The muscular man with shaved head grimaces at the needle dancing across his broad chest, the machine buzzing maniacally as the inky, Gothic letters of a Latin phrase begin to form on his skin: Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All).
“The first five minutes takes some getting used to; it’s uncomfortable, but then you start to enjoy the pain afterwards,” says Zane Collier. “I start to fall asleep, or go into a hypnotic state so I forget about it. The only thing is that you get very hungry!”
The lifestyle coach is in his early 30s and getting his third tattoo beneath a wall of colorful graffiti. He’s spread-eagled on a metal stretcher that is cushioned in faux leather and he’s at the mercy of master tattooist Tiplo Tsotetsi.
“I’m the black half of this business,” says the tall, dreadlocked Tsotetsi inside the studio of Black and White Tattoos in Rosebank, Johannesburg. He points to a stocky, bearded young man in a green beanie wearing blue surgical gloves, at work on the naked back of another customer.
“Dave is the white half,” Tsotetsi comments, twirling a mat-black and silver electronic needle that’s engraved with the name he’s given it: ‘Micky Sharpz.’
Tiplo Tsotetsi and Dave Smith explain their tattoo business
‘Make it wild’
Tsotetsi and Dave Smith have established one of South Africa’s most successful tattoo parlors. Many of their original designs are being copied by other tattooists. “We always want to be fresh; we don’t go on the internet to copy other artists,” Tsotetsi insists.
“We talk with the clients about what they want and we come up with something special together,” says Smith. “Say, they want something common, like a rose, or a tattoo in memory of someone close to them who’s died. We’ll suggest we put a twist on the tattoo to make it unique, to make it wild.”
Tsotetsi tells how a devout Catholic client wanted a large crucifix tattooed on his back. “Crucifixes are very common tats around the world, so I suggested we come up with something different, but simple. So we agreed I would tattoo a banner twisted around the cross. In that banner, I inscribed the words of the customer’s favorite saying: ‘Only God Can Judge Me.’”
'This isn't a freak show...'
Smith says some people don’t have “sane thoughts” about where they’d like to get their tattoos … like the time a man walked into the studio and demanded a piece on his penis.
“We denied him that. We were like: ‘No; if you’re going to be realistic you must treat us like realistic people.’ That’s not art; that’s something else.”
Tsotetsi chimed in: “Most tattoo studios will do whatever the client wants. For the money. That’s not us. This is our art we’re talking about, and we don’t want it corrupted. This isn’t a freak show…”
He says he and Smith are part of a new wave of tattooists, who place ethics and responsibility ahead of profits.
Smith says very young people often want tattoos in “always visible places,” such as on their fingers and necks – not realizing the possible implications.
“We advise them that tattoos are supposed to last a lifetime, think about where you’re going to have the tat, think about that job interview you’re going to have in a few years’ time…”
Tsotetsi adds that some people are “unrealistic” about the types of tattoos they want, asking him and Smith to inscribe Satanic symbols, for example, on their bodies.
“We are all for anti-establishment kind of stuff, but we don’t like doing negative tattoos. People used to see tattoos as negative symbols, as symbols of violence and evil, and that is not what we’re selling,” says Smith.
“Sometimes young guys who are involved in naughty stuff ask for things like guns and naked female body parts and drug symbols, whatever. We tell them: ‘Think about what you’re doing because probably when you’re older you’re not going to be doing these things anymore and then you aren’t going to appreciate your tattoos.’”
Says Tsotetsi: “We’re not angels but we like doing positive pieces.”
Like all the tattoos they’ve been commissioned to do since Nelson Mandela’s death, inspired by the South African human rights hero.
An era of Mandela tattoos
Demand for Mandela tattoos spiked dramatically the day after his death on 5 December 2013, Tsotetsi explains. The demand has since slowed, but customers still regularly request “Mandela theme” tattoos, says Smith.
One of the most popular quotes for tattooing is from a poem Mandela liked to read when he was in prison - ‘Invictus,’ by British poet William Ernest Henley: ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’
Tsotetsi says another favorite is Mandela’s own words: ‘It always seems impossible, until it’s done.’
“It’s great to help Mandela’s legacy continue in our small way,” Smith says. “If it wasn’t for him, Dave and me would not have been allowed to work together equally like this.”
Tsotetsi’s favorite is a portrait of Mandela, “the great man,” smiling on the right side of client David Holland’s chest. “I’m very proud of that one; it was the first tattooed portrait I ever did of Mandela. It took me three and a half hours to finish,” says a beaming Tsotetsi.
Holland says he got the tattoo because Mandela made all his values come true.
“At the end of the day, I make it personal,” Holland says. “Mandela didn’t fight for the freedom of South Africa and for himself; he fought for my freedom. So, because he fought for my freedom, I get to have a black tattoo artist, a black business partner, a Mauritian fiancée…”
Holland maintains he also got the tattoo for his unborn children.
Later on in life when his kids ask who that is on his chest, Holland says he can say, “Mommy and daddy got to be together because this person made sure that everyone could interact and be together normally.”
Artists with good listening skills
Tsotetsi smiles when he recalls Holland. He shakes his head and declares: “I’ve never met a boring person in this job… We always sit down with our clients to discuss where the ideas for their tattoos come from. We hear a lot of interesting stuff: stories about prison, personal issues like drugs, crime, relationships, deaths…”
“If you’ve got a good tattoo artist,” Smith adds, “you don’t need a therapist at all. You’ll see all these guys with good pieces (tattoos) – you must know they’ve got some good stories to tell. Interesting people, expressive people.”
Reflecting on his clients, Tsotetsi says he’s tattooed a lawyer one minute, and a criminal the next. With a hearty laugh, he suggests that he should introduce the two. “I think they’ll work together nicely,” he says.
He counts bank managers, students and their professors, scientists, bikers and bakers among his regular customers.
“We get all types in here – even priests!” exclaims Smith. “They get religious symbols on them and quotes from the Bible… Next time you look at a priest in his robes, you must wonder how many tattoos he has under that robe!”
He reveals that a “famous businessman” recently visited him for a tattoo.
“You would never guess. He’s this hardcore businessman – power suit, power tie, power steering. Our clients are people driving Porsches to people walking in from the street, looking like homeless people.”
Women are easier to work with
Tsotetsi says at least half of the studio’s customers are women.
“They’ve been flying in here the last couple of years. They’re now doing everything that only men used to do; only thing is, they do it better! They go big. Men used to get big tattoos but now your girls, they get sleeves (their entire arms tattooed).”
Tsotetsi insists that women understand tattoos better. “They’re more sensible; they do much more research on their tattoos. They’re easier to work with and much more expressive and open to debate and not so impulsive as men.”
And also braver, adds Smith.
“The tattoos they get, it’s on places that men would squeal and cry and the girls would be like calm and chilled; easy… The men, you can actually see when you tattoo them, how they take it – they don’t take it too great!”
Tsotetsi grins and acknowledges that “it’s hard” when women ask for tattoos in “intimate places” on their bodies.
A giggling Smith responds: “When I first started out and a beautiful woman came in here for a tattoo, I would flirt with her, but now that we are experienced, we are professionals.”
He compares his and his partner’s work to that of surgeons operating on patients who trust them completely to heal them.
Together Tsotetsi and Smith are the doctors of South Africa’s tattoo underground: they love creating art on human skin because it means that their work lives and breathes… It walks on the bodies of housewives in shopping malls, under pressed shirts and slacks in corridors of power, under robes behind pulpits, under overalls in prisons.
“Wherever the people go who I tattoo, wherever they end up in life," Smith says, "it gives me great pleasure to know that as long as they’re alive, my art is alive.”