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Logo of the Merced Tattoo & Piercing Co shop. Screenshot taken by Guadalupe Aleman. 

Anem J. Garduño is a 26-year-old Latina tattoo apprentice and activist, who works at Merced Tattoo & Piercing Co. In late March, Anem posted an Instagram story announcing that she would be booking free tattoo appointments for Merced residents who are people of color. She has referred to this project as the Melanated Skin Initiative and it is still currently in progress. 

Anem Tattooing a Client

Merced Tattoo Artist, Anem Garduño, tattooing a client. Photo provided by Anem Garduño. 

Garduño hadn’t always planned on being a tattooer. She stated that she had always been interested in tattoos and art but that she felt like the industry wasn’t for her because she did not see a lot of people that looked like her, that behaved like her, or that had her personality within tattooing. 

Because of this, Garduño had been pursuing a degree in English, Literature and Journalism at Stan State before her apprenticeship. School didn’t work out however, and after that experience, Garduño was given the opportunity to work under Robert Benson, the shop owner of Merced Tattoo & Piercing Co. She has been an apprentice there for around 3 years now.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, along with the murder of countless others, the Black Lives Matter movement took off like never before last summer. In order to help, Garduño began her first project. 

She posted an Instagram post where she informed people that she would be offering $60 tattoos of phrases related to the BLM movement. Garduño ended up scheduling 20 tattoo appointments and this resulted in a profit of $480. All profits were then donated to Black Visions Collective, a non-profit organization for black liberation that is based in Minnesota. While Garduño was glad to donate this amount, she felt like more work could still be done.

Garduño stated that she felt the BLM movement brought awareness about anti-blackness into various aspects of our society, including the tattooing industry. One issue she mentioned is that the tattoo industry is dominated by white men.

Garduño stated that white males dominating in tattoo space is what "brought about a lot of myths, and stuff like that, about tattooing darker skin. Like, you can’t put color on dark skin and that there’s certain styles that can’t be tattooed on dark skin."

Dr. Mary Roaf spoke on this topic. She is an Ethnic Studies professor at Stan State and she provided an academic viewpoint for people to understand why the tattoo industry favors whiteness.

There is a lot of history to explain this, but essentially, racism is so ingrained in the US that Dr. Roaf even described it as, "ground zero for white supremacy, and anti-blackness in particular." Evidence of this is in the way that the only two groups of people who are native to the US (Native Americans and descendants of African slaves), are the ones at the bottom of the racial caste system in the US. 

Going back to the topic of tattoos, historically, one must consider slavery. When slavery was legal, a myth was created where Black people supposedly have a higher tolerance for pain. Another myth that was created was that Black people's skin is thicker or stronger than that of a white person's. In correlation to tattoos, these myths are what have led various generations of tattoo artists to believe that Black people's skin will not handle tattoos as well as a white person's.

Dr. Roaf spoke of her own experience as a Black woman getting color tattoos. She explained that she had gotten several tattoos done by three different white tattooers. One artist told her that he would have to press the needle deeper into her skin in order for the colors to pop out more. Dr. Roaf went on to say that none of her previous artists had ever said or done that to her, and that her skin actually takes color really well.

When describing the experience, Dr. Roaf stated, "He pressed down so hard, with the needle, to compensate for the color of my skin, that the colors actually came out a lot darker. It's still beautiful, but I have other tattoos in color, where the artist didn't do that and they're bright."

While she does still love the tattoo, if the artist hadn't gone in with his prejudiced thoughts about Black skin, her tattoo likely would've come out as bright as her other tattoos. This is just one issue that comes from white people being the largest percentage of tattooers in the US.

In order to battle the lack of knowledge on how to tattoo dark skin, Garduño and her mentor came up with the Melanated Skin Initiative. Garduño mentioned that she had been sharing informational posts and color work tattoos that were created by Black tattooers and anti-racist tattoo pages. These creators include Tamara Santibañez, Oba Jackson, Dijah Tattoos, Ink The Diaspora, and Dark Skin Tattoo Tips.

Many of these posts focused on the topic of how some tattooers refuse to tattoo color onto dark skin because they think it’s not possible. Garduño would also repost tattoos that were done by Black tattoo artists and she expressed feeling awe over these artists due to the way they could really make color pop on dark skin shades. She said, “I’ve heard so many people say that they’ve been denied a tattoo because [tattooers] were saying ‘It’s impossible’ pretty much.” These black tattooers helped prove otherwise. 

Her mentor, Robert, has been tattooing for over eleven years and he still viewed tattooing in that traditional manner. When he saw these posts however, he started thinking about his own views of tattooing on darker skin. He realized that they both needed to work on tattooing darker skin better and so they created this project.

Garduño stated, “In order for us to learn, I feel like it would only be fair to do the tattoos for free because we’re obviously learning this from scratch.”

Because of Robert’s greater experience, they set up a plan where he would be the main person tattooing clients, while Garduño would watch and take notes on any tips he would give her. So far, he has tattooed one client and it can be seen in the image below.

Garduño tattooed her first client for this project towards the end of April and the result can be seen below.

Several people are still waitlisted for a tattoo and unfortunately no more clients are being taken on for this project. However, anyone who’s interested in getting tattooed by Garduño, can reach out to her via DM on Instagram. Her mentor, Robert can also be reached via DM through Instagram. They are located at the Merced Tattoo & Piercing Co. shop at 534 W Main St, Merced, CA 95340.

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