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Zion Greene-Bull is offering Black people free tattoos for Black History Month. We explore where the idea came from—and more.
What do you do?
So I'm a tattoo artist, and a graphic illustrator. I do illustrative tattooing, which is kind of my thing. A lot of my artwork is centered around my blackness and queerness. I belong to, and also cater to, those communities.
[For Black History Month] I raised a bunch of money so I could tattoo for free. All February, I'm fully booked up with Black folks so that they can get free tattoos. No charge, no deposit, nothing. They come in, they get a tattoo, and they walk away.
Where did the idea come from?
I was telling a friend last summer that I hate charging for what I do. It's so personal, then at the end I have to say, “OK, this is how much you owe me.” I have to charge money to live, of course, but I was just like, I hate this.
So I said to my friend, “Wouldn't it be so awesome if I could tattoo other Black people for free?” And my friend was just like, you could probably do that. Like, you should do that. And so I thought about it. And I was like, I bet you I could do this for Black History Month.
I put the idea out there on Instagram and it blew up. And I had so many people reaching out to me to be like, “How do I donate to this? What do I need to do to help you?” I put together a campaign and a plan, and raised all the money I needed for it.
My practice generally is to serve the community, but with this project I wanted to do something as anti-capitalist as possible—and still, you know, be able to survive.
How'd you get your start in the industry?
I was always into art, but originally I was doing watercolour painting and line drawing. I was also really into getting tattoos. So I go get a tattoo. But there’s ignorance in the industry about people who are more melanated. And I’ve had a number of bad experiences where I’d get a comment about my skin tone, that I might not want to get this colour because of my skin tone. There's also this myth that Black skin is thicker, which is not true.
So I was like, it would be really cool—and necessary, especially on the West Coast—if there were more Black tattoo artists for people to go to.We really only have a handful here, where we have a one per cent Black population. I also wanted to emulate the tattoo experience that I wanted to get. So I really felt a calling to do this.
Why did you feel like this was important?
Tattooing originated in Indigenous and African cultures, right? And it became appropriated. The opportunity of it was taken away for many of us, because of the monopoly on that trade. And you can't go to school for tattooing. It's something that is really just passed on from person to person. So when you have that, plus job inequities and racism and homophobia and transphobia, and all these things that prevent people from certain backgrounds and identities from being able to learn these skills. Then, we can’t get the treatment we deserve or the tattoos that we want.
Because our people originated with these practices, I think it's important that we’re able to access them, and practice them in a safe space. You’re altering the body. A lot of people have shared with me their experiences of being treated like a product, or like a canvas, and not like a human being.
You're talking about racism, homophobia and transphobia. At the same time, your work has a sense of humour. How do you find space for humour in the face of all that?
I see my joy as resistance. And I think that really changed the game for me, like going through June 2020 [after George Floyd] and all the Black grief that came from that. And even this past year—2022 was a really rough year. And seeing everything happening in the States with all the laws targeting people like us. A lot of people don't want us to be happy.
And I do want to be happy. So I think that's a big part of it—joy as resistance. I'm so proud of and happy with my identity, I wouldn't change it for the world.