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More than skin deep: The tattoos that bind black history to Kareem Jackson
Kareem Jackson’s admiration for five civil rights pioneers goes beyond the surface.
By Ben Swanson Feb 15, 2020

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When Kareem Jackson was young, he and the rest of his class in elementary school took a field trip.

Their destination was the Tubman Museum, an institution that bills itself as the largest of its kind devoted to educating people about art, history and culture of African-Americans.

Inside those walls, Jackson could see for himself a lie exposed. This lie — that black people were somehow less than their white counterparts — imprisoned men and women for centuries in chains and has hobbled them for many years after the practice of chattel slavery was abolished.

Before him in this museum was the truth. Black men and women could create inventions as spectacular as anyone. They could fashion breathtaking works on a canvas or any other artistic medium, too. Their culture — his culture — was equal to any other.

This is a lesson that Jackson carries with him today, and he makes it visible for people to see.

In recent years, Jackson has made his body a museum of its own kind.

On his legs reside five portraits: Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X. Jackie Robinson. Muhammad Ali. Rosa Parks.

"For me — for everybody — [but] especially the African-American culture, what those guys were able to accomplish for the civil rights movement and for us was ground-breaking," Jackson says. "The barriers they were able to knock down to allow us to have equal rights [and] to do a lot of the things we're able to do today."

In these ink portraits of the Kareem Jackson Museum's permanent collection, Jackson can see the truth — that black men and women can beat the lie that they were told.

A tattoo does not rest on the skin. It rests within it.

When a tattoo machine is set upon skin, it creates puncture wounds, albeit very slight ones. One needle or a clustered set of needles are rapidly and repeatedly drawn up and down, usually around 100 times a second, by electromagnetic currents or by a rotary motor.

The needles do not drive deep into the skin. They go just past the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, into the dermis, which includes blood vessels, among other things.

When the needles, which carry the tattoo ink, pull away from the dermis, they leave the ink within the skin. In this layer, cells from the immune system unsuccessfully attempt to remove the ink intruders.

As the skin heals, the epidermis cells damaged in the process naturally fall away and are replaced by healthy ones, but the dye stays in the dermis below, held by the immune system cells known as macrophages that consumed the pigment particles.

Over time, the tattoo will fade as the ink travels deeper into the dermis, but it will remain as long as the person does.

That kind of permanence matches the legacies of the figures Jackson picked to adorn large swaths of his lower body.

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The two vocal civil rights leaders King and Malcolm X were first, and Jackson sat for a two-day session with Nikko Hurtado, a renowned tattoo artist who specializes in portraiture.

King's face, pictured mid-speech, lies just below Malcolm X, whose face is frozen in deep thought, chin resting on his closed hand.

In life, the two met just once. Their views diverged over the ideology of nonviolence when it came to asserting their personhood in the face of often-violent retaliation. King resolutely believed in nonviolence while Malcolm X favored a separatist vision, though his views evolved in the years prior to his assassination in 1965. Still, their shared end goal of civil rights for African-Americans bound them together.

"While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem," King wrote in a telegram to Malcolm X’s wife following his death. "He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race."

Three years later, King was also assassinated. America lost its two most prominent civil rights leaders in the midst of their battles, but the fruit of their work lives on for generations of black Americans, including Jackson.

"Definitely different methods, but definitely all for the same cause," Jackson says. "Martin Luther King being more of a peaceful guy with peaceful protests and [he] did a lot with his speeches, with the famous 'I Have a Dream' speech and stuff like that. Malcolm X and the things he did were a little bit more forceful in the way that he did things, but definitely all for the same cause."

A year later for his other leg, Jackson chose Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947, and Muhammad Ali, who, in addition to being widely recognized as the greatest boxer who ever lived, championed the civil rights movement and often spoke out about racial injustice.

The decision to get portraits of those two legends was a way to pay homage to them for their roles in paving the way for black athletes like himself to play their sports at the highest level and to be viewed as more than just as an athlete.

"It's just paying tribute to them and also the barriers they were able to knock down, to allow African-Americans to have equal rights on the sports side of things," Jackson says. "A lot of the things they were able to accomplish is still huge for us and the way we were able to go out and be able to play the sports that we play today."

Jackson's most recent tattoo portrait came in January, when Rosa Parks joined the grouping on his right leg.

That decision simply felt right.

"I felt like Rosa Parks was just the next figure, the next person that was huge for the African-American culture," Jackson says. "And the things that she did … not settling for having to sit on the back of the bus, that was huge for a lot of people back in that time, and still the things that she did allows us to move freely in and to have the same rights as a lot of people today."

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Jackson knows that racism has not been eradicated. Growing up in Georgia and going to college in Alabama, Jackson says there have been times where he still has to deal with it. But through his admiration and appreciation for King, Malcom X, Robinson, Ali, Parks and so many other groundbreaking leaders, he finds inspiration and hope that their work will continue to be the foundation for further progress.

"For me, it just kind of stems from wanting to pay homage and to commemorate these actual figures," Jackson says. "Obviously their legacy that they left behind, it did a lot for the African-American culture, whether it was sports, whether it's kids now wanting to be doctors — just whatever it is that they want to do, they have that free will to do whatever it is they want."

Jackson is now running out of canvas space for portraits, but there's at least room left for two more — his two daughters. After that, he says, perhaps he'll commission a portrait of Harriet Tubman.

It would be fitting to connect them through this process. In ink Jackson may be paying homage, but in the world, Jackson feels a sense of duty to ensure that the lessons of these legacies are passed on to the next generation.

"I feel like it's up to me and up to the rest of us to teach the younger community about it and for them to understand exactly what she did," Jackson says, "and a lot of the stuff she did is for our own good now and allows us to be able to do a lot of the things we're doing today."

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