Earlier this year, tattoo artist Rizza Boo set up Shades Tattoo Initiative – a safe space to build community, educate artists, help build skills and showcase the work of Black and POC tattoo artists working in U.K. We chatted to her to find out more.
Tell us about your own experiences of racism in the tattoo world…Why did you set up Shades?
I formed Shades Tattoo Initiative in response to the pain and disconnectedness I was feeling directly after the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
As we were witnessing the widespread distress of so many black people, I looked around myself and felt the need to try to make some sort of small impact where I could. In that moment, I wanted to reach out to offer support and feel supported, I suppose. In a larger sense, overall I see a need to empower black and POC folks and improve their treatment within the tattoo industry.
While we were watching the news unfold and were having to see more cases of extreme racism, police brutality and murder of black people across the pond, we also had to turn our gaze to the prejudice and institutionalised racism that we face here in the UK. I was struck by the fact that so many people, even those I am close to, white friends, didn’t realise how much racism we encounter as black or brown people on a daily basis, and they certainly did not acknowledge it in our industry, or not to the degree which it is apparent.
I was struck by the fact that so many people, even those I am close to, white friends, didn’t realise how much racism we encounter as black or brown people on a daily basis, and they certainly did not acknowledge it in our industry, or not to the degree which it is apparent.
I’ve been a tattooer for around 15 years and have been in the industry longer than that. In that time, I have worked at a number of studios, as a resident tattooer and as a guest artist. I have also worked many tattoo conventions in the UK and further afield. Yes, I have definitely experienced racism within tattooing! Although I will say, that a lot of the micro aggressions that some folks have had to tolerate being in tattoo studios, I have myself, been presented with, but obviously I have the knowledge to kind of block certain misinformation.
For example, there’s been multiple times where I go to get tattooed and the tattooer is telling me something won’t work on my skin, then I have to educate them on this, sometimes only being believed once I then show healed work of the colour. This is me arguing my case as a tattooist. But you know, those instances are fine, it’s a learning curve and those artists learnt more about how to tattoo dark skin tones on that day. There’s a way of having those interactions without making the POC feel like their skin is an issue –and that’s what a lot of those micro aggressions come down to. Ignorance, lack of education and then lack of knowing how to put your ego aside a little and communicate properly with the other individual.
I have numerous customers being turned away because they are told that an artist can’t tattoo black skin, why has this been allowed to happen for so long?
So, over recent weeks, I think it has now become very obvious for most tattooers, that whether they like it or not, black and POC folks have been having some difficult interactions in tattoo studios that have been far from ok, ranging from subtle micro-aggressions to outright racism and prejudice.
Why has this gone on so long?
It’s difficult for tattooers to talk about not being able to tattoo black folks because it means holding your hands up and saying you don’t know how to do something. The goal of a tattooer when they do any piece should be the closest execution of the best tattoo they can make, right? Based on their skill level, their knowledge, the practice drawing, who they tailor designs to are all factors…if you cannot provide a service properly to a large quantity of people, then it’s showing a lack of skill in your job – and no one wants to admit that.
Even though, we all know that as with any skilled profession, we must continue to challenge our knowledge and technical ability for this craft to grow. I think there is an awkwardness around discussing race and an unwillingness in the moment to admit one’s shortcomings. And so the black or IPOC is turned away, with yet another negative experience in a tattoo studio.
Also acknowledging now, that you realise you have been doing a disservice, means admitting that for a long time you didn’t care to learn about how to look after ALL of your clients, which makes people feel bad. There’s also a layer to this which is, perhaps, they didn’t see these brown people as the target audience for their style of work, therefore, they were dismissed…This is echoed when you see the whitewashing of black and POC skin in photos of tattoos displayed by tattooers on Instagram. This reinforces the idea that their skin was not the desired complexion for your art to grace its surface.
This is echoed when you see the whitewashing of black and POC skin in photos of tattoos displayed by tattooers on Instagram. This reinforces the idea that their skin was not the desired complexion for your art to grace its surface.
This has continued for so long because tattooing is a trade that’s passed down. If one tattooer takes on an apprentice and then doesn’t have the skills to pass down, then that’s a large part of the problem. I started out tattooing in London, so just because of where I was I tattooed a large quantity of all skin tones, I also tattooed the fuck out of my own legs!
If in your apprenticeship, or the way you came into tattooing, you weren’t exposed to tattooing a lot of different skin types, then it is your responsibility to seek out this knowledge. No one expects you to just magically know, but it’s not expecting too much for you to invest time and energy learning.
Do you think some kind of board could help?
I think one of the main issues, when we think about regulations and boards etc is , who exactly would be making up these regulations? We see first hand how, with regards to things like health and safety and licensing, that the people setting the rules often have little to no knowledge of how we actually work and what goes on in tattoo studios. You can see that with how the re-opening of tattooing establishments has been handled during this whole pandemic situation – how dare they take money from tattoo businesses for “special treatments” and then allow folks with zero training in cross-contamination or even apparently the knowledge of how to wear a mask or gloves properly go back to work? You could say I find this frustrating. I understand that we work close-up, but the pubs being opened before us was a farce.
