Durham tattoo artists balance the scales of tattoo history

By Lorelai Sykes 

Squeezed between barbershops, nail salons and estheticians in a majority Black-owned, shared business space sits Brooklyne Big. Neatly stacked candles with burnt black wicks, cheetahs with daggers hanging from their mouths, and reconfigured cartoon characters with morning stars. The black walls are covered with artwork. The entire space is not much larger than an average bedroom.

Brooklyne Big is a small tattoo studio in Durham, North Carolina. Terin J.D., who uses he/they pronouns, is one of the main artists in the studio. They like to laugh about the name, claiming that while the studio may be small, it is just big enough to hold everything they need. It is a space focused on sustainability and the art of tattooing any and all skin colors.

Ten years ago, when J.D. began their tattoo apprenticeship, they noticed something missing from the industry: images of art on darker skin.

 J.D. is from Indianapolis, Ind. but says that their home is in the Triangle area of North Carolina.

 “But when it comes to the Triangle, I just think it’s a really beautiful place to tattoo,” J.D. said. “And it’s like you ended up having an opportunity to connect with so many different types of clients that are just in the Triangle at that moment.”

It is where J.D. said they were exposed to a large, creative and more inclusive tattoo culture.

“When it comes to people that want to get really good tattoos on brown skin, it is like a really special place for that. For me, and my work,” J.D. said.

Back in the 2010s, their mentor from Louisville, Ky., said his clientele was easily 90% Black but J.D. could not find that population in photographs of tattoos, social media pages or tattoo shop websites across the country. Famous Black athletes and stars were covered in ink, and even J.D.’s friends from home, too.

Even so, the documentation of past and present tattoos seemed clogged with pale skin and styles executed without darker skin in mind.

 “Tattoo Renaissance”

 Tattoos have been a cultural phenomenon for hundreds of years, but in the past six decades, commercial tattooing in the United States has grown considerably. According to Verena Hutter of Dismantle Magazine, the 1960s marked the “Tattoo Renaissance.” Tattoos were no longer regarded as the mark of a menacing biker or circus freak, but as works of art and culture.

Tattoos often borrow art styles from other cultures and do not always give credit back to those communities. For example, Japanese art styles flooded the American tattoo scene at a time when Asian Americans were largely discriminated against.

Well-known tattooers like Ed Hardy also took art styles from Hispanic communities, incorporating them into a misleading “American traditional” style. The American style was built on appropriation and left behind the voices of the original artists.

Due to zoning laws and the taboo around tattoos, studios were popping up in areas as far away from rich white neighborhoods as possible. They were located near liquor stores or gun stores, in areas underdeveloped and largely Black. With that history comes a story largely undocumented and untold: Black tattooing.

“Having brown skin is bold.”

J.D. says that when they entered the industry as an artist, there was still little education on how  to tattoo brown and black skin. Stereotypes and rumors echoed through the industry.

“Even when I got into tattooing and like say the 2010s there was so little education on tattooing brown skin, that people would just do bad jobs, like people artists would just do a bad job on brown skin and they just be like, ‘it’s their skin,’”J.D.  said.

The main misconception about tattooing darker skin is that it is harder or impossible to make it look good.


“So I’ve described to clients like this: having brown skin is bold,” J.D. said. “So when you have a bold thing, to put something on top of that bold thing, you don’t want to take away from the bold thing. And sometimes when tattooing brown skin, doing opposites or doing different things to showcase the brown tone can go really long way. It just requires a tattooer doing more research.”

J.D. said that artists tend to stick to what they know. So, a white artist in a high-rise New York City studio will likely stick to fine lines on pale skin. They might not feel that they need to learn the techniques necessary to tattoo darker skin.

Even if an artist does tattoo darker skin, there is still a stigma around posting those photos on social media.

“I was told for years by owners of tattoo shops, that if they posted on brown skin, they would look like they do cheap tattoos because they were afraid that if they posted on brown skin, people would think that Black people could afford to go there. It was more of a fear that they may lose some of their white clientele if they post too many tattoos on brown skin,” J.D. said.

That is why Brooklyne Big is such a sacred space. It is devoid of these misconceptions and stereotypes. Now, J.D. is working with Phoebe Powell, who uses she/they pronouns, is only 21 years old and is his former apprentice.

“I am definitely held to a different expectation.”

Powell began working with J.D. after J.D. did a coverup of what Powell called an awful neck tattoo. They tell the story between puffs of Camel Blue 99s. After that, Powell started working for J.D., where Powell assisted with events and gave themself “the shittiest tattoos” as practice before earning their spot tattooing alongside J.D. 

Powell is also from Ind., and growing up Black in a red state was difficult for them as well.

“When I was in high school, I was in the marching band. We went to the Lucas Oil Stadium to do our performance and I knelt for the national anthem and there was this person who really didn’t like that. They said they wanted to lynch me in their backyard.”

Powell and J.D. echo the same point: that entering the industry as a Black, queer person is just as difficult today as it was 10 years ago. The two constantly feel pressured to produce work at a higher level because of the standard they are held to by white folks in the industry.

“I am definitely held to a different expectation,” Powell said. “They want it for the cheapest and they want it done very efficiently. They don’t ask that from any other person besides Black tattooers, especially Black queer ones. I have to be better than a lot of people just to get validation.”


J.D. explains that in the early years of their tattooing, they could not make a living off of art alone. They add that many Black artists have to lower their prices for clientele, and clients often demand to see a larger amount of quality work to soothe racial biases.

Despite these barriers, a 5-star rating on Google reads:

“I had a great time with Phoebe. My tattoo looks exactly like I imagined, and I felt very well taken care of and safe during my experience. Highly Recommend!”

Edited by Katie Lin and Matherly Collins