Story and Photos Holly Feral
Web Feature sponsor Virtuous Pie
Originally published in Driftwood Issue One
“Bummer,” his blog post began. Brian Thomas Wilson had just heard that an important part of his tattoo kit wasn’t vegan. It’s a toe-stubbing moment for any vegan but especially upsetting for the man who owns Scapegoat Tattoo, the world’s first devotedly vegan tattoo shop, located in the vegan metropolis of Portland, Oregon.
The scuttlebutt came to Brian through Facebook, but a quick email to the manufacturer confirmed the worst: The transfer paper contained lanolin and beeswax.
Tattooers print tattoo designs on transfer paper, then apply the design to the client’s skin with a transfer cream. There are papers for hand-drawn designs and papers for computer printing that require the somewhat antiquated technology of Thermo-Fax machines. Every tattooer I spoke with for this story said there is one company that makes this particular type of thermal carbon paper up-to-snuff for tattooers, and that’s a little Midwest company called ReproFX.
Scapegoat had been operating as a strictly vegan tattoo shop since 2005. In 2007, it became part of a collection of vegan businesses sharing one roof known as the Vegan Mini Mall. He’d researched his products the best he could. He made sure the inks were free of bone char, animal fat, gelatin, and shellac. But often researching products means taking someone’s word for it because they happened to answer the supplier’s phone. This time, that word hadn’t held water.
The post on Scapegoat’s blog went on:
As there are no workable alternatives to the stencils that we use, we are reluctantly removing our label as a "vegan" tattoo shop until we can find an alternative to this product. As a shop that is trying to find responsible and ethical ways of providing this service in a non-vegan world we treat this business as a community effort and very much appreciate those who bring this sort of information to our attention.
That was in January 2013. When I met Brian early this year, he was tattooing a composite of the three faces of the mythical Chimera—goat, lion and snake—over a client’s rib cage, and the whole process was vegan.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t really know what ‘vegan tattoo’ is,” said the young man on the table. He spoke softly for fear of jarring the needle. It was his second time on Brian’s table, and he had no idea he was in a vegan tattoo shop.
What is vegan tattoo? Well, maybe we should start with the question, what is tattoo to vegans? If you’ve been to a veg fest recently, you might have thought you’d accidentally walked into a tattoo convention. It isn’t to say that there aren’t a fair number of vegans who don’t express themselves through tattoos and piercings, but I have often heard grumblings that veganism has started to seem like it belongs to the punk crowd. Even comedian Rob Delaney took note of the affinity we conscientious eaters have for emblazoned flesh, tweeting, “A neck tattoo used to say ‘Watch out, motherfucker.’ Now it says ‘I’d love to read you a poem about my vegan bicycle!’”
The striking thing about the fledgling vegan tattoo industry is how well it mirrors both the state of the movement and the personal journey many vegans take upon entering the lifestyle. It’s a story that has as many beginnings as it has characters.
Brian's story begins...
with two young men growing up in a religious household near Reno, in a small town called Gardnerville, doodling monsters and questioning things.
“I remember being in Sunday school,” Brian says. “I drew Goliath as some kind of dinosaur monster. They were like, ‘No! He was a giant person!’ This fairytale is the right fairytale, not the one that you’re making up.”
Brian and his brother John saw how the so-called high and mighty of the church crowd “othered” people who didn’t fit their mold. The Wilson brothers did not fit the mold and, in turn, they rejected religion.
“My grandpa Stan had a lot to do with it too,” says Brian, laughing as his memories surface. “There was one time in particular where he said that I should stop drawing monsters ’cause I should only draw things that God had provided for me. And in the same sentence, he was sitting in a hot tub with safety goggles on because the wind would chap his eyes, and he told us that if he had special glasses, he could see the demons all around us trying to tempt us into sin.”
The boys stopped worrying about sin and started listening to heavy metal and punk music. At 19, Brian’s friend got a tattoo kit. They snuck into his bedroom while his parents were out of town and Brian got his first tattoo: something of a Star Wars theme, though he’s reluctant to say what.
