Tattoos draw diverse crowd

The demographics of the tattoo world, long dominated by whites, are changing, on both sides of the needle.

Published May 8, 2007

The tattoo gun's buzz is barely audible over the beats booming from the stereo.

And the rapper's rhythmic obscenities rival those coming from Shicarra William.

While she screams and cowers, artist Martinez "Tinez" Cook bobs his dreadlocked head to the music but keeps his hand steady.

"SING BABY!" he teases. "Who you want to be like? Keyshia Cole? You sound like Mary J. right there."

Before club-hopping in Ybor City for the night, William and a friend decided to stop by Body Design Tattoos studio in Tampa.

"This shop is pretty much an urban shop, " Cook says, "from the music we play to the stuff we watch to what we talk about."

In shops like this, blacks are bringing flavor to a historically white-dominated business. And the tattoo industry is taking notice of what many peg as its fastest-growing customer base.

Of pen and needles

Crazy clowns, praying hands and portraits embedded in black and Hispanic skin fill the three-ring binders spread across the glass countertop at Body Design.

There are no magazines. They don't fit in here.

National tattoo magazines commonly go months without displaying work done on a person of color.

Fine lines and colorful designs are clearer on Caucasian skin.

But in January, the publisher of Skin & Ink magazine put out the first issue of Urban Ink: A Tattoo Magazine for People of Color.

It includes dos and don'ts for tattoos on dark skin and features on branding and the meanings behind traditional African tribal symbols.

The magazine features images, definitions and names of 11 traditional symbols of the Asante people of Ghana and the Gyaman people of the Ivory Coast.

The symbols are traditionally found on cotton cloth, not skin. Due to the complexities of getting ink to show up on darker skin, many African tribes choose scarification.

Even on his own light-complected skin, Cook can push color only so far.

Of the 43 tattoos covering his thin frame - chest, stomach and arms - only a few have touches of red, like the rose he's putting on William's back.

"You can't get your yellows and whites to show up on darker skin and on some skin tones you can't do color at all, " Cook, 27, says.

Urban Ink offers graphics depicting color visibility on four different skin tones.

On the cover is actor Debra Wilson (Mad TV) and her tattoo artist, Tampa native Roni Zulu, who owns and operates Zulu Tattoo in Los Angeles.

Urban Ink is still honing its marketing, editor Paul Gambino says.

"Ethnic magazines sell well and tattoo magazines sell well, " he says, "but no one really knows where those two sell well together."

Still a minority

Blink and you might miss Body Design, tucked between a music recording studio and a pet groomer off busy Florida Avenue.

But mostly through word of mouth, the shop stays busy - seven days a week until the last customer leaves. Sometimes Cook is here until 2, 3 or even 4 a.m.

Even in a shop, which is considered mainstream, many customers have an underground mentality where time is less than a notion.

"People come in and it's like, 'I want this right here, right now, ' " Cook says.

Many black tattoo artists, like Cook, are self-taught and start their careers working underground, spending long hours tattooing in their homes or traveling to clients' homes.

Cook was 17 when he first inked himself and friends. The first tattoo was a 3-inch Chinese symbol in red that he inked on the shoulder of a friend named Danny.

"I just had a passion for it, " he says.

"Underground" tattooing is prominent with blacks because of the difficulty black artists have finding an apprenticeship in the white-dominated field, Zulu says.

There are no schools.

But once black artists break into the industry, they can often count on their own rarity to draw business.

Although the National Tattoo Association doesn't track the number of black-owned parlors, it is understood that they are few. But blacks are a growing part of the estimated 36 percent of tattooed 20-somethings, according to a recent Harris Poll.

"Being in this industry and being black, " Cook says, "really almost turns you into a local celebrity. There ain't too many of us. . . . Hell, now that I think about it, I don't even know that many black tattoo artists."

Cook's work draws clients like Dorian Moore, 23, of Tampa.

Munching on Arby's fries as he waits, Moore is here to get a tattoo on the back of each of his muscular arms.

On the left, next to a large cross, he's getting Proverbs 3: 5-6.

Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.

On the right will be his first name in Greek to accompany the large scorpion - his zodiac sign.

"Tinez did all my brother's tattoos, " Moore says. "He's good."

Gaining acceptance

On the other side of the country in Los Angeles, Zulu has become one of the nation's renowned tattooists, black or white, with celebrity clients such as Janet Jackson, Dennis Rodman and Bruce Willis.

But when he left his graphic design gig 14 years ago to do tattoos, success seemed a distant possibility.

"There was a lot of hard-core hatred, " he says.

Nasty notes, bomb threats and face-to-face confrontations came to his shop almost daily from a close-knit community of good old boys who didn't want him treading on their territory, Zulu says.

"I'm not a violent person, but it came to the point where I had to come to work with a gun strapped to my chest, " he says.

When the scare tactics failed and Zulu stayed, word spread and his clientele grew.

Blacks wanting tattoos with deeper meaning flocked to Zulu, one of a handful of black shop owners in the nation. He draws only original tattoos and specializes in African symbols.

"Instead of eagles and anchors and sailor-type stuff, they were looking for something to do with their heritage, " Zulu says. "And that's what I offer."

Fresh ink

Less than 40 minutes after Cook started tattooing William, the piece is nearly finished. Between her shoulders, her nickname, Carra, rests on a banner accented with a rose and angel wings.

Cook still bobs his head to the music. William hasn't wailed in a while.

"See, I told you, " Cook says. "If you just make it through the outline you're going to be good in the 'hood, baby."

With her face still scrunched up and sweaty from the pain, William swears this is the last one.

She pauses.

"No, I'm lying. I'm going to get two more."


"Well, let me not say that. I'm going to get a lot more, " she says.

She caresses her left forearm, envisioning the art to come.

Amber Mobley can be reached at (813) 269-5311 or amobley@ sptimes.com.



Body Design Tattoos

The shop, at 10418 N Florida Ave., Tampa, is open from 1 to 10 p.m. seven days a week. The phone number is (813) 931-5701.