Did Your Tattoo Come With A Hidden Side Of Animal Suffering?

The story behind one of the country's only vegan tattoo shops.

September 6, 2016
Vegan Tattoo artist James Spooner
Lisa Corson

Upon entering Monocle Tattoo in West Los Angeles, a visitor accustomed to the typically gothic world of body art will immediately notice that this studio is different than most: It is sun-drenched and homey, its lime green walls hung with framed vintage artwork. What truly sets Monocle apart, however, is less obvious: Everything used in the tattooing process, from the ink to the aftercare balm, is vegan. Forty-year-old James Spooner, who is trim and inked and wears a broad smile, is Monocle’s founding artist. He became vegan 24 years ago when his involvement in the punk and hardcore music scene spurred his interest in political activism. “I couldn’t make sense of the fact that I was calling for human rights but not animal rights,” Spooner reflects, “and veganism was a logical leap.” 

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Before opening Monocle in 2012, Spooner was best known as a documentarian. His seminal 2003 film, Afro-Punk, which explores race identity in the punk music scene, spawned a yearly festival, also called Afropunk, which has been running since 2005. In 2008, Spooner decided to give up film-making in favor of a more hands-on, tactile art form. 

vegan tattoo sign
Lisa Corson

“I just did what I was told for the first year,” says Spooner about his stint at a traditional tattoo shop in Highland Park. But then he started to notice all of the ways tattooing depended on animal by-products. The industry standard soap, which gives conventional shops their distinct, sterile smell, is made with glycerin, which can be derived from animals. The paper typically used to transfer a stencil drawing to skin often contains lanolin, a wax made from sheep’s wool. Some companies that make petroleum jelly, which is used to moisturize and heal skin after tattooing, experiment on animals. And Bic, the company that manufactures disposable razors used to shave an area being inked, has a history of animal testing, too. 

"I couldn't make sense of the fact that I was calling for human rights but not animal rights."

Some vegans are strident, but Spooner takes a more secular approach. When he opened his shop, his goal was to create timeless art, not foist an animal-free lifestyle or diet on others. Still, he sought out all-vegan products so the business could operate in line with his personal philosophies. He sources ink for Monocle from Waverly and Eternal, brands that switched to vegetable-based glycerin years ago. He uses Dr. Bronner’s soap, which is cruelty-free and, as a bonus, less chemical-ridden than conventional soaps. He swapped out Bic razors for generic ones and makes his own aftercare ointment.

Related: 5 Vegan Beauty Recipes That Will Save You Money

Vegan Tattoo artist James Spooner
Lisa Corson

Monocle is one of a growing number of tattoo parlors offering cruelty-free services, including shops that have opened elsewhere in California and in Seattle, New York City, and Portland, Oregon. Although Sailor Bill Johnson, the vice president of the National Tattoo Association, notes that vegan tattooists comprise just a sliver of the industry, they are making a difference. Up until a few years ago, it was impossible to find transfer paper made without lanolin. Then Dina DiCenso, the owner of Brooklyn’s vegan Gristle Tattoo, embarked on a quest to convince the manufacturer Reprofax to make an animal-free version of its standard paper. She pestered the Midwestern mom-and-pop operation until the owners agreed to create a new product. Spirit vegan thermal transfer paper is now offered on Kingpin, a professional tattoo-supply website. Spooner uses it exclusively.

Related: 9 Incredible Vegetable Tattoos That Are For Life

Today Monocle has a robust clientele. Some choose the shop because they're looking for a place that fully embodies their values (about 60 percent of Spooner’s customers are vegan). Others come simply because they know they’ll get a beautiful tattoo. Spooner welcomes them all.

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