That was the beginning of Brian’s life in the tattoo trade. He got an apprenticeship and it was there at Distinct Ink in Carson City that he had his first taste of sanctuary and acceptance.
Having rejected religion, the Wilson boys no longer looked to mainstream society for answers on right and wrong. Using their own moral compass, the brothers made another step into their own path a few years later, helping each other transition into veganism. And they soon found that veganism, like tattooing, is a practice that gets better with time.
“I was what I thought was vegan at the time,” says John. “I’ve learned that a lot of things I thought were vegan weren’t. It was a slow transition on that front.”
As they grew into their convictions around animal welfare, Brian was growing as a tattoo artist. He moved from Nevada to Arizona and eventually to Portland, working in a half-dozen tattoo shops along the way before he had the experience he needed to open Scapegoat. And by that time, he was ready for his moral ethic and his work ethic to align.
“I was scared to look into what it takes to make tattoos, because tattooing was the first thing that I had ever felt a connection with. And then veganism came a couple years after that, and they’re both really important,” Brian says. “I was scared. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, even though I had been the whole time. You know, you work within your means.”
As far as anybody knew, Scapegoat was using completely vegan products for their tattoos. People visited from all over the world, celebrating this milestone in vegan business and culture.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles...
James Spooner was tired of working in the film industry, and he vented his frustrations while in the tattoo chair of his usual artist. Throughout the years of having James in his chair, the artist observed James's work ethic and saw in him the makings of a great tattooer. He started training James, and in the excitement of the new medium, the subject of animal products in the tattoo ingredients never came up. That credit for opening James's eyes to vegan tattoos goes to a brush with a woman flying up to Portland to get one from Brian's shop.
After learning about Scapegoat, he started researching the ingredients the next day. When he hit a wall looking for vegan ointment, he sent an email to Brian, who pointed him the right direction. They never had direct contact after that but their fates were tied.
A few years after James started offering vegan tattoos, a client came to him wanting complete assurance that every ingredient was vegan. By that time, James had been able to confirm all of the products save one—you guessed it, the transfer paper. He’d written to the company when he first started veganizing his tattoo procedure, but he didn’t get a response.
“At that point, having been vegan already for 19 or 20 years, I was familiar with things like gelatin being in printing paper, but I was also familiar with spirit gum being used as an alternative. Since they didn’t respond, I was hoping for the best,” James says. The vegan client who wanted assurance took up the letter-writing campaign and told James that he got a response. It was the worst case scenario.
“He was able to get confirmation that the paper had lanolin in it. At that point, I stopped advertising that I was doing a 100% vegan procedure and let people know that stencil paper isn’t vegan.
“I put it on my blog and some big-deal vegan guy put it on his Facebook and then there was all this backlash. People were getting upset ’cause there’s no alternative.”
And that is how the vegan tattoo community learned about the transfer paper.
Newstrickled through social media. Links to James’s blog showed up on Facebook in vegan tattoo groups and, eventually, on Brian’s page. He immediately reached back out to the company. This time, Brian says, when he sent an email asking if there were animal products in the paper, the company got back to him within 15 minutes.
“When I asked if there was something they could do different, I never heard back.”
He announced his finding on the Scapegoat blog, removed the word “vegan” from the business, and started looking into ways that he could create a new paper. He offered to invest in a new vegan formula if the company would research it, but still heard nothing back.
That was January 2013...
By April, the grapevine spread to Dina DiCenso of Gristle Tattoo in Brooklyn, New York, and she sent her first email to the company. Wary of rumors, she wanted to hear it straight from the company. For five months, she heard nothing, so she broke down and asked a geneticist friend to test the paper to determine if it did in fact contain lanolin. Just as she was getting the test results back, news from ReproFX came through.
