TORONTO—When Black Panther hit theatres, Toronto tattoo artist D.C Nchama saw an opportunity to fill a void, instil a sense of pride and dispel myths in his craft.
Inspired by the film’s Afrofuturism esthetic and African cultural motifs, he designed a series of Black Panther tattoos and recently inked one them, of a Dora Milaje-style warrior, on a woman’s inner forearm.
He hopes such work will bring a much-needed African cultural identity to the tattoo world, and stamp out the stigma that darker skin tones are difficult to ink.
“What I’m hoping is that once the images start getting out there, that there will be more of an incentive and more of an empowering unification thing,” says the Funky Ink Tattoo Gallery artist, whose father is a Zulu, of the Ngoni tribes, from Malawi in Africa.
Toronto tattoo artist Thomarya (Tee) Fergus says a growing emergence of Black Panther tattoos is part of an awakening when it comes to tattooing darker skin.
“In the past two years that I’ve been doing it, I’ve discovered a lot of POCs (people of colour) that are tattooing amazing pieces and colours,” she says, noting social media platforms are helping show what’s possible.
“Every day I’m pretty much sending someone to someone’s page on Instagram that I know who does colour work on POCs, just trying to let them know that it exists. It’s been a pretty big stereotype for a long time.”
Elisheba Israel Mrozik, artist/owner of One Drop Ink Tattoo in Nashville, has some Black Panther pieces on the company Instagram account (@onedropink).
She says she’s noticed more African-American clients asking for unique cultural designs.
Nchama, Fergus and Mrozik all say they’ve had first-hand experiences with the stigma against tattooing on darker skin.
Nchama recalls one artist in a parlour telling him: “I’m a tiny bit racist in the sense that I feel that black skin doesn’t work well for tattooing.’”
Fergus says she’s heard it ever since she got into the craft: “I’m always like, ‘That’s a lie.’ I try to be a walking testament to that.”
And Mrozik, who was on Season 8 of the U.S. reality series Ink Master, says the stigma is what prompted her to get into tattooing in the first place.
A native of Memphis, Tenn., many of her black friends had “pretty bad” tattoos, largely because of discrimination.
“A lot of times, as soon as you walk in the door, they either ignore you, they’re really rude, or if you give them the idea, they’ll price it as extremely more expensive because they don’t want to do it on you,” says Mrozik, noting many end up going to non-licensed tattoo artists known as “scratchers” who work out of their homes.
She didn’t realize it was possible to do painting-style tattoos on darker skin until she saw one online and decided to apply her art degree to the craft.
She opened up her own parlour, because she was “dismissed every time” she walked into other shops.
“If the industry would open up their doors to letting more African-American artists into the legitimate industry then they wouldn’t be scratching,” Mrozik says.
“They could learn more and be able to get better art to us and on our skin.”
As the artists tell it, many of their peers think darker skin is too tough to tattoo and doesn’t show contrast and colour.
And they fear that pieces on darker skin won’t be good for their portfolio because the tones and contrast won’t show up as well.
That can all be worked around by knowledge, they say: of how to properly design the tattoos with the right colour palette, which materials and equipment to use, how to work the machine to get the right strokes, how to apply lines to get the right effect, and how to do visual contrast.
“If you can balance out blacks and negative space, you can make a successful composition,” says Nchama.
“I just think they had a very limited view of what was possible. So the incentive to make that (tattoo) flash was to break down those barriers while giving some sort of identity to our culture. Any skintone is workable.”