Body art is a unique outlet for self-expression — from tribal suns and Chinese lettering to sentimental portraits of loved ones, tattoos can hold significant memories, reminders and passions. Tattoos can even reflect your vegan lifestyle. Accomplished filmmaker and tattoo artist James Spooner currently does a completely vegan procedure at Timeless Tattoo in California. Spooner sat down with Vegan Mainstream to explain cruelty-free tattooing and how he is making a positive difference in the industry.
Vegan Mainstream: You have been vegan for almost 20 years now…what prompted you to make this lifestyle change?
James Spooner: When I was 15, I was heavily into the punk scene, and there were a lot of vegan bands at the time…the scenes that I was in were somewhere straddling the higher anarcho, crusty punk and the straight-edge punk. Both were very heavily into animal rights, so I basically got into it [because of] political pressure from my favorite bands. After reading…Animal Liberation [by Peter Singer] in my sophomore year of high school…it became very clear that if I wanted to be consistent with my politics…I [would have to make] the switch — so one day I was eating meat, and the next day I was vegan.
[It wasn’t really hard for me to make the transition] because the two things that people have problems with – chocolate and cheese — I never liked. I also found out after becoming vegan that I was super lactose intolerant. So all of a sudden I wasn’t sick any more and wasn’t having any more digestive problems. It was a really good experience for me. Plus, there was an awesome support system, because [of all my friends] I literally had one friend who ate meat and the couple friends who were vegetarian used to get ragged on all the time, ‘You’re only vegetarian?’ So it was very easy for me at the time, and it just became my lifestyle.
Check out Spooner’s blog.
VM: You’re known for the award-winning documentary “Afro-Punk” and a scripted documentary called “White Lies Black Sheep”, but currently you have turned your focus to tattooing. Why did you decide to start vegan tattooing at Timeless Tattoo?
JS: I’ve been tattooing for a little while, and I guess at a certain point of being vegan for so long, I stopped thinking about ingredients in things, because I could just go to the store and know what to get and I’ve been getting those same things for so long I don’t really look at ingredients that often anymore. So it didn’t even occur to me that the inks might not be vegan. I was talking to this girl who was telling me how she was planning on flying to Portland to get tattoos because of a vegan tattooer and I was like, ‘What a minute…that’s crazy! We live in Los Angeles, there’s like a million tattoo artists here. You don’t have to go all the way out there.’ Then I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’m vegan…why am I not being consistent?’ So I just looked into it, and my biggest fear was that I was going to have to spend $500 on a whole new set of ink and stuff, but it turned out that the ink I had was already vegan. I just lucked out and happened to buy the kind that was vegan. From there, I went all the way with it.
Get your vegan tattoos from Spooner at Timeless Tattoo (323-461-1233) located on 738 N. Vine Street off Melrose.
VM: Can you explain what the difference is between traditional tattooing and
JS: For the person getting tattooed, it’s the same process. For the artist, it’s about choosing the right products. The ink is probably the one thing that people think of the most, but it’s actually not that tough because a great deal of the top brands are already vegan. So really it’s little things like the razors that we shave you with — they have a gelatin strip on them. The stencil paper — there are brands that are gelatin-based and others that are spirit gum-based. There’s the ointment — that one is probably the most difficult to transition away from [because it's] petroleum jelly, but I found an alternative. For the tattooer, they have to be willing to do a little homework to find alternatives that are current to industry standards…with the inks and with the green soap — a lot of them have animal-based glycerin in them.
JS: The reality is that if people’s only concern is not being tattooed with animal-based ink, then it’s probably not that difficult — they don’t have a huge concern, because like I said some of the best inks out there are already vegan. The one that is difficult is the black, and since most tattoos have black, there are a few companies like Dynamic, Waverly — those brands, their blacks are vegan. The other ones use shellac or bone char so that’s kind of the big thing…[Also,] the industry standard is to use green soap, Vaseline or A&D ointment, which aren’t vegan. [It depends on] how hardcore the person getting tattooed is about it.
VM: Are there any health benefits or reduced health risks associated with vegan tattooing?
JS: I was actually thinking about this the other day, because a common question is do vegan tattoos fade more, and the answer is absolutely not. If you have seen a tattoo that you thought was amazing, there’s a pretty good chance that it was done with vegan ink – maybe barring the black. But, what I was thinking about was the aftercare. The aftercare prescribed is usually a couple days of A&D ointment and a couple days of lotion. But the industry is slowly but steadily moving away from petroleum products because they’re known to clog pores, cause scabbing and [they can] even draw out ink…If in the aftercare, you use non-petroleum based products — there are a few out there, like Black Cat and Merry Hempsters, then you have a better chance of your tattoo healing properly, which in turn would mean brighter colors for a longer time. It’s kind of just a theory but as we all know, using plant-based products is better for your skin, so [follows that] it’s probably better for your tattoo.
But on a much more serious note, we all know from safe sex class, petroleum breaks down latex which is a serious concern for tattoo artists. We are potentially exposed to blood diseases like HIV and Hepatitis all day, so it behooves us to get away from petroleum. If we stay disease free, the client does too. It benefits us all. So yeah there are some pretty major health benefits.
VM: Do you find an outlet for vegan activism through your tattooing? Is this a way to spread the vegan message for you?
JS: It certainly could be…like anything, diet is personal and political, and I think because I’ve been vegan for so long, it’s not something I think about too often — I just am. But it does spark discussion, which in turn makes for the potential to turn someone onto something that they didn’t know about. For me it’s just about being consistent, that’s what I try to strive for in life.
VM: Are most of your clients already vegan, or do you find you are able to raise awareness about veganism with non-vegan clients too?
JS: I just switched over to vegan tattooing — it’s only been about two months now. So I just started putting fliers up and spreading the word. I’m definitely getting noticed. I don’t know if there’s anyone else in L.A. who’s doing it, so it’s making a little bit of noise. I imagine by the summer it’ll be more of a 50/50, but right now I think my clients are probably meat eaters. Everyone views it as being pretty cool. We live in California, so I think people recognize that, even if they eat meat, there are better products out there for them. At the very least, I [tell them] to think of it as a good deed for the day.
VM: Through filmmaking, tattooing and engaging in the community (Black Kids on Bikes) you have several outlets for your creativity…do you have any tips for creative vegans out there who are looking to make a difference?
JS: I have a couple of mottos that I live by. One is to always “say yes”. Every opportunity I get – even if I [think] ‘oh, that’s going be a lot of work, or I’m not sure how that’s going to turn out,’ – there are so many times that I could have said ‘no’ to something. But just because I made a promise to myself to always “say yes” awesome things have happened in my life.
[My other motto] is “honesty and modesty.” I think that being truthful and keeping it real in the most real sense [is important]…I think there are a lot of people fronting and faking the funk — what’s that saying, ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ — I don’t see that as being the way to actually get anything worthwhile done…I’m just a punk rocker, and I learned at a young age that if I want to get something done, I have to do it… Do it yourself or don’t do it at all.
VM: In your opinion, what is the most effective way to reach the mainstream population with motivating information about veganism?
JS: I found that leading by example has been really effective. On a personal level, what the average person can do, I think it really is just [about] leading by example. Your friends see that you’re never sick — I know that, for myself, I’ve turned a lot of people on to veganism through just living and them seeing [I’m the same weight I was in high school and never sick]…If you’re an artist, you can definitely include those politics in your work – just like those bands that got me into it back in the day did. People who are about it will stick with it like I did. Then there’s all the people who are doing it because everyone else is doing it. That [ends up being] maybe a few years of animals that didn’t die that would have, so maybe it’s not a bad thing after all — you can look at it that way.