“The owner was very nice and we had a back and forth about the demand for vegan stencil paper. He said his chemist had retired 10 years ago, so he didn't think he could make a new product like that,” says Dina. “After more discussion (or harassment, depending on which end you're on, I guess) he contacted me one day to tell me he finally figured out how to make a vegan stencil paper and would we like to test it, so he sent us a sample.”
So, what changed? For months, it had seemed like the vegan tattoo business had come to a dead end.
“I really didn’t believe that they would ever do anything about it because the market is so small,” James says. “There’s really only one company that makes good stencil paper. They’re not tattooers. They’re a bunch of old guys from the Midwest who just stumbled upon this business. It was a big shock to me a year later when they announced that they were making vegan stencil paper.”
A small family business...
ReproFX started in the ’40s and passed down through generations. Unbeknownst to the tattooers, who were busy trying to find solutions to the paper problem on their own, in August 2013, they hired Hunter Bradley as a new consultant—he’s in the fourth generation. As soon as he started, his father Jeff Bradley, the company president, showed him Dina’s email.
“I immediately said, ‘We need to start taking this very seriously. We have to treat this with a lot of sensitivity,’” says Hunter. “Jeff was really excited about the opportunity, really excited about the chance to develop a new product.”
By August 8, just one week after joining the team, developing a vegan transfer paper had become company policy. And before long, Hunter was on staff full time as the R+D manager. Perhaps it was a holdover of sensitivity from his vegan college years that caused Hunter to react so swiftly. He sent a company-wide memo that included this passage:
“Colonial Converting Corporation continues to look for formulations that will meet the professional needs of artists while keeping in mind the diverse ethical needs of clients. Colonial Converting Corporation is excited to announce that it is actively working on several new substrate formulations, including a brand-new vegan option.”
In September, they contacted a few vegan tattooers to test their first run of vegan transfer papers, and by December they were manufacturing the new line.
Hunter sent a message to James:
“I'm contacting you on behalf of ReproFx, makers of the original Spirit Brand thermal transfer papers. We just wanted to let you know that we have just begun manufacturing a vegan thermal transfer tattooing paper compatible with thermal and fax style burners; no lanolin, no beeswax, just a blend of vegetable and mineral waxes.
“We know that you are a major advocate on behalf of the vegan tattooing movement, and we wanted you to be among the first to know.”
Finally, the word got back to Scapegoat the same way as it had come. Just as the debacle began, it ended in a Facebook post. All told, it took just a handful of vegan tattooers and tattoo collectors emailing the company with polite queries to prompt the design of a 100% vegan line. Even so, knowledge about the transfer paper, and indeed other longer-known offenders in tattoo ingredients, has been slow to become public knowledge. Many vegan tattooers are as of yet unaware that the ingredients they’re permanently embedding in their clients’ skin, sometimes in the form of a grand “V,” are laced with remains.
“We joke about resetting the clock.” says Brian. “You do your best. I read something a long time ago in the charter for the original Vegan Society in England, and it says to abstain from using animal products wherever possible and practical. I was kind of having a hard time when I read that, feeling like I’d failed on a couple of issues being vegan. When I was reading that, I was like, you know, that’s very true. There are things all around us all the time that nobody thinks about, like ‘Where did the ink in that ballpoint pen come from?’ or ‘What’s in plywood?’ When you start paying too much attention to those things, you start losing sight of the goal. Not saying that you shouldn’t look at the pieces—”
“But when you find that one of the pieces isn’t vegan, you look to change that,” his brother adds. “You just keep trying to grow.”
Ingredients to look out for:
A&D ointment can contain lonolin and cod liver oil. Word is still out on Vaseline (whether it is filtered through bone char).
Used in soap and in the ink mixture. Choose products containing vegetable rather than animal glycerine.
TRANSFER PAPER AND CREAM
ReproFX now makes purple and green vegan transfer papers. Its transfer cream is certified vegan, too. (Some tattooers use soap or sanitizer to transfer stencils.)
Can contain bone char and shellac.