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

    Escalation of Media Crackdown in Turkey Heightens Concerns

    Critics see 'a new dark age' as arrests of journalists, closures of media outlets by Erdogan government mount

    Russia Boasts of Troop Buildup on Flank, Draws Flak

    Russian military moves counter to efforts to de-escalate tensions, State Department says

    What Take-out Food Reveals About American History

    From fast-food restaurants to pizza delivery, here's what the history of take-out food tells us about changes in American society

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

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Processi
    X
    Katherine Gypson
    July 27, 2016 6:21 PM
    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video A Life of Fighting Back: Hillary Clinton Shatters Glass Ceiling

    Hillary Clinton made history Thursday, overcoming personal and political setbacks to become the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. If she wins in November, she will go from “first lady” to U.S. Senator from New York, to Secretary of State, to “Madam President.” Polls show Clinton is both beloved and despised. White House Correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look at the life of the woman both supporters and detractors agree is a fighter for the ages.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video First Time Delegate’s First Day Frustrations

    With thousands of people filling the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh narrowed in on one delegate as she made her first trip to a national party convention. It was a day that was anything but routine for this United States military veteran.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora