"I had always felt uncomfortable in most tattoo shops," New York City-based tattoo artist Doreen Garner (@flesh_and_fluid on Instagram) says. "And I think that was because there was such a lack of representation of the Black experience displayed in the flash on the walls." It was that desire for more representation — and for a studio where people of color could visit without worrying they'd be told their skin was too dark for certain types of tattoos — that lead Garner to open Invisible Man Tattoo inside the Recess studio space in Clinton Hill, a neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Garner started her career as a sculptor, and her art has always reflected an interest in and admiration for the human body. At Invisible Man, clients can pick from a variety of flash inspired by the history of Black people in America, or work with Garner to create a custom piece — especially, she says, if the art they want is "kind of gross." Ahead, Garner chats with Bustle about how she got her start, how tattoo shops can be more inclusive, and why the price of tattoos need to be about more than just the final design.
How did you start tattooing?
Traditionally, I'm a fine arts sculptor. I had a studio visit with my now friend, Brian who works at VOLTA [a studio space in NYC]. They were doing a feature on me because I was showing during the [art] fair [at VOLTA]. Afterward, he had went to get tattooed by my friend Tamara Santibañez at Saved [Tattoo]. He told her about my work, and she told him that she was working on this book project where she was publishing a book about sexiness and female artists. She reached out to me. Then, as I looked at her website, I was like, “Oh my God, she is a tattoo artist, she is amazing! Maybe this is finally my chance where I can apprentice under somebody!” So I wrote her to ask if she ever took apprentices. And she's like, “No, but I'll come to your studio and we can talk.”
A few days later, she came to my studio. She was telling me how she was a self-taught tattoo artist, and that if that's something that I wanted to do, I don't necessarily have to go through an apprenticeship program. There are no rules in tattooing, and if I feel like I'm compromising in any way by taking an apprenticeship under some random white dude, then I can teach myself. She basically gave me permission. So, I went and got my tattoo license, bought all the equipment, and then I just started tattooing on myself initially and then began tattooing on friends.
What inspired you to start Invisible Man Tattoo, where you currently work? What were your first tattoos there?
I had always felt uncomfortable in most tattoo shops. And I think that was because there was such a lack of representation of the Black experience displayed in the flash on the walls. I just increasingly became critical of this. [The art studio] Recess has a residency program, that really allows the artist to engage with the public. I felt like this was the perfect project — that residency program — because with tattooing, it's just you and the other person. So what I proposed to them was to make a tattoo pop-up shop that was dedicated to celebrating the Black experience and contributions to American history.
[As part of the project], I was offering free tattoos to people identifying as being Black or of the African Diaspora, and the subject in each tattoo was meant to highlight histories that haven't really been "household." The things that people don't typically know. For example, instances where people were subjects of medical torture, or highlighting Black inventors and Black inventions. I was trying to use tattooing more as an educational tool, and less as like a means to just decorate their body with tattoos.
Tattoos have historically been expensive, but lately some artists now offer a sliding scale model of payment — or, as you did, free tattoos for certain communities. What's your philosophy on tattoo pricing?
I think you get what you pay for. But it's also about the experience of the entire tattoo, and not just the way the tattoo is depicted. In many cases of Black people being tattooed by white men, a lot of times I’ve heard it felt very violent and inconsiderate of their bodies and care, and they felt really vulnerable. So, I think in that way, the overall experience doesn't make up for the price of the tattoo. As far as the sliding scale is concerned, you need to be thinking about every part of the tattoo: Not just the price, not just the way that it's depicted, but the care that you're giving the person you're actually tattooing, and whether they feel comfortable or not.
Like many industries, modern, mainstream tattooing has become largely white, male, and straight. How can tattoo shops better serve all communities?
There need to be more people of color in tattoo shops all over the country. I think that people feel more comfortable when there's someone there that looks like them. I know that I do in particular. When you're going into a space where no one looks like you, no one can sympathize with you. If there are microaggressions, there is no one to confirm with you, or not. That's an issue that needs to be resolved immediately: the training of and accepting of people of color trying to get into the industry. Give them a position at least to be trained. And then also, there need to be more full-time hires.
[When a tattoo artists says they can't do a certain type of tattoo on a certain skin tone], "I can't" is not the correct term. I think it's more of “I don't want to.” It's always about choice as the artist. You can do whatever you want. If someone asks for something, you can do it. But, you might not want to do it. Anything is possible, but it might not last. Of course, that ends up affecting your reputation and how the tattoo looks and how people see it. They might think it's an accurate representation of your work, when in some cases it might just be what the customer insisted on.
There are many artists that are able to perform beautiful, beautiful combinations of color on darker skin tones. Oba Jackson is one of my favorites right now. He did a tattoo on me recently. He was on Ink Master this past season and he has his own tattoo shop in Delaware called Push Tattoo. There's also Miryam Lumpini, who people really love because she does really beautiful color work. She's out in L.A. Especially with Instagram being available, now you can see all these examples online, so it's almost like, "OK, how can you tell me that this is impossible when I see it in an image right here?"
What types of tattoos are you most excited to do right now?
I recently did a tattoo of a rhinoceros beetle larvae, which is kind of gross, but that's actually what I'm most interested in right now. I've always been really interested in medical illustration, too. At one point, I considered doing it as a major for my undergraduate experience. I want to do more medical-y scenes [as tattoos], especially images having to do with Black history and with Black bodies that have been exploited by the medical industry.
I recently did a performance at MoMA PS1 [an art institute in Queens, New York] with [tattoo artists] Tamara Santibañez, Anderson Luna, and my friend Tommy Martinez who did a lot of the sound work. We really tried to expand the idea of what goes on during the tattoo process beyond the physical image. [The performance] highlighted a lot of submission and dominance and vulnerability. For my part, I did several tattoos using no ink, and so the image was revealed by the irritation of the skin and penetration.
[For the performance], I put a scarlet letter on three white boys' chests. The scarlet letter is an “A” for adulterous, but turned sideways, it turns into a triangle, which I ended up relating to the triangular treatment for the transatlantic slave trade. The performance was really about, how are these elements of torture and vulnerability and exploitation in my sculptural work able to transform into my tattoo practice? I'm constantly trying to find ways to combine all of those in the same way. [For a future performance], I was thinking about doing a live exhibition where it's mostly me doing drawings on the backs of people and then having them stand in different corners of the room, and that's the way you experience the work.
Are there any types of tattoos you won't do?
Anything that's misogynistic and racist. I'm also very annoyed by culturally appropriative work. That's something that I've been trying to either steer clear of doing, or I'll try help the person understand the problems in them having in that as a tattoo. Usually it resolves itself so it's not like a big thing. And I think people that are coming to me also know what my stances are and what they are in for.
Where's the next place people can see or experience your art IRL, aside from booking an appointment with you?
I'm doing a solo show called "She Is Risen" that begins April 21, Easter Sunday, at JTT, a gallery that's in the Lower East Side [in New York City]. It's a show with mostly sculpture.
I'm also working on a podcast that's going to be called "Different Strokes for Different Pokes." I have really amazing clients that have so much personality, and are total characters. I wanted to do a podcast that focuses on conversations that are recorded while I tattoo them. There's a lot of buzzing in the background, but also a lot of laughter and giggles.
Follow Doreen on Instagram: @flesh_and_fluid
Book an appointment with her by: Visiting doreengarner.com/tattoobooking
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Main Image of Garner: Alternative Modes of Penetration by Doreen Garner presented as part of VW Sunday Sessions on Mar 3, 2019 at MoMA PS1, New York. Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo by Maria Baranova.
Tattoo Images: Courtesy Doreen Garner