A Guide to Ethical Ink
Words by Maddie Lakos
Photos by Matty Hannon, Sam Biddle, Paul Stillen and Mathew Bate
Tattoos are about identity. If you live your life consciously, why not acquire your tattoos in the same way?
Identity and ink
Tattoos are a means of wearing your identity on your skin and have been since the dawn of tattooing itself.
“Tattoos can join you to a group and/or define your individuality,” says Emily Poelina-Hunter a Nyikina woman from Western Australia who is currently completing a PhD in tattoo archaeology (and who has researched tattoos occurring as early as 3000–2000 BCE).
“In prehistoric and ancient tattooing traditions, motifs would be prescribed for different purposes, and these could be medicinal, for beautification, protection from evil, convey spiritual beliefs, or social status.”
Tattooing has rich cultural history that, although blurred by globalisation, still inspires a lot of artwork today. Emily says this can make it challenging to know when you have crossed a line with a motif or symbol.
“I think the greatest danger [today] is when people don’t spend time researching the tattoo they want to get [and] do it on a whim and chose some flash off the wall of a late-night tattoo studio – that tattoo still commemorates a specific time and event in the person’s life, though!”
Examples include Chinese characters and geometric linear patterns, invented and banded around people’s arms to look ‘tribal’ but which have no genealogical significance to the bearer.
“While there are some abstract motifs that are found in tattooing cultures around the globe, aspects such as style and where tattoos are placed on the body has made some types of tattoos very culturally specific and deeply imbedded into specific cultural identities,” says Emily.
While some of the onus is on the person being tattooed, artists can act as the gatekeepers of tattoos. Emily says that she applauds tattooists who know their profession’s long history and the cultural significance of certain motifs, and who aren’t afraid to say no.
Tattoos as art and as culture
Beneath its often grungy, punk-rock facade, tattooing is about art and artists as well as the proliferation of culture.
Matty Hannon is an Australian artist and filmmaker with a background in humanitarian and conservation work. He also gives tattoos using the traditional ‘hand tapping’ method, which he learned while living closely with Indonesia’s Mentawai people.
“I got a position with an NGO over there working in conservation,” Matty says. “I started with a six-month contract and I ended up staying for about five years.”
Matty has both received and given traditional Mentawai tattoos, the most striking of which spans his chest and arms.
“That particular tattoo is called a durukat that represents a bow and arrow, which is a very central tool to their livelihoods.”
Although he doesn’t belong genealogically to the Mentawai culture, his tattoos and knowledge of traditional Mentawai tattooing are a means of sharing that culture with the rest of the world. Especially when the traditional Mentawai tattoo culture is being lost in the face of globalisation.
Matty believes that it is the culmination of motif, method and tattooer that makes a tattoo powerful, and that this is the line between cultural appropriation and the sharing of tattoos as an art form.
“For some people it might be about the aesthetic that you are going for. I can really appreciate that, but for me, if I am giving tattoos or if I’m going to get a tattoo, it’s more about who’s doing it, what the tattoo actually means and the process behind it all,” says Matty.
“Especially being a white man and being aware of all the privilege that comes along with it … I’m conscious of cultural appropriation, but I feel like it’s very easy to virtue signal over it as well. At the end of the day, we’re just making tattoos – but I wouldn’t give a traditional design to someone who has no connection to Mentawai culture, I’d design something that is appropriate to their own experience and culture.”
Pigments created for Russian criminal tattoos were made by burning the bottoms of boots to create a fine soot, which was mixed with urine.
At the other end of the cultural spectrum is perhaps one of the most stigmatised tattoo placements in the western world: the lower back, or ‘tramp stamp’.
Artist and stick-and-poke tattooer Abbey Rich is giving the tramp stamp an artistic, feminist revival by creating a film about it in which she tattoos men – completely nude and unidentified – with a butterfly tramp stamp.
“When you google ‘tramp stamp’ it refers only to women and talks about a lot of weird, sexually related things,” Abbey says. “The idea of this project was to show vulnerability in a masculine world and subvert those power dynamics.”
The concept was borne out of Abbey’s frustration with the male dominated tattooing industry and how uncomfortable she felt tattooing men she didn’t know.
Matters Journal co-editor Mathew Bate was the first participant in the project and said that he did, indeed, feel vulnerable.
