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For Those With Darker Skin, Finding The Right Tattoo Artist Can Be A Struggle


Tattoos have long ceased to be the mark of a rebel. Nearly half of all millennials have a tattoo, according to a 2016 Harris poll. And even though tattoos have become more common, many with darker skin struggle to find tattoo artists who know how to work on their skin types. As NPR's Parth Shah reports, different skin tones call for a different tattooing technique.

PARTH SHAH, BYLINE: Getting a tattoo can be nerve wracking. But Osuna Afrik (ph) is no newbie.

OSHUN AFRIK: This is my 35th tattoo.

SHAH: Afrik lounges on the sofa at Pinz and Needlez Tattoo shop in Washington, D.C. While she sips her morning coffee, shop owner Christopher Mensah is busy sketching out Afrik's 35th tattoo. Afrik has dark brown skin. For the tattoo to show up on her, Mensah says the design needs to be big and bold.

CHRISTOPHER MENSAH: Let's say if somebody came in and got - and they wanted to get a tattoo of a heart with, you know, an initial in it the size of a dime, something that's a dime size that you may do on white skin you may have to do a quarter or half-a-dollar size on dark skin.

SHAH: Mensah says he's heard a lot of myths about working on dark skin. Some clients think there's a special kind of ink for dark skin - there isn't. And it's not just customers with misconceptions. He says it's other artists, too.

MENSAH: The times that I was working in white tattoo shops, what I would hear a lot was dark skin is more difficult to tattoo. However, from my experience, I just think it's softer.

SHAH: What do you mean by that.

MENSAH: When I say it's softer, we tend to keloid more and scar.

SHAH: A keloid is a raised scar, and people with African ancestry are much more likely to get keloids in response to a tattoo.

AFRIK: My keloids are very small, though, compared to some other people I've seen.

SHAH: Afrik says when she's searching for a tattoo artist, she studies their portfolio and pays attention to who they've tattooed.

AFRIK: If you see only light-skinned people or - or white skin, I don't want to - because I don't know how they're going to work with my skin, so - I'm a little darker.

TYLER BREWER: Tattooing dark skin opposed to light skin or any difference in skin type is a different world.

SHAH: That's Tyler Brewer, who works at Kensington Tattoo in Maryland. Brewer is white and says artists should learn how to tattoo all skin types. But he says he's met people who feel otherwise.

BREWER: I have seen artists pretty much give the blow-off to clients because they were different, different being a different color. I think people rationalize their racism in tattooing and their lack of ability.

SHAH: Back at Pinz and Needlez, artist Christopher Mensah is eagle-eyed and focused on Oshun Afrik's left forearm. Mensah says the lack of information available for dark-skinned people seeking tattoos is linked to the lack of people of color working in the business. He says there wasn't a community for him when he started tattooing 20 years ago.

MENSAH: At the time, there weren't many - well, I didn't see any black tattoo artists.

SHAH: Afrik says the community is growing. Most of her tattoos have been done by people of color. After sitting for an hour in the hot seat with Mensah, tattoo number 35 is finished. It's a Sankofa bird, an Adinkra symbol that translates to go back and get it.

AFRIK: I'm so excited to show it off, I'm not putting my jacket on. I'm going to go - I'm going to walk around the city with a tank top in November. I am (laughter).

SHAH: Not so fast, though. Before she leaves the shop, Mensah bandages her forearm so it doesn't get infected. She'll have to wait a few hours before she can show off her new tattoo. Parth Shaw, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Parth Shah is a producer and reporter in the Programming department at NPR. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.

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