Cincinnati Tattoo Artist Proves Racial Issues Are More Than Skin Deep
By Darin Burt
Jamison Walker loves lettering and was using his talents to create a window mural outside Black Fern Tattoo memorializing the names of fellow African-Americans across the country killed in confrontations with police. It was Walker’s way to support those in his Cincinnati community — and throughout the country, affected by systemic racism and police brutality. Little was he aware that he was about to be caught up in the issue.
A peaceful protest had earlier taken place a few blocks away at the Hamilton County Courthouse. Officers had closed off the street, and protesters were making their way home ahead of the city’s nightly curfew. Walker was almost finished with his project when he was confronted by police about what he was doing. Walker tried to explain that he worked at the shop and had the permission of other officers to be out on the sidewalk past curfew. But this new group of officers would have none of it.
“They just wouldn’t listen. They were already enraged and I guess they took my explanation as a sign of disrespect,” Walker says.
In a video of the May 31 incident, officers can be heard telling Walker’s coworkers to go inside. Walker started to follow, when he said another officer blocked his path.
“When I did turn around, they pushed me up against the glass and then pulled out the taser,” Walker told WCPO news.
“It happened so fast — they were twisting my arms and zip-tied my hands,” Walker continued. “I’m not one to fear people, but in that moment, I was so fearful because I knew I couldn’t fight back.”
Walker, 27, was charged with misconduct at an emergency for breaking curfew and spent the night in the Hamilton County Justice Center. But he wasn’t alone. In all, police made more than 200 arrests.
“I heard they had already written out the arrest papers before any of the protesting even started,” Walker said. “Many of the people were just trying to return to their cars, but it didn’t seem to matter — people were getting stopped, and even pulled out of their vehicles, and arrested.”
Walker was bailed out by the owner of Black Fern and is determined to contest the charges. Ironically, before becoming a tattoo artist three years ago, Walker, who grew up in Long Beach, California, had thoughts of putting on a badge. Maybe now, not so much. In tattooing, he’s found a likeminded and supportive family.
“The tattoo community, at least in our city, is completely accepting of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Walker said. “Anyone that gets tattooed is marked in society, so I think they have an understanding of what it feels like to be perceived negatively.”
That’s not to say Walker hasn’t felt prejudice inside the tattoo studio. He recalls once where a customer looked at portfolios without knowing who the artists were. When she saw he was black, she requested that another artist do the tattoo from his book. Then there’s just the opposite. After hearing of Walker’s arrest, a white man came in to apologize for how he’d been treated and to let him know that everything that was happening had opened his eyes about racism. Soon the man, whose negative beliefs were ingrained by his own upbringing, will be expressing his newly found solidarity with a half-sleeve designed and tattooed by Walker depicting pivotal moments in the civil rights movement.
Walker has also witnessed discrimination against black people who want to get tattooed, but are turned away by artists who don’t think dark skin is a suitable canvas. “As artists, we’ve hindered ourselves by thinking that color tattoos especially aren’t going to look good. What we need to do is mold the design to work on darker skin. If I do a portrait, my contrast is higher and I treat the skin as the lightest tone, and work from there,” Walker pointed out, adding that Eternal Maxx Black and Empire’s graywash series are two of his favorites for inking people of color.
Oftentimes, art can speak louder than words, and Walker makes a conscience effort to promote the work of other black tattooists. “They don’t get the recognition that they should,” he said. “It took me meeting another black artist who I respected to learn about other black artists, like Miya Bailey and Boneface, who are really amazing. Black artists are really starting to break through in the tattoo industry.”
Walker also encourages artists to avoid tattooing symbols, such as the swastika, iron cross and Confederate flag, which can be viewed as hateful and oppressive. “Simply as a human, I don’t want to glorify anything negative,” he said. “I wouldn’t want a person to have to carry that symbol because you never know if they might have a life experience that would change their perception.”
“I feel like we’re on the right path,” Walker said. “All of these issues have blown away the smoke and left a clear picture for everybody to see that we have an unjust system and that systematic racism has affected people of color.”