Home Interviews Manuela Gray, tattooist par excellence

Manuela Gray, tattooist par excellence

by capetowndiva

Tattooing chose Manuela Gray (pictured). Which is something for which Queen drummer Roger Taylor is probably extremely grateful.

Manuela Gray taken by Marnus Meyer

Aside from tattooing the Queen rock star, her work has pride of place on bodies from Moscow to London, Rio, Los Angeles, and of course, Cape Town, where she resides.

This Cape Town legend has been drawing for as long she can remember. First, when she could barely hold a crayon, it was on her parent’s furniture, then at school and after that she studied art and film and did a lot in between. Everything she has done she says, has contributed to where she finds herself today – one of the country’s most sought after artists whose tattooing and personal artwork has a distinct signature.

It was about twenty years ago that her interest in tattooing piqued but back then there was no-one to learn from. It was on a surfing trip to Portugal that Gray first learnt about tattooing. She returned to South Africa and opened her first shop Wildfire Tattoos shop above the Purple Turtle near Green Market Square. “Back then, in the pre-internet era, it was tough”, she recalls, “you couldn’t just tap into Youtube or Google for info and ideas etc.” She honed her skills by consistently attending tattoo conventions, observing other artists and teaching herself the skills needed, at every opportunity that presented itself. It was a struggle back in the day to get ahead in the industry but it was worth it because “nothing good comes easily.”

Gray is an Aries, and, in her own words, easily bored. Nothing has held her interest like tattooing has  – it’s been the only thing to keep her interest for the longest time. She attributes this to the constant adrenaline rush attached to the fact that there’s always such high expectation from clients to be the best, to deliver at optimum and because each person is so different means there’s never a dull moment. The pressure to be perfect every time is what makes the job interesting and keeps her on her toes. In tattooing, there’s no room for error – the piece going onto someone’s body is there for life and this means having uber focus, 100% of the time. Gray finds this stimulating as opposed to intimidating. She thrives on the pressure, most probably because she knows she will deliver, every time – her reputation in this regard precedes her. And of course, she loves what she does. Passion is always the game changer.

When asked whom inspires her in the tattoo world, Gray mentions that there are so many different genres and artists but those who stand out would be Shige, a self taught artist from Hiroshima in Japan and Sean Williams from the USA aka ‘seanfromtexas’, well known for his dark illustrations and unconventional tattoo methods. “If you look through Instagram at various tattoo artists, you either get so inspired or just want to give up.” But there are incredibly talented people out there – everyone has something unique to offer and that’s what you observe and apply “you have to allow for your own process, to find your own way”, she added. Gray also draws inspiration from other art, and nature. Going for a surf clears her head and often a design will pop into her head when she’s out on the water, faster than it would by scrolling through hundreds of art sites on the web.

It’s important to Gray that people do proper research when deciding on a piece. She gets disappointed when someone comes in for a tattoo and hasn’t really delved into the design or made an effort to see the variations on a theme. There are endless possibilities online, in books, and pretty much everywhere so when a person is having a tattoo done, it should be something very special, be it the first or last tattoo you’re having done. Permanent art deserves careful consideration.

Each work she creates brings great satisfaction to Manuela. She particularly enjoys the exchange with a person, the interaction. She considers it an honour to draw on someone, to be able to facilitate their wishes and take the image that’s in their head and transpose it onto the skin. Some people aren’t creative so can’t help with that part of the process – that can be the pressurising part and so when it all comes together it’s immensely satisfying.

Manuela loves doing someone’s first tattoo. “People get so excited after their first tattoo – they hug you and kiss you-they’re so grateful-it’s the best thing ever.” If first-timers are nervous, Gray says a kind manner and easy conversation goes a long way to allay their fears. In the first consult, she shares all the necessary info and encourages people to get a good night’s rest beforehand so the body can handle it. People go into their sessions with all the right expectations.

As far as the sizes of tattoos go, Gray mostly does large pieces but enjoys doing really small ones as well. Not everyone wants a huge piece, and these days fine, small tattoos are quite prevalent. On average, a big tattoo, like a ‘sleeve’, takes quite a while to complete and most people can manage four hours in the chair in one sitting. She prefers to get her work done in one go, when possible, but at times due to the size of the drawing, she has to schedule several appointments to complete the tattoo.

At the moment Gray is loving the old illustration styles and enjoys the delicacy of very fine work. She’s also doing a lot of geometry and black line work. There are various tattooing approaches and techniques like shading, lining, colouring, lettering, portraits and dot work, the latter being tiresome for tattoo artists. A Danish client’s tattoo Gray did, involved about 240,000 dots alone. The Japanese tend to echo their paintings so you’ll find a lot of brush strokes in their pieces. There are many different variations because the ink has to stay in the skin. And talking of that, it’s important to remember that your tattoo will age with your skin so Gray informs older clients, some aged 75 and 80 – about which parts of the body – like muscular areas- tend to sag more or faster than others. A lot of older people are getting tattoos these days so this sort of advice is welcomed. As far as younger people go, Gray prefers to tattoo kids from the age of 18 upwards. Younger than that means the body is still changing and growing which means potential distortion on a bigger piece, and “also, they’re not so stuck on what’s trendy – you’re clearer at that age about what you know and like.” People go on Pinterest and want exactly what everyone has seen there – where’s the individuality in that? It’s up to the tattoo artist to guide the client, to offer design options. “It’s like there’s a collective consciousness – a whole bunch of people who might have seen a particular tattoo in a popular movie and suddenly 5 clients rock up wanting that particular design”. The tattoo artist can direct their creativity in circumstances like this, find the difference in it, make the tattoo special for each person.

And what of the future? Gray says she is branching out more into doing more art, private studio work, so as not to always be in the shop environment. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop- it just never feels like you’re done with it and there are so many other things I do that run a parallel, like the annual Tattoo Convention (in Cape Town), art exhibitions, film work, and I use a lot of my tattoo imagery when I DJ (at Aces & Spades)”. It all crosses over – tattooing on its own would never cut it. Mixing it up is what keeps it all interesting.

Gray’s work has taken her places. She has followed Queen on their international tour, tattooing Roger Taylor specifically, works in London frequently, where she’ll be opening a studio in 2017, and has done conventions in China, Taiwan, Canada and Portugal.  Her next one, the Cape Town Tattoo Convention, is in November at the City Hall. “They are such a buzz- you’re working with high level guys, doing tattoos on the spot, with no library for reference”. To be able to tattoo and travel is a huge gift. “Travel is my number one thing-I’m such a gypsy – and to do what I love when I’m on the move is amazing”.

Manuela Gray’s ink is everywhere and she’ll be in London soon doing a residency at the Rock ‘n Roll members club at the Sanctum Soho Hotel in June and July. Best news is that she calls the Mother City home, which is a good thing, as I need to book her for my third tatt!


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Manuela at work at her Long Street shop, Wildfire. Pic by moi

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