These days there’s no shortage of stereotypes and misconceptions around living with diabetes. Fortunately, there isn’t a shortage of people defying those misconceptions. And Darren Brass is one of those people. Today, Darren is not only a renowned tattoo artist known for his work through TLC’s “Miami Ink,” he’s also covered in tattoos himself, challenging the old-fashioned rule that diabetics can’t get tattoos because their bodies don’t heal properly.
Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1972 at barely 18 months old, Brass was in a hyperglycaemic coma for several days before one of the doctors finally asked if anyone had thought to check his blood sugar.
The knowledge around the actual daily management of diabetes in the early 70s, says Brass, was fairly basic. “There was always an understanding that I couldn’t have [sugary foods] in excess, and I was always really active as a child, so that helped.”
What does Brass think about the recommendation that “diabetics shouldn’t get tattoos”?
“I’ve never had a problem healing, and I attribute that to the fact that I take care of myself. I understand the foods that I’m eating and the effect they have on my body, and I exercise regularly. Sure, I can have dessert, but I’m only going to take a couple bites. You don’t have to go without, just keep in mind what you’re doing.”
A good diabetic diet, he says, is a pretty much a good diet for anybody.
However, actually giving tattoos as a person with diabetes does bring some unique responsibilities. Brass credits the Omnipod for making life as an artist with diabetes much easier.
“It changed my life completely. It makes me more aware of the carbs I’m eating, and there’s no wires or tubing. I had always avoided the pumps because of the tubing. I wish I’d gone for a pump earlier but I just couldn’t take the leap, mentally.”
Prior to using a pump for insulin delivery, Brass recalls having far more lows, particularly while working.
“Luckily, I’ve always been around a group that knows me well. I’d be working on a tattoo and they’d say, ‘Hey Bro, you’re looking a little gray.’ You’d just look at me and know I was going low. In the ‘gray zone.'”
“Now I test before I go into a tattoo, and again once I’m through the outline of the tattoo… just to see where I’m at. There’s an element of stress in tattooing, and you need to be in your A-game.”
In addition to being an inarguable pro with the ink, Brass has developed his own clothing company, Ruthless and Toothless, which is about to re-launch after some productive restructuring. So, Brass’s busy career includes a lot of travel, something else that isn’t always conducive to life with diabetes.
But traveling, says Brass, is no excuse for slacking off on blood sugar management.
“I travel today more so than ever. Everybody loves to make excuses for everything — it’s human nature. But I eat well wherever I go, and I eat great food. Of course there’s some situations where there aren’t the best foods available but you compensate, you don’t overdo it. Be aware! I’m obsessive with testing my blood sugar, always checking at least 8 times a day. I like to know where I’m at. It’s well worth it.”
When you’re covered head-to-toe in tattoos, you might expect a bit of rebellion to come with it, but Brass doesn’t waste any energy there.
“There’s no use in that,” he says. “It’s inevitable; I have diabetes–there’s nothing I can do about it but take care of myself. Why fight against something that I can’t change? It doesn’t have to be a fight or struggle and it’s a shame that people have to make it that way.”
The harder you fight it, Brass emphasizes, the more problems you’re bound to have.
“I look at diabetes as a blessing.”
One of Brass’s greatest frustrations around diabetes actually has nothing to do with his own. Instead, he explains that he’s often asked to give advice about this food or that. One mother, for example, said, “My daughter’s diabetes is such a problem when she’s eating cake and drinking soda.” And I ask, ‘Um, how old is your daughter? Does she do the grocery shopping?’ In the home, it comes down to the parents. It comes to educating the whole family.”
The family, Brass emphasizes, needs to make learning about nutrition, exercise, and diabetes a priority, not just for the child with diabetes but for everyone in the family.
“It’s one thing to educate a child, but it’s gonna go nowhere unless the family is educated. I’m a dad now, and I notice even more that it starts with the home, at the roots.”
Meanwhile, those over the age of 18 who are looking to get a medic alert tattoo for their diabetes know exactly who to turn to.
“People do come to me for a diabetes tattoo because they know I have diabetes. And I did the tattoos for the hosts on DLife, but I don’t have anything referring to diabetes tattooed on me.”
When you’re as covered in tattoos as Brass is, it’s pretty unlikely an EMT would actually be able to find a medic alert on your forearm. But don’t mistake Brass’s tolerance for tattoos needles or insulin syringes for an impeccable pain-threshold; he’s just as human as the rest of us.
“I hate getting tattoos. It’s painful, but I love the artwork, what it represents, and the culture behind it.”
*See Healthline for images of diabetes-inspired tattoos.