I would also be concerned that it is not only the same people who have been setting the tone for how the industry is shaped right now that set the new guidelines, if there were any put in place.
I know a lot of us enjoy the freedom of working within tattooing and it’s kind of relaxed attitude, but that environment has not been safe for everyone and that’s a problem.
That said, I am for protecting our clients and those who are more vulnerable working in our industry, so if we could put something in place which protected people then it may have to be considered. I know a lot of us enjoy the freedom of working within tattooing and it’s kind of relaxed attitude, but that environment has not been safe for everyone and that’s a problem. That said, obviously it is tattooers ourselves and the behaviour in tattoo studios which we have direct control over, so even if there were a board, self regulation within studios is crucial as it always has been.
Can you tell me about colour tests, do you offer them?
I can understand the want for some dark skin folks to request a colour test and I would happily provide this. However, I don’t think it is necessarily a good thing for black people to get this done and then think they know exactly how a colour tattoo will work for them. What I mean is, there is a large difference between a dot or a line of a colour and a large area of the same colour tattooed or colours blended together etc.
When I speak with dark skinned clients, whether we are speaking about colour tattoos or black and grey, my emphasis is always on contrast, creating enough contrast in a piece so that we can get a tattoo that will stand the test of time. Of course, we also discuss which colours will be most complementary to their skin tone and what will achieve the best results (this works as an example of how to have a positive tone when speaking about skin!).
How do you want Shades to grow?
I want Shade to offer support to black and POC folks in the tattoo community. I think that is significant, I’d like it to feel like more of a community and less of an industry. For those that feel like it already is…it’s a community when everyone feels welcome and invited.
I want Shades to help bridge this gap in knowledge and help educate tattooers. I want it to offer networking opportunities for the artists and offer information for clients on how to get the best tattoo possible.
I want Shades to be able to raise general awareness about racism and offer ways to promote, inclusivity within tattooing. Shades is for the empowerment of black and brown people, to help with education and hopefully to help us all in gaining more understanding by addressing these challenging issues and opening conversation about them.
Shades is for the empowerment of black and brown people, to help with education and hopefully to help us all in gaining more understanding by addressing these challenging issues and opening conversation about them.
Do you think we can make change?
I do think we can make change. I think it is inevitable at this point. People get to choose what their involvement looks like though. I don’t intend to stop talking about these issues any time soon. I hope more people also speak up, but more than that, adapt their behaviour, have the conversations, make changes in their work environments. I hope people stop spending their money with and supporting businesses who do not adapt their behaviour, harbouring abusive tattooers that hurt the rest of us. There are a lot of good tattooers out there who care deeply about their clients and the folks working for them, let’s uplift those businesses.
I think there is such a large push all around. So outside of tattooing and in everyday life, in every industry, every workplace, household, is in some way having to deal with this. I think we have already seen how much people have accomplished in a small space of time, with regard to reform and changes, over in the US and what people are trying to achieve over here. If it was just tattooing then maybe it would just settle again but it’s much bigger than that. But no, we want more, for the younger generations. This is about them, their lives, their education, their history and their quality of life, so yes, we can and we will make a change.
Have conventions and media been part of the problem?
I think conventions and media can be part of the solution! There is definitely a problem with people simply not seeing enough tattoos on dark skin. This is not limited to tattooing. Across the beauty industry, we see the same with their magazines and models. So yes, they do play a part and I would hope that they aim to make sure they are showing a diverse range of skin tones in their pages. This is a lot to do with tattooers not showing photos of tattoos on dark skin. It is sometimes challenging to get good photographs of any freshly done tattoo, but to simply exclude any images of POC or to whitewash the ones you do show is unacceptable. It sends a clear message of being unwanted no matter your intention.
It’s kind of a chain really, studios, media, conventions. I have had good support from some conventions over the years, frequenting them regularly, the lack of black and brown faces has always been noticed. I have to believe that at a certain point they simply aren’t getting the opportunity to take part. I don’t think my experience is necessarily the norm. Let’s be really real…there’s a lot of varying quality of work at certain shows. I now know. A lot of very good black tattooers who have not had much opportunity with conventions. So I feel like shows have the option to make sure they are also being inclusive. It makes sense though, if studios which are the first point of contact are not inviting, then obviously that affects who ends up working in these shops and so on.
The artists group within Shades is for black and IPOC tattooists working within the UK. You do not have to be POC to collaborate with us though, we welcome conversation and work on projects , please reach out to us.
For anyone wishing to collaborate with Shades or if you wish to offer your skills, please email us and tell us a bit about yourself.
Rizza has set up a gofundme for Shades, there is an urgent need to get the website up and running, so Rizza needs support.