The Real Deal with Vegan Tattoos

screen-shot-2011-12-10-at-10-38-16-pmLet me start off by saying I’ve been vegan for well over a decade now and I’ll continue to be for the rest of my life. I’ve been tattooing for about seven years at this point; it’s a job I’ve worked hard to be able to have and I take it very seriously. When I was apprenticing to tattoo and I heard that tattoo ink wasn’t vegan it prompted a huge internal conflict in me. Just remember those things when I really get going and sound like the cynical prick who wants you to stop listening to Taylor Swift so loud.

So like I said, I’ve been vegan for a while, and I’ve been getting tattooed and tattooing others for a while, which makes me a weirdo. This means not only that I don’t fit in with regular people because I don’t eat what they eat, or look the way they look, but I also don’t fit in with most tattooers who, needless to say, are not vegan. So as you can see, not all of my decisions are for popularity. But in the last few years my two worlds are colliding: vegans want to get tattoos. You might think, “Hey, I like cats and I like Morrissey, so when a cat sits on Morrissey’s head, its awesome”, which is true, but it hasn’t been that simple for me.

Over the past few years, the general public has been bombarded with what the media considers to be tattoo culture. As a result of this misrepresentation, and exploitation of the industry, tattooing is more popular than ever. You can tune into your favorite “reality” show about tattooing any day, and you can wander into any department store and buy some crap with a sweet tat style panther and dagger on it. As recent as ten years ago if you wanted to be tattooed, you had to seek it out, you were a black sheep. But now tattoos are for everybody. If you’re a straight-laced suburban mom, you can get upside down script on your wrist (because “it’s for me”) and your boss at the Dress Barn won’t say a word about it. What happens now is that people who wouldn’t have sought it out are now feeling like they’re not in the club, and people who would’ve never even thought about being tattooed a decade ago are joining the party. But they don’t want the kind of tattoo you might have seen on an old sailor or a biker – they’re a special breed and they want it to be cute and small. They want it to be easily concealed so they can be part of the club only when there’s other members around.

Maybe we’re getting off topic. Most likely if you’re reading this you’re not in a middle school “current events” class. So what does this recent history lesson have to do with being vegan and tattooing? Well since tattoos are now for everybody, and we all need a little trinket to get into the club, that includes vegans. It was only a matter of time until some vegan made a fuss about it and asked some poor tattooer a thousand questions for a paper they were writing in college.

Let’s back up a bit. What’s not vegan about tattoos? Well, I’m glad you asked. Here’s a list:

– Glycerine

This is used in the mixture of tattoo ink and contributes to the workable consistency of the ink. It’s in most colored ink, but the good news is vegetable glycerine works exactly the same. These days most major brands of ink use vegetable glycerine, so there’s nothing to worry about there for the vegan police.

– Ointment

A lot of ointments and jellys that might be used in the tattooing process or the aftercare contain lanolin. If you look around you can find substitutes for most of these products.

– Black ink

No, I’m not talking about the hit VH1 tv show about ODB’s slack-jawed illegitimate children. I’m talking about black tattoo ink, which despite the opinion of a lot of hippie vegans and teenage girls, is ESSENTIAL to tattooing. Talens, which is pretty much the industry standard for black, contains shellac. Shellac is an insect byproduct that comes from a secretion from a certain type of beetle. I’ve heard rumors that shellac is harvested beetle-and-all, and others that its gathered, almost like honey would be. It seems like a grey area for vegans, but personally, I’m not the kind of vegan who cries when a bug hits a windshield, and I’ll slap the hell out of a bug that’s annoying me. But if you’re the type that is sensitive to the insect community, it’s easy to find a black that doesn’t contain shellac. It might not be as easy to work with, especially if your artist is used to something else.

– Stencils

I recently read a blog post from Scapegoat in Portland that said some vegan detective figured out that all companies who make stencil paper use lanolin in its production. I guess this means that your tattoo isn’t vegan unless its freehand (drawn on), so for the most part, the jig is up. It’ll be even worse when some vegan super-nerd tries to solve the mystery of what kind of ink is in the pen you’re drawing with, or if a worm was pissed off when they were mining for the metal in your tattoo machine.

This is where people who take things way too extreme step in to ruin everything. To be honest, I only learned that black ink not being vegan was an issue a couple of years ago. When I started tattooing I knew about glycerine because it was listed on the ingredients of the ink. Talens didn’t have that label, so it took some vegan sleuth to call up the company and blow the lid off the whole operation. The scandal was called “Ink-Gate-09” in the tabloids. Ok not really, but for the second time in my career I was faced with a vegan complication.

Like I mentioned before, I’ve been vegan for a long time, and like anything when you are young, or new to something you’re more extreme about it. You can be more pushy, and to the outside world more annoying. I truly believe that this is what gives vegans a bad reputation. We aren’t trying to do a bad thing, but odds are most people have come across a new vegan, or maybe someone who couldn’t even hack it as a vegan for very long, preaching about their superior lifestyle. I’ve learned to live in a non-vegan world, with a rational amount of compromise. If you want to be a real pain-in-the-ass vegan extremist you can’t do everyday things like ride in a car (or maybe even your bike has tires made with animal fats). So if you want to be the kind of person to call the company and pry out some minor details, you might want to also look up a YouTube tutorial so you can just do the tattoo yourself.

