When Hannah Place was 19, they travelled from Canterbury to London in search of their first tattoo. They’d wanted one for a while, and after plenty of research settled on a reputable studio with great reviews. However, having consulted with one of the artists, they were refused a tattoo on the basis that their skin was “too dark”.
Now a tattooist in their own right, under the name Ogechi, Hannah self-tattoos and has founded their own pay-as-you-can tattoo practice that centres queer Black people and people of colour – though everyone is welcome.
Dejected and angry, that early experience played on their mind for a long time. Disturbed by the racism, they began looking into the realities of tattooing Black and brown skin. Four years later, they would return to a studio for their first tattoo – but that would be the last time they relied on someone else. They have inked all their subsequent tattoos on themself.
Tattooing dates back to at least ancient Egypt, but its modern origins stem from Indigenous cultures, where it is seen less as an aesthetic art form and more a rite of passage. Samoans, the Indigenous people of the Polynesian Samoan Islands, use tattooing as a symbol of status, power, leadership and honour, for example.
Western culture has favoured “a gothic look that requires very white skin and rock-style black ink”, according to Ogechi. Black and brown skin is not impossible to tattoo – far from it – but, as artist Minkx Doll points out, there is a lack of understanding within the industry of how to tattoo darker skin.
“I didn’t receive training in different skin tones – that doesn't happen in tattooing, from what I’ve seen, entering the industry,” says Minkx Doll. “There is this idea that white skin is default and Black and brown skin is a specialist subject area – a lot like the approach to hair and beauty.”
She adds that tattooists should “be proud to post tattoos on Black skin”. Nish Rowe, a tattoo artist originally from Manchester, agrees: “You are not a good tattoo artist until you can tattoo all skin tones.”
Rowe suggests a couple of ways that artists can engage in making the art form more inclusive, though she also knows this must be accompanied by the deeper work of unlearning racist misconceptions about darker skin. “When apprenticing, train on both white synthetic and tanned synthetic skin,” she says, adding that, when trained, you should find both “white and different shades of POC to tattoo on from the beginning, and try to see these tattoos healed so you can see where you need to improve”.
All three tattooists are working in their own way to help improve the situation. “Learning how to create designs that work with darker skin tones is imperative to moving the industry forward,” explains Minkx Doll.
Nish Rowe uses her art and social media platform to encourage all artists to address racism in the tattoo world: “My work simply celebrates Black skin. It also comments on the Black diasporic struggle. My work is an extension of me, a Black and queer woman.”
Ogechi is hoping to work collaboratively with other artists on a series of educational tools on Black and brown tattooing for the wider tattoo industry.
Ogechi’s style and work ethic are also underpinned by their devotion to abolitionism, a worldview that seeks to dismantle systems that cause harm, like prisons, police, colonialism and capitalism. For this reason, Ogechi prefers to tattoo using stick and poke – a method that requires dipping a sterilised needle into ink and drawing out the tattoo in a series of tiny dots – rather than with a gun.
“It just feels like something that’s more in connection with how special and beautiful that moment is,” they say, “and a much more decolonised way to be approaching the moment of marking someone's skin for the rest of their life.”
Ogechi also regards tattooing as an inherently queer art form: “If you think about any form of identity which people experience objectification or oppression around, and then you go, ‘Yeah, this is my body, this is me,’ I'm showing to myself and to everyone around me that it's mine.”
Similarly, the pay-as-you-can nature of Ogechi’s practice resists what they see as an oppressive economic system.
“I tattoo for joy,” they explain. “I say this continuously, but it is an honour to be putting my artwork on someone's body. It's gonna be with them every day of their entire life, and there’s no other art form where that’s the case. It shouldn’t be inaccessible for anyone.”