and colors.
Carrie Metz-Caporusso’s “roll flowers,” For example, they are made for women who are plus-sized or gender non-conforming. Metz-Caporusso believes these floral designs “highlight something that society said we should be ashamed of, drawing more attention to it, not disguising it.” Tiaret Mitchell’s “belly bloom” tattoos Also, swirling vines are used to decorate the midriff to counter industry stigmas about fatness and skin diseases.
“Sometimes people who have vitiligo or eczema can have different tonalities throughout their skin, which affects the tattooing process,” Mitchell told Hyperallergic. “You definitely have to learn color theory and how to tattoo different skin conditions, which I think intimidates a lot of artists. But if this is your desired profession, then you have to make it accessible to everyone.”
Maryland-based artist Chloe Griffin echoes this sentiment. The Skin GardenShe specializes in using highly-colored inks to dark skin tones. Working in a “psychedelic-botanical” style, Griffin embeds suns, moons, frogs, and seraphim in bold shades of red, blue, and gray.
“I’ve had clients tell me about other shop artIsts claiming they simply couldn’t get color, which is so insane because I have seen wonderful color work on dark-skinned people, fresh and healed,” Griffin told Hyperallergic. “I’m trying to make sure each of my clients knows it is possible, and I want to offer the best service I can, because many others will not even try.”
A tattoo can be more than just an ornament. Lines of text overlap with thick linework in Caleb Blansett’s Pretty Skin StickersThis creates a poetic body language that suggests our impermanence. Blansett claims that every part of the tattoo process is connected to the “creation of self.”
“Tattoos can be markers of experience that boldly tell the world ‘I was stronger than this moment,’” Blansett told Hyperallergic. “Every aspect of a tattoo is a moment of identity-building — who you go to, what you get, where you put it, how you choose to display it, what you put around it, how you treat it as it ages. Everything from the brutal black project to ritualistic, trauma-informed handpoke is valid.”
This aligns with what self-taught artist Tamara Santibañez describes as the “liberation work” of tattooing. They claim that broadening the definition of tattooing can allow us to transcend political boundaries. “A tattoo can be a coping strategy, a manifesto, a bold declaration,” Santibañez writes in their book Could This be Magic? (2021). “Tattoos are armor. Being able to access these types of expression can make us feel more free as individuals, and affirms the values that bring us into ourselves.”
Brooklyn-based artist Zachary Robinson Bailey believes that each word can tell a story on its own. Bailey’s blurry text pieces turn simple concepts such as “romance” or “softness” into buzzing ruminations. Hyperallergic spoke to Bailey about how the theme “impossibility” connects all aspects their work.
“I think of tattooing as a transformative practice,” they said. “Especially for queer folks, having the chance to change your body in a visible way is very grounding and allows many of us to feel more at home in our bodies.”
Tattoo artists of today believe that the future will reflect their experience. Philadelphia artist Elle K. Yancy was an apprentice at the queer-owned store i Am ArtThis means that she must apply lessons learned from her art school experience and her Liberian upbringing. Statuesque black busts are covered in monstera and philodendron, with dimensional shading that reflects her experience as a portrait artist. Yancy says tattooing is not a transaction but an act of self-love.
“People rarely get tattooed for a negative reason; it’s often to make them feel good,” Yancy told Hyperallergic. “I think that really says it all — tattooing Is body positivity.”