Lifestyle

Tattoo Culture Reflects American Society, Different as Black and White

D.C.'s Annual Expo Sheds Light on Growing Industry, Artists, Connoisseurs

D.C.’s only summertime gathering for fans and artisans of body art, the 2nd Annual Nation’s Tattoo Expo, recently touched down in Arlington, Va., for the three-day event as hundreds from across the region converged to experience creatively-crafted tattoo contests or to meet their favorite artists, including several recognized among the world’s finest. Meanwhile some in attendance even tossed caution to the wind in order to sit with a master craftsman and receive their very first tattoo.

The next time you watch “Jeopardy,” you can flaunt your knowledge about tattoo on the planet by sharing the fact that the art form can be traced to more than 3,000 years before the birth of Christ, in lands that include Egypt, Polynesia, Taiwan, China and Japan.

Tattooing in the U.S. officially surfaced during the mid-19th century just before the Civil War with the demand increasing among members of the military during the war, followed by the inevitable ebbs and flows of popularity and purposes for getting tattoos, still mainly among members of the armed services. Sailors and soldiers excluded, only young adults from among the upper-class could afford tattoos — illustrations that confirmed their status in society, until the invention of the electric tattoo machine just after World War I which allowed those from lower socioeconomic classes to join established groups — rebels and criminals included.

Still, as late as 1975, only 40 tattoo artists were recorded as entrepreneurs in the U.S. Five years later, that number had skyrocketed to more than 5,000 — a cadre of trained artists who had left industries requiring their skills to take advantage of a booming surge within the “skin mural trade.”

However, as some artists and fans contend, a marked difference remains between Blacks and whites, both in terms of opportunities afforded artists within the industry and those who savor the chance to add illustrations on their bodies and the meanings, messages and stories behind their tattoos.

One veteran artist showcased during the recent Expo representing and employed by Black Ink Crew, a Black-owned tattoo and body piercing company founded by Bronx native Ceaser Emanuel that currently holds the top position among VH-1’s reality shows, says Blacks, despite lagging behind whites who have long-dominated the tattoo industry, are now more than ever, unequivocally poised to “catch up to the competition.”

“Social media was the real engine that provided essential exposure for Black tattoo artists and we’ve used that platform to illustrate and prove that our art is actually better than that done by most of the white artists — artists who have always gotten most of the attention and the revenue,” said Trocon (Tro), 41, a trained fine artist and one of several lead tattoo artists employed by Emanuel’s Black Ink franchise based in Atlanta. (Others include New York, Chicago and Orlando).

“I left corporate America more than 16 years ago to enter a tattoo apprenticeship program — it was the best $2,500 investment I’ve ever made,” he said. “I have a great job and I wake up every day excited and ready to experience something different.”

“Tattoo artists are just like other artists except we create our work on a different canvas, a person’s skin,” he said. “My clients are mostly Black but like others, they want tattoos with meaning, that remind them of others who have died or who have a message they want to share with the world. My job is to get it done and to get it done the right way.”

“Of course, you can’t do the same kind of tattooing on the skin of those of color like you can on whites. Plus, Blacks and whites have different kinds of skins. As a medium, you can do more on white skin than Black which often leads some to believe that white artists are better. Not true. It just means that you can utilize more vibrant colors on a canvas that’s white.”

“The tattoos I have and those I do on others make others stop and notice me and I like that. But I do regret getting tattoos on places like my neck and the top of my hands that cannot be hidden by clothes. Tattoos have gotten a lot more acceptance than they once did but you don’t’ want to get caught on the wrong side. Not everyone does or will approves of tattoos.”

I asked my son, Jared McNeir, 25, why he become so enamored by tattoos and what messages he seeks to transmit to others through the tattoos he now has. His answers, summarized below, actually surprised me given the time and consideration he’d clearly invested prior to getting his several tattoos.

“Tattoos became more and popular while I was in high school and my Black classmates who were older than me were following the example of people like Allen Iverson, Lil Wayne and Tyga — those who shared similar experiences to young Black men like us. I was a senior, 17, when I got my first tattoo.”

“There’s a false perception that our tattoos aren’t equal in quality to those that whites get. I disagree because the art and images on my body give me a true sense of pride and I enjoy sharing that artwork and the stories behind them with people as I desire. Even as young Black man employed in New York as a technology consultant, I have found that tattoo art has gained significant acceptance in corporate America. Almost everyone has tattoos except some who work at very tradition banking or corporate finance companies. And you have to save your money if you’re serious about getting a quality tattoo because good work, unlike what’s often described in the Black community as ‘basement or hood tattoos’ does not come cheap,” he said.

D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents, the native Detroiter engineered a transformation of The Miami Times resulting in its being named the NNPA’s “Publication of the Year” in 2011 – just one of several dozen industry-related awards he’s earned in his career. He currently serves as senior editor for The Washington Informer. There, in the heart of the U.S. Capitol, he displays a keen insight for developing front-page news as it unfolds within the greater Washington area, capturing the crucial facts and facets of today’s intriguing, political arena. He has degrees from The University of Michigan, Emory University and Princeton Theological Seminary. In 2020, he received First Place for Weekly Newspaper, Commentary & Criticism, Society of Professional Journalists, Washington, D.C. Pro Chapter. Learn more about him at www.dkevinmcneir.com, Facebook – Kevin McNeir, Twitter - @mcneirdk, Linkedin – D. Kevin McNeir or email: mcneirdk@washingtoninformer.com.

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