On reality television and in real life, artist Ceaser Emanuel runs New York City's Black Ink tattoo studios. Born in the Bronx but finessed in Harlem, Emanuel went from a no-name artist to starring in one of the most successful tattoo reality shows in history and owning a multi-million dollar empire of successful shops throughout the country. However, coming up as a black artist in the tattoo industry before the era of Black Ink Crew and Instagram wasn't easy. Emanuel has helped to pave the way for thousands of black tattooers, but before he built the brand we all know today, he had to hustle and prove that black artists deserve a shot in the spotlight. We had the opportunity to visit Emanuel where it all began, at the original shop on Malcolm X boulevard, and set the facts straight about being the epicenter of black tattoo culture.
When did you first develop an interest in tattooing and what was the industry like at that time?
Ceaser: I always had a thing for tattoos since I was young. I used to go and get tats because older friends were really in the tattoos. I remember my first tattoo was at Champion, that’s in the Bronx. That was my first one and then after that, it was more of seeing shows like Miami Ink in that era that really made me start getting into the tattoo scenes. Seeing Japanese work and all those neat bodysuits, I was really into it. At the time I had a friend, Andre Malcolm, who right now, is on the west coast, I believe in Oakland. He's just killing it with the Japanese bodysuits. So I came into the game in the mid nineties, but I always had a passion for tattooing. I looked up the history, who did what and to this day I still look up certain artists.
At that time, how were black artists represented in the media?
I mean, honestly, there weren’t really too many black artists that were represented in the media at that time. It's really coming to this day that we’re starting to be represented somewhat but not fully and it took me a while to understand that. Black artists would tend to tattoo mostly black people and because of that, wouldn’t see a lot of that type of work in magazines and whatnot. So now that you see a lot of people crossing over and doing more light skinned or more caucasian skin, we see a lot of black tattoo artists progressing in the tattoo industry to point that you could actually see their skill set.
And how do you think that the representation of black artist has changed with Black Ink Crew?
With the representation of Black Ink Crew as a show, it’s kind of mixed because we show everything on the tattoo shop, not just the tattoo work. And with the whole Black Ink movement is shows more of a movement than just the art. It actually the progression of basically the black industry, like how we started just fooling around with it and trying to get somewhere with it to the point of actually taking it seriously as a business. Because people don't understand, when we first started this, I must have been tattooing for like five years. I look at some of the stuff I used to tattoo and I'm like God, I was horrible. But that's just the progression and now I think that Black Ink Crew gives other black artists the courage to step out there. If we could do it and we didn't have as many skills as y'all at that time. I feel like a lot of black artists are really starting to see that. Especially at tattoo conventions, because I used to go there back in the day I used see nobody. It went from just us being there to a whole bunch of people in there to basically a whole row.
As the biggest representation of black artists on one of the most successful tattoo reality shows in history, how did the mainstream tattoo industry react to your presence?
Man, they hated Black Ink Crew. They felt like we weren’t representing the art in the right way and we just showing drama. But what people don't understand is that Black Ink Crew is not about art, it's about a crew of people who basically run a tattoo shop and what you don't see in a tattoo shop. A show like Ink Master has a whole bunch of nice guys, but do you know their life's store? Then most of the Ink Master mofos work for me. At the end of the day, it shows you that we run into a bad business and we got a TV show, and people get that whole thing misconstrued.
Do you think that the industry at large discriminates against black artists?
I think the industry is just stuck in it’s old ways. I just think that certain people are just used to it being the same way. Some people can get certain things mixed up and think that it might be a race thing. People are just scared of change, no matter who you are, what color you are, what age you are, what gender you are. If you’re used it being a certain way for so long, then you're not going to want anything to change.
Do you believe that there's a difference in the struggle for black artists and other ethnic minorities in tattooing?
I believe as a black tattooer you have to be three times nicer than somebody who’s white, just to get notoriety. That's not to say that the industry is messed up, that's just how it is. If the industry's used to the predominantly white industry where most of the people who are white are the nice ones then people are used to that. Thank God for social media, because honestly some of the nicest guys that don't show their faces on Instagram have me like ‘you’re a black guy or you’re Mexican, dude, what's up?’ But it's not even about race or anything, I just felt like it’s time for a change. Because when you get to these conventions, everybody loves each other. It's just time for a change.
How has hip-hop culture impacted black tattooing?
I think that hip-hop culture impacted tattooing a whole lot. Honestly, if it wasn't for the hip-hop culture now, I don't think the tattoo industry would be thriving the way it is. There’s a whole lot of people who are into the hip-hop culture that get tattooed. There's a whole lot of hip-hop artists that have tattoos that represent stuff we're trying to get out there. That helps because it’s advertising to make those kids come out there and spend their money.
Do you believe that there is a separation between artists who tattoo dark skin versus light skin?
I think there's a separation and there’s a lot of artists that I know who do not like tattooing dark skin. And that's just because you can only get certain shades of gray or color into a dark skinned person. Me? I really don't care. It's people's preference.
What privileges do you think that white tattoo artists have coming up in the industry and building their reputations that aren’t afforded to black artists?
This is one of the things I used to hate back in the day coming up in a tattoo shop. Like let's say your boy knows a dope tattoo artist and you just get an apprenticeship under him. They just get sleeved up by this dope artist and then all of a sudden, you're good because you use that name. That shit used to piss me off because as a black artist, you can just say your practiced under this artist. You have to prove that you're really good. I used to remember some big time Village tattoo artist and their apprentice would be booked up for months. How do you book up for months and no one even knows who you are. You just apprenticed six months ago. It used to be crazy hard to get our names out there and how easy it was for white artists. They just had to pay for an apprenticeship under the right artist and in the tattoo industry everybody is cool with you because they know who mentored you. Most of us are self-taught and had to learn by trial and error.
And what would you say is the biggest misconception that the public has about being an artist on your show?
The biggest misconception the public has about artists on my show is that these are my top artists. You have to go through what’s reality TV and what’s real life. I have a website with some award-winning artists that the world doesn’t get to see because there's the TV side of Ceaser and there's a business side. Please believe that the mofos that work for me are some beasts. And honestly, my Florida shop just got voted to best shop in Orlando. It tells you that this is working, not just here, but in other places. So people could get it twisted and think it's just to show and these are all the people that I got.