Toronto-based tattoo artist Brittany Randell (aka @humblebeetattoo on Instagram) has always drawn Black women. So when she started creating art on skin instead of a paper canvas, it was only natural that they would become a big part of her tattoo portfolio. "I draw my flash based on what I would like to be executed as tattoos that I may not necessarily see that often at other shops," Randell explains. "I feel like Afro women aren't tattooed as often, so that's what I draw the most."
About four years into her tattooing business, Randell has become well-known not only for her portraits of Black women, but for a portfolio of delicate line work, including flowers, bugs, and insects. Below, Randell talks about her process for creating flash, the myths of tattooing on darker skin, and how Instagram is making the tattoo industry better.
How did you start tattooing?
I'm self taught. I initially went to university for art history and visual arts, then I started designing tattoos that other artists would execute. Clients would request that I draw them a custom design, then they would bring it to a tattoo artist. About four years ago, my roommate suggested I just tattoo those designs myself. I tried to get an apprenticeship in Toronto for quite some time, but it wasn't working out so I started doing my own research and saving up to buy equipment.
How would you describe your personal tattoo style now? Is it similar to what you were drawing in school?
I draw and paint realism, but with tattooing I'm more illustrative. I prefer not to work with mag needles, so my tattooing is mostly line work. It was trial and error for the first year to two years. I was learning how to work with color, trying different needles and different gauge sizes. I was just figuring out what worked best for me, especially with so many different clients and the variety of skin tones and types I was working on.
I always drew Black women. I was always very interested in a lot of African iconography from various countries. I've also always drawn flowers. I'm a plant lover. I don't really like bugs personally, but I love drawing them. I think they're so beautiful. I like finding patterns in nature.
I only show my designs the day of the appointment.
How often do you do flash versus custom tattoo designs?
It varies depending on how much free time I have to create new flash, though I'd say on average it's about 60% custom. For the past few weeks, I've been quite busy so I actually haven't time to post as many [to my flash Instagram account, @humblebeeflash]. But there will be weeks where I'll set time aside to just throw a bunch up on the page. People will also send requests for flash designs, which makes it more affordable for others as well. Once a piece of flash has been tattooed, I'll take it down from the page.
Do you ever do your flash designs on more than one person?
If it's a bigger piece or there's a lot of detail, it'll just be one flash for one person. But I'll leave easier, smaller things — like leaf tattoos or roses, which I know are really popular — up for multiple people to claim.
With the custom work you do, is there a type of design you feel like people are coming to you for most often?
Florals, definitely. And minimal designs without a lot of shading. I get a lot of requests for my Black women portraits as well, including a few tattoos of celebrities. It's pretty cool.
What's the collaboration process with the client on custom designs like for you?
Everyone is definitely different. I love those clients who are very open to my creativity and give me the freedom to basically do anything. But I also do have clients who are very specific, or who want to make a lot of adjustments to my designs. Usually those are clients who don't have that many tattoos, or are getting their first tattoo.
I'm quite flexible with everybody, but I only show my designs the day of the appointment. That way I get their first impressions and feedback in person rather than via email. With email, there can be too much back and forth, and I feel like there's often a lot of miscommunication.
I actually find that often my POC clients are easier to tattoo.
You've spoken in the past about being very mindful about posting photos of your work on a wide range of skin tones. Was there a moment that became a conscious decision?
Being a Black woman, I've always just catered to my community — which is often Black women — first and foremost. I've branched out so I get everybody coming to me now, but I never had any issue photographing my work on Black people.
What are some myths about tattooing on darker skin that you're just over hearing?
That it's harder to see when you tattoo dark skin. That dark skin can't take color. That it's harder to photograph. False. I actually find that often my POC clients are easier to tattoo. I can work with their skin much better. It seems to have more elasticity in it, and I find their skin is often more moisturized. That's a weird example, but I definitely don't have any issues tattooing dark people.
What are some ways that getting a tattoo from you is different?
