We spoke to experimental tattoo artist Kayla Newell about her blacklight tattoos, the dangers of phosphorus ink, and the future of tattooing
From contorted glow in the dark cobras slithering down forearms, to dancing neon green cacti lit up on lower legs, Kayla Newell’s body art looks like it could be from the future. Burning bonfires, lava lamps, and skateboarding aliens are just some of the other designs the 29-year-old Portland-based tattoo artist has created - all of which glow under a blacklight to reveal hidden layers and new dimensions. Originally an artist painting mountains, rocks, and crystals in bright neons and pastels, Kayla carried her affinity for colour into her tattooing work where she realised her childhood dream of having a neon pink tattoo. Here we speak to Kayla about her blacklight tattoos, the dangers of phosphorus ink, and the future of the tattooing.
How did you get into tattooing?
I think by the time I fully realised this is what I wanted to do I was already knee deep into it. I’m not sure if it was a coincidence or if it was destiny but it all happened very naturally. My first tattoo was self-inflicted and hand poked so it was also the first tattoo I ever made. I was 21 and a friend of mine had just told me about stick and poke tattoos so I figured I had to try it and see if it works but the truth is, I gave myself that first tattoo because I felt very sad. Somehow, it seemed like the only appropriate way to bring my emotional distress into the physical world. It was just the word “MAGIC” really small on my wrist and the tattoo itself looks awful but the feeling of having successfully tattooed myself was a kind of pride I’d never felt before.
How did it evolve?
I kept at it and gave myself more hand-poked tattoos. It was about a year later in 2012 that my boyfriend gave me my first tattoo machine, a hand me down from his brother who is also a tattoo artist. I barely knew what I was doing but made it my life to learn everything about those machines. It took a little while to summon the courage but I taught myself how to tattoo by continuously tattooing myself. My goal at that point was to make tattoos that looked most like my other artworks, my drawings and paintings. I did that for about four years before I could afford to put myself through tattoo school two years ago. In 2016 I finally got my license to tattoo and started working full time.
How did the neon ink tattoos start?
I’ve always made paintings and drawings with the same palette, so it’s hard to nail down an exact moment where I decided to do these. Pretty much all of my visual work reacts to a blacklight. I thought about it for years leading up to this and have dreamed of neon pink tattoos my whole life. I think any kid that grew up a member of the Lisa Frank fan club feels me. There was a moment though when I was getting tattooed, I think I was 25 or 26, and I noticed these particular colours in a tattoo shop sitting on a shelf - bright ass neon pink, orange, and green. No one was using them at the time but I remember seeing them and thinking, ‘that’s my colour right there.’ I could tell immediately that they would react to blacklight although there is nothing on the bottle or the label that stated it.
Do your tattoos glow in regular light?
No, they look totally normal under a regular light. They look their natural colour.
Where did you first learn about blacklight?
The first time I ever saw a blacklight was actually here in Portland at a place called OMSI, our science museum. I went there on a school field trip and my dad was a chaperone. There was a room that was full of crystals and rocks and there was a blacklight that would shine on some of the fluorescent minerals. It was probably the most amazing thing I had ever seen.
What colours work under blacklight?
A lot of them actually. In the real world, specifically, as it relates to minerals, you can find almost any colour that will glow under a blacklight. The colours that I use are high quality, vegan, naturally fluorescent tattoo pigments in pink, red, orange and green.
Can you tell us more about the stigma attached to glow in the dark tattoo ink?
When UV tattoo inks first came out the main goal was to make tattoos that were invisible under normal light and only showed up under a blacklight or rather glow in the dark. The fluorescent ingredient that allows these kinds of inks to glow is almost always phosphorus or phosphor-based, which are known to be toxic to humans. These inks caused tons of skin reactions and research has very strongly pointed toward links between these ingredients and certain types of cancer. While there are no federal regulations on tattoo inks in the US, lots of countries have banned these types of “UV” labeled tattoo pigments. Despite this, many companies still make and sell “glow in the dark” tattoo ink and it is highly likely that some of these still contain ingredients that may not be safe. For this reason, I've stayed away from any ink that is specifically labeled UV or also sells a glow in the dark ink. It's hard though because even still, people always assume that "anything that glows has to be bad for you," it's a hard stigma to break but I'm out here and I'm trying.
What are your thoughts on tattoos as an extension of one’s identity?
In my experience, the reasons I’ve gotten tattooed often relate to very painful memories or experiences of loss, grief, and sadness that have shaped my life, not always in good ways. But getting tattooed is a way for me to bring my own kind of beauty or meaning to the things that have affected or hurt me. Tattoos are the most personal way that we can shape our physical selves into the people we see ourselves as. I think it’s an incredibly powerful thing to do because it is so personal, it’s not about anyone but you. Tattoos are an exercise in freedom to me so I think it’s up to the wearer to decide what it’s about.
What does the future of tattooing look like?
Honestly, I feel like I’m living in the future. The fact that someone like me is able to become so successful for doing something so different is what the next wave of tattooing is about. There are finally no rules on style and there are so many more techniques being explored than just those of traditional tattooing that I literally have no idea what’s going to happen next because it could be anything.