Decolonising The Tattoo Industry with @JamPokes

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After studying History of Art and English at Leeds University, Jemima Edwards started experimenting with hand-poking (a more DIY approach to the traditional tattoo gun) on herself and her housemates. However, it was lockdown that gave Jemima the push to start pursuing tattooing more seriously. “I think I just came across someone’s Instagram who was a handpoke artist; I didn’t realise it was a thing that people actually did”, she says. “I must’ve just looked on Youtube and watched some videos, did some research. Then I bought some needles and some tattoo ink and just went from there really. It was quite organic I think… I had a lot of time so I started doing my own thing”. 

Jemima’s style is shaped by her art history background; her illustrations reference medieval woodcuts and gothic type. However, she builds on these foundations to create something new, from line drawings of afro picks to pieces written in Yorkshire dialect. “It is in itself a very white style; you see all these old manuscripts and they’re all white people”, she says. “I’m trying to figure out a weird little balance between doing that, because that’s the kind of art I’m interested in, and being able to reflect my own identity in my practice”.

Image: Jemima Edwards

However, it’s not just Jemima’s style that sets her apart from other tattoo artists, it’s also her approach. Jemima is committed to providing a service for her Black and brown peers amidst an industry that, despite its origins, she feels excluded from. Her Instagram bio articulates her dedication to working with “all bodies, genders and skin tones” and her profile reinforces this: it is a display of beautiful line work on pigmented as well as white skin. Jemima also offers a sliding scale, an anti-capitalist mechanism which offers reduced prices for clients from marginalised backgrounds. “It’s about feeling safe when you’re getting a tattoo done. I’ve had so many where the artist has just commented on my skin tone and said, you know, whatever weird things that make you feel like you’re not the norm for them. They really make you feel like a weird kind of experiment, I’ve felt like that a few times” Jemima explains. “I think it’s just really necessary [to provide a more inclusive service]. The thing about getting tattoos, you put a lot of trust in that person that’s altering your body for the rest of your life, basically.”

Whilst there is a wave of POC- and QTIPOC-led studios opening up in America, Jemima is bringing that spirit to this side of the Atlantic. “I wanted to contribute to that kind of thing for people who look like me, and for people with darker skin tones too, to make sure they know that tattooing is for them as well.”

The effect is tangible, according to Jemima’s clients: “A few I’ve had who are brown or Black have always just commented on it, like ‘it is a really nice, different experience to be tattooed by someone who knows how to work with my skin type’, and stuff like that.” 

Image: Jemima Edwards

When I ask about racism in the industry, Jemima has a lot to say, from the lack of non-white people on tattooists’ portfolios to her own experiences being tattooed by white artists: “Most places aren’t gonna be overtly racist; like with anything, it’s just kind of subtleties. I get it, it is new for them, but I think they need to think about why it’s new for them and why they might not be getting any clients who have darker skin.” “Their feeds don’t reflect these people and they need to think about that.” Jemima also reflects on the more aggressively racist side of the industry, with many tattoo artists and their clients flirting with Nazi and fascist imagery in their work. 

Though Jemima has an open mind when it comes to design, she knows her boundaries. “I think it’s really within your right as an artist to say no to something that’s not in your comfort zone, or something that you don’t agree with. To be honest, I think most tattooers will do that but people just have different standards for what they will personally do or won’t do.”

One thing Jemima is sceptical of is cultural appropriation. When I ask about how she feels about tattooing in a client’s non-native tongue or style, she gives a considered answer. “It’s a hard one when there’s certain styles that people want, like tribal styles or kanji text. There’s some white artists who only work in that style, thinking it’s theirs; it’s just a bit… I don’t really get it. I get that you need to earn money and stuff but I think, if you’re gonna do something, it needs to come from something you’re familiar with personally. Like, I wouldn’t ask a white artist to write something in Jamaican patois on me or something, it would just be really weird”. “Yeah, I won’t do anything I’m not happy with. It’s really hard for me to say no to things but anything that involves any kind of appropriation or anything I might suspect, it’s off limits.”

Jemima’s work and the perspective behind it marks her as an exciting figure in the Leeds community. You can follow her and ask questions about DIY tattoo work via her Instagram @jampokes

Header image: Jemima Edwards