Black Beauties

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

 Abebi and Donna Gibson; Coco and Breezy Dotson

One of the few well-known black tattooists in the U.S., Miya Bailey is worried about the plague of scratchers defacing African-Americans across the country, Lil Wayne being the limit case for bad body art. In the documentary “Color Outside the Lines” by Artemus Jenkins, Bailey introduces a generation of black artists rectifying this problem. To stand out on dark skin, they explain, tattoos need to be large, with bold lines and what artist Russ Abbott calls “a readable silhouette.” New Orleans veteran Jacci Gresham shows her decades-old Ed Hardy tattoo to illustrate how a detailed piece that might have worked on white skin didn’t quite cohere on her. And self-described “token white” artist Brandon Bond says that 90% of white tattooists don’t take the time to figure out how color works on black skin.

The artists also discuss the difficulty of breaking into this white-dominated trade (Julia Alphonso, below, apprenticed three of the Atlantans here after other white shop-owners turned them down) as well as the domestic turbulence this all-consuming, travel-heavy profession can cause. D.C. artist Chris Mensah says his success as a tattooist doesn’t compensate for the time he’s lost with his children, and his regret is palpable.

Miya Bailey and his mentor, Julia Alphonso

At a screening at Complex magazine last week, Bailey and Jenkins discussed the film, five years in the making at shops and conventions. “We just wanted to make our moms proud,” said Jenkins.  Afterwards, the mother-daughter team above (top left) showed their stuff—both Bailey pieces—as did the twins Coco and Breezy Dotson (top right), sunglass designers with big hair, blue lipstick, and a collection of matching tattoos. “We get a new tattoo every time we travel together,” they said.  Which just keeps people guessing which twin is which.

L.A. Woman: Kat Von D.

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

kat3I wasn’t paying attention, and it happened: Kat Von D. has outpaced any of the women in Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, for sheer fame, if not talent. She’s the star of L.A. Ink (set in her shop), where she deliberately chose to work with other women (some recently departed) in order to showcase female talent in a historically male-dominated industry. The show was TLC’s highest rated through the 2008 season, and Von D. is now probably the biggest name (male or female) in tattooing, period. She’s the first to achieve fame outside her industry (The average Joe doesn’t know that Ed Hardy is a respected elder statesman and important tattoo innovator, now that his atrocious clothing line has brought him international fame in another industry altogether.) She’s also become a major influence on women’s tattoo choices. One artist tells me “Now, when women want something small, they ask for black and gray.”

Her new book, High Voltage Tattoo could have been a typical slapdash photo collection, but it has substance: Von D., best known for her portraits, talks about designing her own machines with the help of master jewelers, the difficulty of making color portraits that don’t look like cartoons, how shading gives a tattoo soul and brings it to life (especially on a face , in which you can see “the roundness in somebody’s cheeks or the shadow a nose casts, depending on the light in the image”) and the importance of white highlights (“what makes eyes sparkle and faces glow”). She has artfully recreated Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross,” with its bird’s eye perspective–even on some guy’s rib cage, rendered a nautical scene with a sense of depth that makes the wearer look like a ship is passing through his back, reproduced precious family photos and simulated Japanese brushstrokes.

Even the most moronic tattoo choice (Sharon Tate) gains integrity in her hands. There’s just one standout stinker, a scene from “Thunderball” showing Bond and two women, that looks inexplicably like it was done by an 8th grader. But it’s a fluke (possibly the poorly proportioned limbs are rationalized when seen by the wearer, from above?). Von D.’s willingness to share the kind of trade secrets tattooists have guarded for so long is a refreshing change, and it’s nice to see a swashbuckling woman of worth grab the limelight and put the term “girl tattooer” to rest, one hopes, once and for all.