I’m A Black AF Tattoo Artist Who Has To Make Art To Survive

I choose to live as if no one is coming to save me, and in the meantime, I'd fight to the death for what I want.

As Told To

As Told To is a recurring segment on xoNecole where real women are given a platform to tell their stories in first-person narrative as told to a writer. If you have a story you'd like to share but aren't sure about how to put it into words, contact us at submissions@xonecole.com with the subject "As Told To" for your story to be featured.

This is Ashley's story, as told to Charmin Michelle.

I have to make art to survive.

No, I'm serious.

I attended Morgan State University in Baltimore and got my Bachelor's Degree in Painting. Once I graduated, I began looking for ways to simultaneously make art and money. After lots of self-reflection, I decided that I wanted to be the black Kat Von D, so I googled which cities had the largest tattoo industries. Ultimately, I decided to move to California.

Once my job transferred me to another location, I found a same-sex couple on Craigslist to live with, shipped my car, and made the move to San Diego. And because I had never been there before—and I knew no one there—I went door-to-door offering my services. Well, one lucky day, I stumbled upon a tattoo shop that loved my portfolio enough to allow me to be an apprentice for free.

And from here, my life changed.

Courtesy of Ashley Paige

Upon entering the industry, I immediately noticed the stigmas and challenges that women who look like me, often face—and I'm even asked about it all the time. I mean, as a woman of color, you generally know what challenges you'll have in any situation, but now I witnessed an industry where I knew I would have to learn to play the game and speak the language above standard.

Be twice as good to get half.

I see visual representations of stereotypes on a daily basis. I see it in surprised looks. I see it in pitch changes when customers ask questions. Like, the ridiculous notion that black women can't tattoo as well as men, or at all for that matter. Ugh. I've been in many rooms and have attended many conventions, where out of thousands of artists, I was the only black woman tattooing.

Anytime someone finds out my assistant, a man, isn't the artist behind the work they're admiring, a moment of shock always follows. But I love those moments. I live in those moments.

There's a major lack of products catering specifically to our skin tones as well. And as old as the tattoo industry is, I'm always amazed there isn't color ink designed specifically for people of color yet.

The good news is there has been some progress. In the 90's, it seemed that all of the tattoos on darker skin were difficult to see (or as we call, prison tattoos) and very rarely did they have color. The options for people of color are almost endless now. We have come a long way and more than ever, there are black people walking around rocking really phenomenal work. Additionally, I've met many really dope black women who tattoo. So, it's extremely reaffirming to know we're evolving. It's a beautiful time to be alive.

When my apprenticeship was over, and I began building clientele, the tricks and trades became a little more manageable. It was less of a culture shock, I'm assuming because I knew what I was up against. I quickly caught on to the fact that it takes more than an apprenticeship to excel in this industry. If you don't hunt, you won't eat. So, I was certainly toughened and I grew out of being as trusting and naive. I choose to live as if no one is coming to save me, and in the meantime, I'd fight to the death for what I want.

In the end, would I trade tattooing for anything? Absolutely not.

My profession has afforded me a multitude of amazing stories from thousands of people across the country. One of my favorite people to ever tattoo was a guy named Eli. He passed away just over a month ago but he frequented an old shop I used to work for and every time I saw him, he would tell me how big he thinks I'm gonna be. Some of my favorite conversations came from him. I've also inked a vast range of tattoos: from something as simple as names (those are usually the biggest regrets from customers), all the way to complicated and intricate full back pieces. I even once tattooed a "Lovingly Owned By:" tramp stamp on an elderly lady.

There's no limit to what you can be asked to create. You never know what people are passionate about or what their interests are so I try not to predict what clients will or won't eventually regret—and I don't know most of them personally to even guess. I give them what they ask for, I make it look great so even if they hate the fact that they got it later, they will still love the quality of the tattoo itself.

Courtesy of Ashley Paige

Outside of tattooing, I'd say I'm just a driven and kind-hearted jokester who thinks way more than she says. I love herbs and essential oils—both being quick mood elevators to offset a hectic day. I love the gym and pushing my body to its limits. I love realism and portraiture (I love the details, they make the larger piece look even more magnificent).

So, what's next for me? Everything.

I am and would like to be a part of the evolution of the tattoo industry by providing boss ass, true and permanent works of art on people who look like me. I want to be a household name for my work, graciousness, work ethic, innovation, and growth within the tattoo industry. I want my work to help change what the culture, and everyone else, expects a high-caliber artist to look like.

And I want everyone to know she has brown skin. And that she looks like me.

You can book Ashley for your next tattoo by clicking here to secure your spot. You can also keep up with her latest work through Instagram @artizmylov.

Featured image courtesy of Ashley Paige.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

Featured image by Shutterstock

This article is in partnership with Staples.

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