While walking to my car after a delicious vegan meal at Flore cafe last week, I spy'd (I could have said noticed but spy'd sounds much more fun and fancy. Deal with it. ) an advertisement in front of the restaurant for vegan tattoos. Yes. Vegan tattoos. Being not just a vegan but also a tattoo lover myself, my interest was obviously piqued. You see, for some reason it never occurred to me that my tattoos weren't vegan. And yet, it made so much sense. How could the rest of my life be vegan and yet, when I went to go get freshly inked, not even consider the possibilities? I had so many questions. The only thing to do was go straight to said vegan tattoo artist aka James Spooner, and ask away. Much to my excitement, a quick google search confirmed that he's a pretty cool dude. Not only a vegan tattoo artist, Mr. Spooner is also an acclaimed documentary filmmaker and founder of a popular bike riding movement here in Los Angeles that has helped get more people on bikes. Considering the fact that this is a website geared toward both green initiatives and vegetarianism, I think he might just be our new best friend. Nice!
I read you've been a vegan yourself for 20 years. What inspired you to make this dietary change?
JS: I was 16, living in NYC. I had a couple of veggie and vegan friends from the punk scene but the year before I was making fun of them for their choices. Then I started getting political. I was being challenged by my favorite bands, Struggle, Downcast, Drop Dead, Frail, and the like to think about feminism, privilege, recreational drug use and animal rights. I remember hearing a 16 second song by Drop Dead blurting out some stat about how many animals are tortured for one experiment or the other. At some point it all just clicked for me. I didn't feel I could be a feminist or support the liberation of gays or even my own black people if I didn't also include animal welfare in my personal agenda. So literally, one day I ate a plate of baby back ribs and the next I became vegan. No baby steps, no lacto-ovo, it was all or nothing for me. I was 16, isn't that how we all think? Been Vegan with no intentional slips ups since.
How did you get into tattooing?
JS: I was a filmmaker, doing my thing for a good 5 to 7 years. Sometime in that last year I realized I didn't love it anymore. I hadn't loved it in a while. I'm a punk rocker. I've believed ever since I was a kid we were put on this planet to enjoy ourselves. So with a little bit of foot dragging, I stopped taking jobs, stopped referring to myself as a filmmaker and started twiddling my thumbs trying to figure out what to do next.
I had a baby on the way and was really into building fixies, so I figured I would live on unemployment, make bikes for a little extra cash and take care of my newborn for a while. One of the guys I met at the bike co-op recognized me from my film life and we ultimately became friends. It turned out he was a tattooer and because he knew I had follow through and wasn't a bullshitter, he gave me the push I needed to get my toe in the water. He didn't have the resources to follow through with a complete apprenticeship but he watched me do my first few tattoos and guided me here and there as I stumbled though the first few months.
Mostly I just kept at it, drew every day, did a lot of research and eventually found a group of people who could teach me the right way. It wasn't easy in any regard. Tattooing is an industry that doesn't want you. But I fought to be included and have finally found a home.
When did you decide to make your tattooing coincide with the rest of your lifestyle? Obviously, it seems like a natural convergence, but what was the impetus, if you remember an exact moment, for making your work vegan as well?
JS: I actually do. I met a woman who was planning to fly to Portland to get tattooed at the vegan shop up there. I thought to myself, that's crazy. I need to get some vegan ink. Then I did some research and found out that lucky me, all but one of my bottles already was vegan. I just lucked out and bought the right ones. So once I found that out, I figured I'd just go all the way. All or nothing right?
I think a lot of people don't even know that tattoos can be vegan or aren't already. What makes your tattoos vegan?
JS: I use inks made with vegetable glycerine as opposed to the animal based variety. Most of the popular brands use veggie stuff so there isn't a lot of compromise in quality there. The main thing with ink is blacks. A lot of companies use Shellac in there ink, which is some kind of bug excrement. I'm not sure which orifice it comes out of, but either way I cool without it. Some crazy companies still use bone char in their black so that is also something to look out for.
The other things to think about are all the ointments, soaps, and aftercare used. I've read that the industry standard green soap uses an animal based glycerine. I use Dr. Bronners, which is making waves in the industry, I hear they are even showing up to tattoo conventions now. I also am phasing out all petroleum products, which contain all kinds of lanolin and junk like that. I'm currently trying a few different products to see which I like best, but I've got a couple of options I am digging right now. There is also stuff like the gelatin strip on the razor or the stencil paper. When you're trying to make it vegan you might as well think of everything right? As for aftercare, right now I'm suggesting Merry Hempsters or Black Cat Salve, both of which contain no animal products. There is a lot of stuff to think about, but once you've thought of it, it's no big deal. Kind of like going vegan in the first place.
