Exploration of Blackness: Tattooing while Black

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Kirk tattooing a customer

Like so many other plights of people of color in America, Black tattoo artists have struggled to forge their way into an industry where they were not wanted. Creative castaways, they were forced to build from the ground up and to create a niche industry that catered to their unique needs as artists of color. Despite their talent, Black artist were denied apprenticeships and other opportunities to hone their skills through the 80s. Their aptness did not exclude them from the humiliation of racial prejudice.

Kirk Boutte owns Effum Bodyworks in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He is featured in Color Outside the Lines, a documentary about struggles of Black tattoo artists in their journey to success despite racial barriers. I sat down with him to talk about his experiences.

SM: When I ask the question "what has been your experience being a Black tattoo artist," what comes up for you?

Struggle. It’s hard to be respected as a Black tattoo artist. If you don’t do traditional Black art, people won't recognize you for doing your own thing. A small percentage of people appreciate originality, but unless you're doing ethnic – you know, Black stuff, they don’t acknowledge you.  Also, White artists don’t believe it is a whole different struggle being a Black artist. They just believe it is about a good work – when it’s not. It can be about race. 90 percent of my clients are African-American and they’re not all fair skinned. Tattooing on dark skin is a challenge and a lot of White tattoo artist never take it, but that’s how I got my start. I didn’t get successful in my business only tattooing fair-skinned people.

SM: Do you prefer to tattoo on Black skin because you know other artists don’t?

No. Not particularly, but I always tell up and coming artists and folks who work at my shop that once they master Black skin, other skin is a cinch. Black skin is the most difficult, period. If I can help them work Black skin, they can go anywhere. It is a different learning experience. Learning to tattoo on White skin then moving to tattoo on Black skin is nearly impossible.

SM: What have been your prized experiences tattooing as an artist of color?

I’ve been tattooing my entire adult life and it has been uphill the entire time. I don’t have any regrets because I have always progressed. I never had a will to tattoo, but one day God put the idea in my head that this is what I am supposed to be doing. I started my business out of my mother’s house but once it got off the ground, I had to find my own space. 14 years later I run a successful business that caters to mostly people who look like me.

SM: If you had to share a piece of information with new Black artists, what would it be?

Don’t settle. Don’t get stuck tattooing out of your house because you don’t want to risk losing money. Don’t stay underground. There is nothing wrong with having humble beginnings; I did, but try to get into a reputable shop. A lot of people won't give you an apprenticeship because they don’t want you taking money or customers from them, but make your way. Also, many Black tattoo artists come into this work having had nothing and all of the sudden they’re making $500 a day. You can do names all day and make $500 a day. It is easy to get caught up spending all you earn in one day, but don’t. Save your money – invest it.

SM:What’s changed in the last 15 years?

The biggest change is that it is easier. Anybody can become a tattoo artist. The emergence of eBay and Craigslist has made it easy to get tattooing equipment offline. When I started, to get tattoo equipment you used to have to go through a rigorous process. As tattooing has become more mainstream, more people are emerging as artists – some good, some not so good. The great emergence of Black owned tattoo shops outside of Black neighborhoods just happened in the last 5 or so years. I tried to reach out to other Black tattoo artists who would not acknowledge their Blackness because they made their fame from tattoing White skin - they refused to tattoo Black skin.

SM: How does your shop fair compared to your White counterparts in Baton Rouge?

We get the stigma of being “cheap” and “hood” because there is a majority of Black artists here because it is is rare to see. 6 or 7 years ago, it was really a rarity. You couldn’t find a Black tattoo artist, let alone a shop full of Black tattoo artists. We do quality tattoos just like the White shops, but I’ve seen people literally look in the door and if they didn’t see a White face they would leave. They don’t trust our work is quality. At one point, Black and White folks used to walk past me in my own shop to get to the White artist - not because he was the best worker but because he was White. I tell White artists they have it easy because we really have to prove ourselves.

SM: What are your expectations for the future?

The majority of my success comes from tattooing Black skin. Black people feel a connection to someone who has worked hard to give them something others wouldn’t. The documentary is going to reveal the success of Black tattoo shops and let people know what a good tattoo looks like. I think if people knew where the shops were and that the artists are truly talented and it really has nothing to do with race – they would utilize us.

If you’re in the Baton Rouge or New Orleans area and would like a consultation for a tattoo, contact Kirk at effumbodyworks@gmail.com

by Shanelle Matthews, Communications Manager.  This post is a part of our Exploration of Blackness series.