News / Africa

‘New Wave’ Tattooists Dedicate Themselves to Skin Art

  • Dave Smith (left) and Tiplo Tsotetsi are the owner-artists at Black and White Tattoos, a popular parlor in Johannesburg’s Rosebank district that scribes original work on men and women. (Photo by Darren Taylor)
  • Tsotetsi etched his favorite work on the pect of client David Holland. If it weren’t for Nelson Mandela, Tsotetsi said he and his business partner “would not have been allowed to work together equally like this.” (Photo by Darren Taylor)
  • One of the most elaborate of Tsotetsi’s creations includes the words of one of Mandela’s favorite poem’s, “Master of my fate, Captain of my soul.” (Photo by Darren Taylor)
  • Lifestyle coach Zane Collier selects the Latin inscription, 'Love Conquers All' for his chest, his third tattoo by Tsotetsi. (Photo by Darren Taylor)
  • “The first five minutes takes some getting used to,” says Collier. “It’s uncomfortable, but then you start to enjoy the pain …” (Photo by Darren Taylor)
  • “Think about what you’re doing,” Tsotetsi cautions clients, “because … when you’re older … you aren’t going to appreciate your tattoos.” (Photo by Darren Taylor)
  • Women are less squeamish than men when under the needle. “They’re now doing everything men used to do,” says Tsotetsi. They ask for tattoos that cover their arms. (Photo by Darren Taylor)
  • They counsel many of their clients to be discreet about where the tattoo will go, says Smith. “Think about where you’re going to have that tat,” he says, in case you go to a job interview. (Photo by Darren Taylor)
  • When a customer comes in asking for a cross, the owners say fine, but consider giving that image a little bit of an original twist. (Photo by Darren Taylor)
Darren Taylor

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
Totseti and Dave explain their tattoo businessi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X


‘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.”   

You May Like

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Researcher: Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor at Symposium on Obesity, Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome says problem involves more than calorie intake, warns of worldwide health impact More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thoughti
X
George Putic
May 26, 2015 9:26 PM
Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.

VOA Blogs