Bodies: Solutions We Love
- Ink Outside the Lines
Ink Outside the Lines
Although tattoo art has origins in communities of color, today it is largely a white-dominated field in the U.S. Three tattoo artists of color share their views of the changing field.
Sarah Whalen-Lunn first learned the art and skills of her own Iñupiaq heritage of tattooing only a few years ago. Feeling that she was destined to be part of the revival of this cultural practice, she began training in 2016. “It was one of those things that really felt like my whole life had been leading up to it,” she says.
Now, Whalen-Lunn not only inks other Indigenous women, but she also sports her own traditional markings. Three dotted lines run from the bottom of her lower lip to the tip of her chin, a line of dots runs down her neck, and more lines and dots adorn her hands.
When asked about the meaning behind her tattoos, she quotes a fellow artist: “It means everything to me and nothing to someone else.” Although Whalen-Lunn maintains that there aren’t really enough words in the English language to fully explain the significance of her markings, she says Indigenous tattooing involves “a lot of spiritual belief that long predates religion, that long predates colonization.”
Moreover, she is reluctant to explain the significance of her tattoos because “some of those meanings too, we have to safeguard them because of appropriation.”
She has good reason to protect the meaning behind the practice. During the Western colonization of North America, Christian missionaries used boarding schools to separate children from their parents and erase knowledge of Indigenous languages and cultural practices, including tattooing.
Increasingly, Whalen-Lunn and other artists are reviving traditional tattooing within their communities. Quannah Chasinghorse is a sought-after Hän Gwich’in and Sičangu/Oglala Lakota runway model, whose face—chin tattoos included—has graced the covers of many magazines, raising the profile of this cultural practice.
“This is what we’re meant to look like,” says Whalen-Lunn. “This is such a huge part of how we say who we are and connect ourselves to our ancestors.”
When Ocean Gao, a New York–based tattoo artist, first began tattooing, they realized most of their clients were people of the Chinese diaspora or, like Gao, had Asian heritage but lived outside Asia. Gao navigates their immigrant heritage through their art by being acutely aware of how colonial forces shape the way people of color are expected to function in the United States.
Early in their career Gao wanted to focus on Chinese imagery in tattoos, but in recent years has resisted being racially pigeonholed. “I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be a Chinese tattooer who doesn’t want always to make Chinese imagery,” Gao says.
“I feel like a lot of people, specifically people who identify as Asian American, have wanted tattoos from me that kind of symbolize their Asian-ness and American-ness,” says Gao. “Asians all have the experience of being asked ‘Where are you really from?’” But the artist worries that indignant retorts of being born in the U.S. undermine the rights of immigrants.
“Everyone belongs here, because borders are fake and migration is a human right,” Gao adds.
Gao also believes everyone has the right to ink their skin as they want, and that tattooing is a “practice of bodily autonomy” that allows “people to feel that they are becoming closer to who they imagine themselves to be.”
After COVID-19 restrictions began easing up in 2021, people flocked to tattoo parlors to get inked, and Gao remembers being surprised by the surge of people seeking tattoos compared to the pre-pandemic era. Ultimately, Gao came to the understanding that “people just want to feel in control of their lives or their bodies in some way, and tattooing is a really straightforward way to get that kind of autonomy.”
“I couldn’t really imagine doing anything else,” says Tanner Minock, who identifies as a queer Colorado Xicano and co-owns Denver-based Two Thunders Tattoo. Minock, like many tattooers, has adorned his own body with myriad works of art. He got his first tattoo at age 16, with his mother’s permission, and jokes that “it’s her fault that I’m doing this right now.”
Indeed, Minock’s mother, who is Chicana—of Spanish, Native American, and Mexican heritage—plays a large role in his life in terms of culture, food, and family.
“A lot of Indigenous cultures in what we now know as the United States and other parts of the world have had tattooing practices for many, many years, a lot of them before prior contact of colonization,” he says.
Minock sees tattoos as a way for him to reclaim his body. “The more tattoos that I got, the more I felt like myself, which is weird because you’re not really born with your tattoos. It really is a way for you to tell your story.”
He’s also noticed the number of tattoo shops owned by people of color has sharply increased in recent years. Communities are attempting to “take back the art of tattooing and reclaim it as their own.”
That includes changing the experience in tattoo parlors. Minock recalls that before he became a tattoo artist, a lot of his experiences at tattoo shops were negative. “They were in a very hypermasculine environment,” he explains, saying he found it “awkward, a little intimidating, and sometimes scary to enter those spaces that are straight-white-male dominated.”
Today, the majority of Minock’s clients are queer, but he also sees more people of color getting inked. “As a tattooer, you cannot limit yourself to tattooing only white skin.”
Minock was immersed in his mother’s culture while growing up and sees his own tattoos as a way for him to tell his story and that of his family and cultural heritage. “It’s a way for me to come back into my body and take ownership of that,” he says.