TATTOO BUSINESS SHOWS SOME SKIN
Tattoos aren’t taboo in Durban anymore. In fact, skin art is flourishing in eThekwini with hundreds of people being inked in the city every day.
Of course, in South Africa, it’s almost impossible to put a number to exactly what the tattoo industry is worth or how much people spend on skin art – BUT, although South Africa is definitely not in the same category as the States, it’s useful to get some idea of just how massive the industry there is. Inc. magazine recently claimed that there were over 15 000 tattoo parlours bringing in about $2.3 billion (that’s around R30 billion at today’s exchange rates!)
What started out as a dubious fashion has now become a movement the world over with everyone from latte drinking hipsters wearing pointy shoes to flighty teenage girls paying high prices for designer skin art. It’s almost as if you aren’t cool in certain crowds if you don’t have one.
Durban has dozens of tattoo studios and that’s not to mention people operating from home. They’re popping up in malls and high streets rather than lurking in back alleys as they did back in the day.
The one thing my Dad would never accept was tattoos. He grew up in a small mining town in a backward South Africa and, to him, tattoos were associated with sailors and criminals. He still can’t grasp the fact that this adornment is now considered art and has reached mainstream status. Sports and movie stars have tattoos plastered all over like wallpaper and there are even reality TV shows dedicated to them.
In the not so modern world, tattoos are often linked to cultural and spiritual practices. In Thailand, Buddhists have a tradition called Yantra Tattooing that dates back as far as 2000 years. These tattoos are linked to various beliefs, even protection from physical harm.
This is also practiced in other neighboring Asian countries such as Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia with its origins in ancient China.
Africa has one of the longest recorded histories of the use of tribal tattoos, including in Polynesian countries such as Samoa.
I spoke to four Durban tattooists to get some insight into how it all works today.
MAKING AN IMPRESSION
Deon Schnetler is the manager for the popular Lola Malone Tattoo studio on Durban’s trendy Florida Road.
“It’s definitely not a taboo anymore. In some respects, SA tattooing is on an equal footing as international. In others areas, it is still behind. I’d definitely see it as a viable career. Whether it’s respectable is dependent on someone’s taste. You really do have all walks of life getting tattoos for various reasons.”
His shop is in the same building as the Spiga and Mozambique restaurants and it’s clean and hygienic. This is an important aspect to look at when deciding on where to get a tattoo. Florida Road has two other tattoo shops not far from Lola Malone.
Deon’s shop has been going for just under four years. He says customers are not just bikers and punks. “We have a diverse clientele, from students to grandparents, doctors to pastors.”
Lola Malone is open Tuesday to Saturdays, and charges roughly R1000 per hour for its services. Some tattoos can take just over an hour and some can take many hours, so this is an indication of just how costly good quality tattoos are.
Kaveel Singh, a journalist and musician, says he got his first tattoo in the back room of a barber store in Stanger.
“It was less dingy than that sounds. The guy who did it for me didn’t charge me a cent. He just asked me to get him a six pack. He does all my ink for free now. Tattoo artists, the not so commercial ones, are the salt of the earth. They put something different into the work they do. It isn’t a fad for them. It’s something that is passed on from generation to generation”.
DESIGNS ON THE TATTOO BUSINESS
Gavin Rowe, a tattoo artist originally from Richards Bay, has developed his skills to the point where his work has taken him all over the world.
He now owns his own tattoo studio ‘Tear Drop’ in Umhlanga Rocks with his wife Caroline Rowe (also a talented tattoo artist) and partner Arthur Lello. Hilton Hobbs is his store manager and also does a lot of the tattooing in the shop as well. Camilla Sharp is his keen apprentice and a talented piercing artist.
“Howzit man, come sit, you can hang out while we work and we can just chat,” he says as he happily works his magic on a happy customer.
Gavin has 19 years’ experience in the industry and is considered one of best artists in Durban, if not South Africa. His first tattoo studio was run from a garden shed in Richards Bay with his ‘brother’ Sean Venter. Gavin decided to go travelling through Europe, which led him to start Zulu Tattoo studios in Dublin and London. In this he inked celebrities like Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day, Cindy Crawford, Britney Spears, Coolio and Christina Aguilera.