I work in a home studio, so that's a big difference from the traditional experience. There are actually quite a lot of home studios in Toronto. It's just a little more comfortable to be one on one. Often people get to meet my son during the appointment as well. There aren't a lot of tattoo artists who'll tattoo with their kids around, but in the beginning I was a single mother, it wasn't really a choice for me. Also, I get to play my own music.
I've heard stories about clients who feel uncomfortable in shops when their bodies are being exposed for certain pieces. There's really no privacy. But with me, you get that.
I'm probably in the last generation that actually knows what it's like to get a tattoo before Instagram existed.
What does your son think of tattooing? Is he excited to get some of his own?
Well, he's only two, so I don't know if he'll get any. But if he does, that's cool. He likes watching me work. He calls it "getting tickled." Sometimes the clients will wince and he'll check in on them. It's really cute.
Do you have a favorite type of tattoo to do right now?
Insects have always been a favorite, and I like to do them in color. But they don't get claimed that often. I also like doing more abstract pieces and minimalistic work. I do a lot of finger tattoos that are just abstract lines, which I really like. They're a little more challenging, but real fun.
So many tattoo artists won't do finger and hand tattoos!
Yeah! I mean, I do think it's kind of wasteful to get a tattoo on the side of your finger. But on the top of the phalange, you have a better chance of keeping the ink in.
Can you think of your favorite tattoo you've ever done?
Recently, I did a full sleeve of Egyptian lotus flowers on a client. That's my favorite one right now.
You do such a nice balance of large scale pieces and tiny, dainty work. What do you like about each style?
I like that I can get more detailed in the larger pieces. I also like the fact, especially if you're doing a sleeve or something, that you get to know a person more because the client has to come back to you for several sessions. But I also love how fragile and delicate the smaller ones look.
You had a bunch of tattoos before you started doing them yourself. Were there any experiences you had as a client that influenced the way you work now?
I never had a flash tattoo until I became a tattoo artist. Once I got into the industry, I learned what flash was and how you could claim flash. I'm probably in the last generation that actually knows what it's like to get a tattoo before Instagram existed. I used to just walk into shops and talk to artists to see their portfolio and whether or not their personality fit with mine.
Now, I draw my flash based on what I would like to be executed as tattoos that I may not necessarily see that often at other shops. I feel like Afro women aren't tattooed as often, so that's what I draw the most. I am trying branch out more to accommodate what people are requesting, which is mostly flowers. But that's more of a business decision.
Do you think Instagram has had a positive effect on the tattoo industry?
I think Instagram is probably one of the best things that's happened to the tattoo industry, especially when it comes to reaching out and educating each other on the history of tattooing and how we treat our clients. There's a lot of racism and fat phobia is tattoo industry, but I think Instagram is definitely changing that.
Plus clients can definitely see your portfolio more easily. Maybe they can even get a sense of who you are as a person. It's social media, so I post myself and my political views alongside my tattoos.
You also offer color testing [a process where the artist tattoos swatches of different ink colors on the client's skin so they can see how each color heals on their skin tone] for free. Can you tell me more about that process?
I had a client come in for a coverup piece who also requested we do some color testing because they were considering getting some color tattoos in the future. So it was kind of sprung on me. I have never not said, "No I can't do that," but I also never publicly said I offer them.
It takes a long time. I try to use one needle but you have to clean out the needle for every single color. It probably takes about 30 minutes. Usually it's in a more hidden place, but this first client wanted it on the side of their arm next to the elbow.
Speaking of how you work with colors: The FAQ page on your website mentions that you don't want clients to wear bright, bold colors on the day of their tattoo appointment. Why?
One, I don't want to ruin your clothes. Tattoo ink does not come out of clothing. I know that firsthand. I would feel bad if I someone wore a really nice blouse and I sprayed black ink on it by mistake.
The other reason is honestly for Instagram aesthetics. I like to keep my page even and just focus more on how their skin complexion works the tattoo itself, with a white background. Asking clients to wear neutral colors like black, white, or gray just makes things easier.
Do you have any other projects coming up?
Right now, I'm just starting to book and plan 2020. Clients typically have to book about four months in advance to get a tattoo with me.
Follow Brittany on Instagram: @humblebeetattoo
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