“It's really different to have been permanently marked for someone else's art project,” Mat says. “I don't feel like the tattoo is mine, but my body was given up as a canvas because I believe in Abbey as an artist and her project.”
“My father’s initial response to the tattoo (he was startled) was that I looked like ‘one of those skanks’ – he didn't realise it but the statement he made reinforced why the tattoo was there.”
What’s going under your skin?
If you care what’s in your food or your personal products, you might be wondering what’s in tattoo inks. With conscious consumption habits like veganism on the rise, many artists are switching to ethical inks.
One studio taking eco-conscious and informed tattooing to new heights is Fox and Moon Tattoo in Rothwell, Queensland, run by Chris James and tattoo artist Stacey Night.
“We’re vegan ourselves, so it made sense for our business to be vegan and as eco-conscious as possible,” Chris says. “We set out to make sure all of the products and supplies as well as everything we do and use during the tattooing process fit with those values.”
This includes using products that contain no animal ingredients and are not tested on animals, as well as sourcing more sustainable plastics for disposables. And there are signs that industry demand for such products is increasing – Greenhouse, for example, is a UK-based tattoo supplier selling exclusively eco-conscious disposables.
So, what exactly is tattoo ink? According to the Australian Government’s National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), tattoo inks usually include multiple ingredients, some less safe than others, including resins, preservatives, arsenic, lead and carcinogenic chemicals. Although the NICNAS states in their Tattoo Inks FAQs, ‘It is not clear at this stage whether the amount of these chemicals present in tattoo inks is enough to harm the health of someone tattooed with them,’ there is no regulation requiring tattooers to let clients know what’s in their tattoo inks.
Basically: you get tattooed at your own risk – which is pretty much how it has always been.
Melbourne-based tattoo artist Paul Stillen has studied the history and culture of his craft at length. He says pigments created for Russian criminal tattoos were made by burning the bottoms of boots to create a fine soot, which was mixed with urine. Sumi ink sticks used in traditional Japanese tattooing are produced by burning oils or woods and mixing them with horse glue.
Modern inks may be better regulated and likely safer, but the art of tattooing has lost its terroir.
“I think these inks impart more of the culture within the tattoo,” Paul says. “It’s the ritualistic process of feeling more connected to every aspect of the tattoo, of adding power to that motif by knowing where those ingredients come from.”
Paul has experimented with different inks in order to tattoo himself and, on one occasion, his good friend, urban apiarist Nicholas Dowse of Honey Fingers.
Nicholas was tattooed with a motif created by tracing the pattern honeycomb leaves behind when it fixes on a surface, using ink made by burning tea tree oil, collecting the resulting soot and mixing it into a ‘carrier’ solution that allows it to be easily transferred into the skin. Is this the future of tattooing? Maybe.
“For my commercial practice, I have to use certain types of inks for safety reasons,” Paul says. “I do a lot of work with Australian native plants so I’m in the process of trying to make an ink using eucalyptus oil… But that’s a bit of a long process and I don’t have any plans to use this for commercial tattooing yet.”
Respecting the artist
It can be hard to put a price on art; however, when it comes to tattoos, you usually get what you pay for.
“A friend of mine who is an artist does very minimalist, abstract work such as a line,” Paul says. “People will say, ‘That’s a lot of money for a line,’ and she’ll say, ‘You’re not paying for the line; you’re paying for every line I have done before that to get to this point.’”
There are usually three options when choosing artwork for a tattoo: choose flash from the tattooer, ask for a custom artwork, or source an artwork from somewhere else (usually the internet) and then ask someone if they’re okay tattooing it – just make sure you get permission from the original artist first.
“If someone went ahead and got a tattoo without compensating me … I'm not sure I'd necessarily say anything, at that stage the damage is done, but I'd definitely feel disappointed and a bit cheated,” says visual artist Minna Leunig. “If you're prepared to wear a tattoo for the rest of your life you should be prepared to acknowledge and compensate the person who designed it for you.”
For this reason, Minna is among a number of visual artists who now offer tattoo tickets or tokens – which allow tattoo-keen fans to pay for the right to use work.
“I was getting a lot of questions via email and Instagram, people asking how to go about getting my work tattooed, how to compensate me, etc,” Minna says. “So I decided to add tattoo tokens to my online store, having been inspired by Almost Iris and Frances Cannon who do the same thing.”
“If you're prepared to wear a tattoo for the rest of your life you should be prepared to acknowledge and compensate the person who designed it for you.”