“I remember when I once did some work on Cindy Crawford, I got her to tattoo on me as well. I said ‘if I’m going to give you a tattoo you have to give me one as well’.”
Gavin says he does about seven tattoos a week and they come in slightly cheaper than other studios at R800 an hour.
“I could charge quite a bit more but I’d rather be affordable and give people quality work’.”
Electric Eye Tattoo could be one of the most established Tattoo operations in South Africa and Gavin Rowe was very much a part of its growth with the well-established artist ‘Mully’.
He worked with Mully for nine years before establishing Tear Drop just a year ago.
Malcom ‘Mully’ Hilton of Electric Eye is spoken about by a lot by tattoo artists. Jeff Wicks, writing in the Sunday Tribune, celebrated Mully’s 20 years’ experience in the industry.
Mully told Wicks he originally thought anyone with a tattoo was a “bit of scumbag” but later bought a tattoo gun because his friends kept asking him to ink them up.
A resident artist at Electric Eye Gateway, Ashley Welman, has been wielding his ink gun for the past four years. He says competition is becoming steeper and more tattoo shops are opening, even in the upmarket suburb of Umhlanga.
“Tattooing in SA is definitely on the rise with more and more shops opening. Some are just trying to use the tattoo trend as a way to make a quick buck, but they never last long – a few months at best. For the most part though, tattooing is still a relatively taboo thing. Some people still hate it passionately, and some people just never get exposed to it. Most people have never seen the process of getting a tattoo, so they tend to assume a lot of things.
“They forget that it’s a process or just a stick and paste operation and there you go you have a tattoo… and that it is permanent (unless you are laser treated) so they might want to think a bit more about what they get and who they choose to do it.
“If you take tattooing seriously, have a passion for it and respect for the people who come to you to permanently mark them, then you can definitely make a living from it. There’s always someone looking to get a tattoo,” says Welman.
Durbanite Christopher Bompass is 30-years-old and is tattooing ‘underground in South Korea’ and has an interesting story to tell regarding ink on skin.
For him, this is more than just art but a family affair as his brother and sister are also in the industry.
His brother Dylan is well known and earned his stripes as an apprentice for Mully. His sister followed suit as a piercer for Electric Eye and later an artist.
Bompass only pursued his career in tattooing much later as his mom felt that the tattoo industry had some unsavory elements at the time.
This didn’t stop Chris from watching his brother tattooing from home or Electric Eye. He recalls his first experience watching tattoos being done at The Stables market.
“From about the age of 12, I was watching my brother and Mully tattoo. Five years later, my sister started working as a piercer at Mully’s Gateway shop and, about a year later, started tattooing as well. Watching my siblings tattooing, I obviously felt the desire to follow in their footsteps.”
After that, Bompass travelled between Durban and Cape Town before starting his own tattoo shop in the busiest taxi rank in the Mother City. This attracted some weird and wonderful people and also provided a wealth of stories and experiences.
“I moved back to Durban from Cape Town towards the end of 2013 and that’s when I started apprenticing and working with my bro. I worked with him for about six months but decided to move back to Cape Town to open a mini studio on the Main Cape town taxi rank, knowing it would be a good place for me to do mainly solid work and hone my skills whilst having a good amount of passing trade. Working in that space I had interesting experiences having a lot of the numbers gangsters coming to show off their ‘jail tchapies’ to me”.
Chris wanders through story after story of life as a taxi rank tattoo artist:
“I have tattooed some pretty interesting characters being situated on the taxi rank. I have covered up ex-prisoners numbers so they can try to function in the world again as well as one of our SAPS captains who brought his wife and daughter to all be tattooed together. I also had a good laugh tattooing a gogo and her daughter from Khayelitsha. In Durban I also had the scary pleasure of tattooing Lee from Domination Boxing Gym on his wrist. I think that was one of the scariest … knowing what could happen if it was a flop!”
Colourful as it is, the tattoo culture in Durban is now gaining momentum. It is also attracting some great artists in top studios and seems to be changing the way people view the art of ink on skin.