This Black History Month, we’re celebrating by recognizing some of our favorite black artists who produce exceptional tattoo work. One of these artists is Doreen Garner, who works out of Saved Tattoo in Brooklyn. We sat down with Garner to learn her thoughts on racial diversity, discrimination and representation in 2020’s tattoo industry. Take a look at our interview with Garner and to book an appointment check out her website.
Has the industry’s treatment of race improved since you started tattooing?
When I first started tattooing in 2016, I was self-taught so I wasn’t really “in the industry." I couldn’t tell what the state of it was until maybe a few years in. Since then, I feel that some but not much has changed. There are definitely more people becoming vocal about the lack of diversity in the industry and in shops. Social media has been a really great vehicle for exposing some of the more racist acts that happen and are performed by people within the tattoo industry. For example, successful white tattoo artists / tattoo shops desaturating images of black people to make them look like they’re of a different race or even more extreme, Oliver Peck putting on black face on multiple occasions.
On a more positive note, I believe connecting platforms like Instagram and accounts like @inkthediaspora run by Tann Parker has helped the community of black tattoo artists become stronger because we know who we all are, where we all are with a stronger sense of camaraderie, awareness and solidarity.
You’ve mentioned the tattoo industry lacks racial diversity. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s a combination of white privilege, freedom and resources. There are many obstacles black people have to navigate on a daily basis that can be very distracting while working towards personal goals, professional goals, and sometimes even making it home alive. I think that people that don't experience these types of obstacles on a daily basis because of their physical appearance / racial identity have the freedom to open and run tattoo shops with more ease and are put in positions of power to control who becomes employed. There is also a lack of visibility, representation and support for black people that have already been thriving in the tattoo industry for years. They need to be celebrated with the same enthusiasm as their European American colleagues. I truly believe that once that happens, more aspiring tattoo artists of color will see people that represent what their professional trajectory could look like.
Another point you mentioned was artists desaturating their client’s photos to appear whiter. But I’ve noticed that the majority of your tattoos are on people of color. Why is it that other artists are primarily highlighting tattoos on pale skin and why do you go against that norm?
I think it could be a combination of things. Maybe they think their work looks better on a lighter surface, people aren’t acknowledging the racism that exists within that decision. Maybe people are also aiming for a specific clientele, which is also a racist preference. They might not think [their work] looks good on their darker skinned clients because they don’t know how to properly photograph people with melanated skin. Or they might not know how to tattoo people with melanated skin.
Also, depending on which area of the country you live in there might be a lack of black and brown people. Which in some ways isn’t necessarily their fault but also why would you want to live in a place like that? Who knows.
As for my IG, I post photos of the people I tattoo, and my clientele are just very diverse. I tattoo in Brooklyn, so that is one factor, but also people have traveled from different cities and countries even to get tattoos from me and I think it is because of the range in my portfolio. Diversity conveys trust.
Many tattoo artists, both in private and public conversations, have made statements that black skin is more difficult to tattoo or their styles/ approaches to tattooing won’t work. What do you think about that?
When people say it’s more difficult to tattoo black skin, it’s basically them admitting they prefer to work on white and pale skinned clients. Every physical body is different and every person’s type of skin is different. Your approach to tattooing shouldn’t be one size fits all. As a tattoo artist it is your responsibility to figure out what will work best for your client with style flexibility. If your style of tattooing prioritizes white skin you should question what your intentions are in making that type of decision and figure out what you can do to increase accessibility no matter the physical appearance.
In your work, you encourage black people to be tattooed by black artists. Why is that important to you?
I think it’s important to invest in black business in general. People should get tattooed by everyone but it’s also important for black people to get the experience of getting tattooed by another black person. For me, a lot of my clients say, “This is the most gentle tattoo that I’ve ever had,” or “I appreciate you asking me if I’m okay.” I make it a point to give my clients a lot of care. Sometimes we have conversations about tattoo shops they’ve visited in the past, where they’ve said “I remember the [artist] wasn’t talking to me” or “ the tattoo felt unnecessarily violent.” They’ve also mentioned inappropriate comments that were made, or how they felt unseen or uncomfortable in the waiting room. I’m not saying that people should only get tattooed by people of color, but I do think that it can be a different type of experience. You should know who you like to work with and who makes you feel the most comfortable.
Aside from yourself, which other black artists should our readers pay attention to?
You gained a lot of recognition for your Black Panther Project and now you’re doing other tattoo projects to celebrate black heritage. Take us through some of the flash you’ve created.
Some of the newer images include braided hair and protective symbols. When you think about the concept of being protective, you think of armor and shields. I’ve incorporated protective braiding styles with Adinkra, which are West African symbols. Recently, I’ve started doing some sacred geometry shapes with braided hair. I’ve been working on those because they’re very meditative for me personally and people that follow me have been really identifying with them. It offers an element of protection with imagery that directly reflects their identity and culture.
What else are you working on?
I’m working on a project called “MAD PAIN.” It’s a tattoo podcast that focuses on tattoo artists sharing their personal history, histories that we haven’t typically heard from other tattoo podcasts thus far. I’m also interviewing some of my clients that lead really extraordinary lives. The client version of the podcast is called “MAD PAIN Presents: Supreme Clientele.” I’m hoping to expand on that project and maybe start a video series in addition to that.