Baltimore’s Black-owned tattoo shops battle prejudice while serving unique needs

Olivia Green
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Anthony Chestnut’s 15-year career in the tattoo industry has presented several challenges, some big enough to push him to leave altogether, but he always finds himself back wielding the needle.

“I’ve tried several different things, but no matter what I did it just made sense for me to go back to tattooing,” said Chestnut, a Baltimore native.

In August 2020, Chestnut opened The Free Ink Studio in downtown Baltimore after a break from the tattoo world. Since then, he has run into the difficulties that come along with owning a studio as a Black artist.

“I’ve gotten reports made to the health department even though everything here is up to standard, and I’ve gotten calls from my landlord saying that people think I’m selling drugs out of my shop. I have people illegally dumping trash in front of my store,” Chestnut said.

Despite the challenges, Chestnut finds that Black clients flock to him for both cover-ups — tattoos intended to hide or fix another tattoo — and new art. They are often in search of someone who will understand the techniques and tools that tattooing Black skin requires.

“There are a bunch of inks strictly for white people, and if you try to use them on Black people it’s like it knows there’s melanin in the person’s skin and will give them an allergic reaction,” Chestnut said.

According to dermatologist Dr. Chesahna Kindred, the allergic reaction that Chestnut refers to may be a result of sarcoidosis, a condition that causes swollen and red patches on the skin.

“Unfortunately, it’s more common in Black people than other races,” Kindred said, referring to sarcoidosis. “It’s a buildup of abnormal protein and, for some reason, with particular inks, especially red ink, sarcoidosis can show up.”

"InkBoy," a tattoo artist for 15 years, has a studio, Free Ink. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Unique challenges: Domonic Carter, owner of Ripp’d Canvas in Pigtown, has also dealt with the realities of tattoo shop ownership since his shop opened in 2011, closed down, and then reopened in 2017.

“Being a Black tattoo artist in the industry is unique,” said Carter. “There’s a lot of underlying prejudice in the industry itself. It’s gotten a lot better over the years but there is prejudice in the eyes of consumers.”

The prejudice that Carter speaks about comes from his background in attending tattoo conventions — events that allow hundreds of artists and spectators to take part in days of live tattooing — in addition to his experiences at Ripp’d Canvas.

“As more and more young Black artists get into the industry, they’re shaking the stereotype that Black artists can’t provide quality work, because, in the context that we know tattooing, non-Black artists have had their foothold in the industry for a lot longer,” Carter said.

Pandemic themes: Both Carter and Chestnut have seen the demand for tattoos increase during the pandemic. Although neither has witnessed any trends when it comes to the specific art people are seeking, Carter has noticed a commonality in themes.

“I think tattoos generally do well during harder times,” said Carter. “Considering what we all went through during the past year, a lot of people want to tell their stories of perseverance and how they made it through these troubling times.”

Many have requested memorial tattoos to commemorate loved ones and tattoos containing important symbols in their lives, he said.

According to Washington, D.C.-based tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak, “We were all penned up and confined, so getting a tattoo is kind of like a release mechanism to remind us that we did survive a pandemic.

“It’s kind of bleak, but so many of us have seen so much loss within the last year, so if you’ve been wanting a tattoo, you might as well get it now,” said Krutak. “Tattoos can be therapeutic because you can encapsulate a lot of meaning in even small tattoos and afterward, you have a permanent physical reminder of your experience.”

Clients: Carmin Baez, one of Chestnut’s clients, got a sleeve tattoo, a piece covering her arm and shoulder, done in June of 2020 inspired by four important symbols in her life: sunflowers, a bird to represent freedom, a dream catcher, and biblical Scripture about love. Although she chose Chestnut as her artist based on his skill, she also believes in supporting Black-owned businesses.

“Considering everything that was going on last summer, I wanted to do my part in supporting a Black-owned business,” said Baez, referring to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. “The primary reason I chose Anthony was because of the phenomenal skill that I had seen on a friend of mine and on his Instagram.”

Both Carter and Chestnut have had Black clients seek them out after bad experiences with white tattoo artists.

“One time a lady came in after getting her tattoo done by a very well-known white artist,” Chestnut said. “I have always been kind of intimidated by this guy because of his skill, but this tattoo was not up to that level at all. It was to the point where she didn’t let him finish it and came to me to fix it.”

Changes: The changes that Carter and Chestnut have seen in the industry are reflected in new artists that they have encountered, in addition to an increase of representation of tattoos on dark skin online. For example, the Instagram account @inkthediaspora highlights tattoos on Black skin, among other things.

Both Carter and Chestnut hope to provide positive experiences for all with their expertise in tattooing all skin along with the expertise of the diverse artists at Ripp’d Canvas.

“Fortunately, in Baltimore, we work on a lot of dark skin so we have a lot of experience,” said Carter. “All my artists can tattoo Black skin and they do it well.”