Getting started in any business is hard. But having doors slammed in your face or not getting access to basic trade materials because of the way you look can make it even harder.
Philadelphia Tattoo Convention artist Al Fliction has been dealing with these issues and more since he decided to make the leap from graffiti artist to bona fide tattoo artist.
“I’ve always been interested in art but tattooing is taking my art to another level. I was fascinated by the fact that people could travel the world with my art and everyone could see it. Tattoos are not like painting where they just get put on the wall, more people are exposed to the work you do,” Fliction says.
The Bronx native set out on the road to make his dreams of being a tattoo artist a reality. Unfortunately, that road had Philly-sized potholes.
“Well, when I first started tattooing, and I would try to go to tattoo conventions, they wouldn’t even rent me a booth and that was about 20 to 23 years ago,” Fliction says.
The “Inkmaster” star says things have gotten a lot better. The Philadelphia Tattoo Convention, which takes place this weekend, is the largest event of its kind in the world and one of the most diverse. Fliction says that’s thanks in part to people like him that have paved the way.
“After being denied access, I started the first Urban Tattoo Convention in New York. It opened a door for a lot of artists of color to come to a convention and see what a convention was like. It was called the UTC, the Urban Tattoo Convention and urbanism magazine back me up on it. That’s how we got it. That’s how we put it all together. A lot of artists got to come and really see what conventions were all about, how you win awards and how you work to set up your booth. And to this day, I see artists on the road and they met me at my Tattoo Convention, and they were like, since going to UTC I’ve been following other conventions and got to travel all over the world,” Fliction says.
Fliction says the key to seeing more tattoo artists is access. Without an apprenticeship, it’s hard to become a successful tattoo artist.
“The struggle for artists of color was so much harder than it was for the, you know, their white counterparts because they were taking each other and teaching each other but we didn’t have many people willing to take that chance or that looked like us. We had to be self-taught,” he says.
Representation matters as more people with darker skin tones are getting tattoos.
There is a big difference in tattooing lighter skin tones versus ones with melanin, according to Fliction.
“Tattoos are under layers of the skin. So if you could have melanin, the colors are not going to look as bright. So the key to our color skin is, less is more. We can use our skin color as the design and blackout around that. The key to that is using your negative spaces on darker skin,” Fliction says.
He is working on developing a line of inks that pop better on melanated skin tones but until then he has a few tips for people of color when getting tattoos.
“Do your research. Once you find an artist, look at their portfolio. Do they have pictures that include darker skin tones? It’s okay to ask how long they have been working with darker skin tones,” Fliction says.
Fliction says the tattoo industry is getting better at accepting more artists of color but it could be even better because representation matters.
“I just want to see more people of color becoming artists, getting out there, going to the tattoo conventions, winning awards, opening up tattoo shops, you know I want to see more of them getting out there. If you’re interested in becoming a tattoo artist, find the Black-owned shops and ask about being an apprentice. You’re less likely to have doors slammed in your face when you are talking to someone that has been where you’ve been,” he says.