After reading this, maybe you can understand how sometimes the kind of customer who seeks out a vegan tattoo has some control issues or is high maintenance in some other way. It’s gotten into a few people’s heads that even in tattooing the word “vegan” means healthy. Really it’s not natural for us to be drilling ink into our skin, so vegan tattooing is just as healthy or unhealthy as non vegan. There is nothing that suggests there’s any different carcinogens or chemicals in vegan ink. But in this day in age, when everyone under the sun is tattooed, even people who don’t particularly like tattoos are getting tattooed. In 2013, you can walk into a tattoo shop, ask a million questions about a vegan tattoo, and a biker isn’t going to chase you out with a baseball bat.

The reason I decided to write this is because I’ve answered the same questions so many times, and I wanted this to be the last time. Whenever I would do an interview for some vegan blog I would end up with a few inquiries about tiny lettering tattoos, maybe with paw prints or flowers. The further I get into my career and my personal style develops, the more I want people to come to me based on my tattoos alone. In my opinion, vegans are seen as weird wussy hippies all too often, and sometimes, they are. For this reason I think it’s important for vegans, like anyone else, to get real tattoos, instead of some sissy flowers outlined in green.

If you’re still not sold on just going to an artist you like and getting something based on their ability alone, take this under advisement. If a tattooer, or shop has to advertise up and down that they’re vegan, they’re probably using it as a gimmick to draw in customers. I’m sure that some of these artists and establishments have the best of intentions. Personally, though I’d be on high alert that maybe they have to rely on that gimmick because they can’t tattoo any better than the cast of TLC’s “Tattoo School”.

So at this point you’re reading this and thinking “what an asshole”. And I’m truly sorry if I’ve offended any Taylor Swift fans. But in a strange way all of these ramblings come from a place of love. I love being vegan, and I love tattooing. This has been my attempt to put a cap on the amount we allow people to ruin both of these things for us. So next time you’re thinking about getting tattooed, just get a real tattoo, from a real tattooer who’s work you like. Tattooers have worked for hundreds of years to cultivate art that is perfect for the human body, so if you don’t like tattoo designs, there is no shame in not being tattooed.

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14 Responses to The Real Deal with Vegan Tattoos

  1. Right on Brad. You know we’re on the same page from when we both ranted about this last time I was down, but thanks for writing it and for putting it so well. You really hit the nail on the head and brought up so many good points. All vegans should read this before they get tattooed.

    -Dan Bythewood
    Tattooer and vegan of 13+ years, and yes I sometimes kill insects, especially jerk ones like ticks and mosquitos. (I got lyme once, so I burn ticks. It’s personal.)

  2. Jc says:

    Nice post. So you use talens ink? I was hoping to have waverly ink (vegan) used on my tattoo, but the artist uses talens. Considering options…

  3. But is it true that there are no vegan/vegetarian brands of stencil paper? I already have one tattoo. Scheduled to get another one in a couple weeks and have plans for many more. I just want to be informed. Thanks for the post. The woman doing my next tattoo and I hope all my future tattoos is an amazing artist. She was so cool about me being vegan and using all vegan stuff from a – z. I had tried other places and was treated like a POS.

  4. says:

    hey dude heads up looks like there is a company called thermo fax that sells printable vegan stencils and I have seen another tattoo artist in oz who makes the free hand kind vegan also!

    enjoyed the rant,
    dont feel bad I felt conflicted the day i was confronted with the choice of being vegan too!

    sincerly pep!

  5. Denise says:

    So I still would like to know where there is a “vegan” tattoo place in NJ. that is as close to Vegan as we can get???

  6. Danny says:

    Thank you for writing this, I am Vegan for four years now, It´s not too much time in comparison, but I Plan to remain this way for life. I was a little worried about the black ink since reading a lot of posts from other vegans about crushed bones in the ink, etc.

    So I plan to get my first tattoo this September since the appointment is already made, with an artist I really really like, and I asked him about the inks he usually uses and was this close to become a pain in the ass like you said, I also hate mosquitos and don´t think about them getting a second chance since I can´t stand bites! I got some kind of allergy to bites since I got bitten all over my legs by a spider on vacation, my two legs become totally red and swollen.

    You are right, be sometimes become obsessed and exaggerate a little. Not good. So since reading this I am looking forward for my tattoo.

    Thank you. Greetings from Mexico.

    Danny Cepeda.

  7. shedevi1 says:

    I’m a little late to the party here, but just want to thank you for this post. I have been doing some research, trying to find just the right image to inspire my next tatoo, when I saw some asshole comments on another site about how ironic, annoying vegans were having dead animal injected into their flesh. Great, one more thing to worry about, I thought. Bad enough I can’t make up my mine what I want next, now I have to try to find a vegan tattoo shop in Savannah, too?

  8. Renee says:

    Awesome article. Thanks.

  9. sherele bosman says:

    This article kicks arse. I have been a vegan for years and I always have someone harassing me about tattoo ink not being vegan-since I have quite a few visible tattoos. But I can honestly say that bugs aren’t my primary concern. This article explains exactly how I feel about some people’s idea of being vegan and living this lifestyle like they’re gods.

  10. dannyg59 says:

    mmmm I am vegan and I am going for a consultation soon. This has given me a lot of good points to think about however I’m not so into the sort of “macho” shit you put across and I think it could be a little harmful. Anyway, thanks for the blog post, it was a good read

  11. Thank you for explaining this so clearly. Can I paraphrase and credit you in my next post? I will put a link to your blog. I am writing about Tattoo Obscura and “what is a vegan tattoo” gets asked a lot – you nailed it down perfectly!

  12. Pingback: Tattoo Obscura – Eyeballs, Ashes, Glow Sticks and Vegans | The Tattoo Tourist

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