Would you say that vegan tattoos eliminate some of these health risks? If so, what are some of the health benefits of choosing a vegan tattoo over a regular tattoo? A lot of people have been commenting recently on the dangers of tattoos. We even posted an article on this website last week about some possible health concerns. What are your thoughts on this?
JS: There is no regulation on ink, so you kind of have to take the manufacturers word on it. BUT regardless of what's in the ink, people have been getting tattooed for thousands of years and most people live to tell the tale.
Is there a difference in appearance with regular tattoos vs. vegan tattoos? Is a vegan tattoo more likely to fade?
JS: There is no difference. A lot of the best tattooers in the world use vegan ink already and don't even know it or care. As I mentioned before, with the exception of the color black, a great deal of reputable companies are already doing it veggie style. Its all the other stuff that goes into the procedure that really makes it vegan or not.
Faded tattoos usually occur because of age, poor aftercare, a crappy tattooer, or some mixture of the 3.
Truth be told, the industry is steadily moving away from suggesting petroleum based aftercare because it clogs pores, slows healing, and has been known to draw ink out. We are recognizing, as usual, that plant based products are better for us. Though I am the only vegan tattooer at my shop, the whole staff is getting behind carrying vegan aftercare products for just this reason.
One of the deterrents for people when choosing a healthier lifestyle, such as veganism, is the worry that these foods are more costly. Often this does not have to be the case. As far as tattooing is concerned, is a vegan tattoo more expensive than a traditional tattoo?
JS: I don't charge any more than the industry standard for my procedure. It does cost me a little more to do it veggie because Vaseline costs a dollar for a tub and the stuff I use costs about 10 bucks for the same stuff, but that tub will last me a few months so I don't mind spending the extra 9 dollars. However, because our shop is pretty much all custom and most of our clients get multi-session pieces we typically charge below the industry standard. I charge $125 an hour and cut deals for really big work. So you could say in my case that a vegan tattoo is less expensive then a non vegan one.
Aside from being a tattoo artist, you're an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Can you tell us a little bit more about that passion?
JS: I made a documentary called Afro-Punk. It kick started a black alternative movement, which is largest in NYC but has pockets around the country and, as its been told to me, a lot of young black people feel a lot more comfortable with their lifestyle choices because of it. It worked for me.
Can you tell us a bit more about your other passion Black Kids on Bikes? How did this come about? How would one go about joining one of the rides?
JS: Black kids on bikes came in between filmmaking and tattooing. I was going on those organized bike rides like Crank Mob and such and while it was great fun to ride with so many kids I couldn't help but notice that there were a disproportionate amount of black people on these rides. Yes there were a few, but when you're rolling with 700 people there should be more than a few . So I decided to organize a ride for black kids, like myself. Other people are welcome of course, but I was focused on getting black riders together and maybe even more so getting more black people on bikes. So there you have it. I made some flyers and some spoke cards and by the second ride there were 30 plus black faces rolling deep, then 50. It fluctuates in size - some months its more some times its less - but it's always a great time. I don't organize the rides as much as I would like to anymore but it's self sustaining so I would say it's a success. We meet the last Sunday of every month at noon. You have to join the Facebook page to find out where the start point is because that changes every month. And as you might expect from slacker black punk rockers we usually don't get the info out until a couple of days before. But you can count on it happening. The Facebook url is http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=6188689663
Between being a vegan tattoo artist, the creator of a movement with Afro-Punk, and the founder of Black Kids on Bikes, how does it feel to be so damn awesome? :)
JS: Haha. Don't forget being a dad. Sounds cheesy but creating an awesome kid is pretty friggin rad too (and yes she is veggie too). Seriously though, I owe everything to the DIY punk rock spirit. It's that youth movement that taught me if you want something you just have to do it. No excuses. But thanks for the compliment and the chance to share.
If people want to get a vegan tattoo, how can they contact you?
JS: I'm at TIMELESS TATTOO in Hollywood. 738 N. Vine St. (off Melrose). (323) 461-1233 I'm there Mon- Wed and Sat OR just email me Spoonertattoos@gmail.com and hey I have a Facebook too facebook.com/JamesSpooner. Holler!
Sounds like a vegan and cruelty free tattoo is definitely the way to go! Can't wait to get one myself. See you all at Timeless Tattoo!