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Think before you ink…

by capetowndiva

After interviewing Manuela Gray recently, I was inspired to write a more in-depth article about tattoos and it was published in the Cape Times last week, in the Top of the Times section. Have a read…


Tattoos are a major form of self-expression, an opportunity to make a statement, immortalize a memory and tell a story.

In the Mother City tattooing is as much a thing as it is anywhere else in the world. Depending on the individual, it can be about tradition and identity or simply about drawing something pretty on your skin, end of story.  People have been getting inked for thousands of years. Otzi the Iceman, discovered in pretty good nick in South Tyrol in 1991 and carbon dated to have lived around 3300 BCE, had about 67 tattoos, albeit for reasons other than vanity. In ancient Maori culture, the striking curved and spiral face tattoos called moko, were intrinsic to the tribal culture and a rite of passage to many, even to this day. Getting a moko back in the day was not for the faint hearted. You practically needed a tranquiliser to endure the excruciating pain as the intricate pattern was literally carved into the skins surface- the entire face for starters – with a sharp chisel-like tool or knife. The grooves would then be filled with black pigment made from burnt timber. When the famous mariner Captain James Cook first encountered the Maoris in the South Pacific, he commented, The marks in general are drawn with great nicety and even elegance…a luxury of forms.” Excellently put as moko is truly beautiful. Nowadays, the needling process when getting a tattoo will make the average person wince but there’ll be no need to bite down on a piece of old leather. Famous names like Robbie Williams and Mike Tyson, with their Maori-inspired tatts, are most likely very grateful for that.

Tattoos are in vogue, with pretty much everyone as the trend has moved from subculture to pop culture. In the Mother City tattooing is as much a thing as it is anywhere else in the world. In the USA alone, the industry rakes in $1,650,500,000 per annum with 45 million Americans sporting at least one tattoo, with reality shows like LA Ink upping the ante and showing that tattoos are accessible to anyone. In its final season on American TV, LA Ink, showcasing passionate tattoo artists like Kat von D and Yoji Harada, attracted 1,3 million viewers per episode. Great Britain currently holds the title as the world’s most tattooed nation with Birmingham being the number one city as far as tattoos per capita goes. In the 19th century, tattooing flourished in England like nowhere else in Europe. Some say it all began in the British navy after an inked Captain Cook and his sailors returned from their travels with souvenir tattoos. Popularity moved to high society after the Prince of Wales, who later became King, had a Jerusalem Cross tattooed onto his arm after a visit to the Holy Land in 1862. Sir Winston Churchill, a former military man, reputedly had an anchor on his forearm and Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, had his family crest emblazoned across his chest. Everyone loves a politician with a bit of a rebel vibe.

It matters not who you are or what you do, tattoos are everywhere, from blue collar to posh. Enter the white collar tribe – CEO’s, hedge fund managers and bankers, all rolling up their crisp white cuffs, getting inked, and making the corridors of the corporate world way cooler. And the fairer sex no longer has to be a high-waisted hipster with a nose ring. Well-heeled ladies are decorating wrists and ankles with delicate imagery and A list celebs like Dame Helen Mirren, at the other end of the style scale, has her ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ hand art – two interlocking V’s that serve as her reminder about tolerance. The Buddhist incantations on Angelina Jolie’s upper back has popularised fine script art. Such great PR for the industry via these well known personalities and celebs. Whether the design is big and bold or subtle and small, if tastefully and beautifully done, everyone will ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ and pop a post of your ink on their Instagram feed.

Not everyone has a tattoo they want the world to see. Some prefer their tattoos to be under the radar, for various reasons. Maybe it’s there to cover a scar or has to be incognito because of work. Many models opt for tiny creations not easily spotted, and ballerinas, who can’t very well be seen pirouetting across a stage with an inky drawing running under the strap of their tutu. And  there are those, the non-conformist set like shirt designer and biker Paul van der Spuy who, because tattoos have become so mainstream, now refuses to have one.

Take care where in the world you flaunt your body art, as some countries today do not take kindly to visible tattoos, especially those depicting religious icons. It’s worth looking into the policies surrounding this in countries like Turkey, Malaysia, Thailand and Japan, before you book a flight and head for a beach holiday. 

In tattooing, there’s no room for error. Permanent art deserves careful consideration by the tattoo artist and the recipient. Capetonian tattoo artist Manuela Gray who has tattooed Queen’s Roger Taylor says, “The piece going onto someone’s body is there for life, so it’s crucial to select carefully, your first tattoo in particular.” She and many others in her field recommend that people do the research first – there are endless possibilities, sources of inspiration and different techniques to consider like shading, lining, colouring, lettering and dot work. Going for popular, trendy designs often result in tattoo regret as the fad passes and a person is then stuck with a design that’s no longer in ‘fashion’. It’s also crucial to go into the first inking session with the right expectations. Choose the tattoo artist and parlour well because a tattooist’s reputation is key. Any artist worth his or her salt should give you the tattoo 101 – advice that covers all aspects of the process. A lot of older people are getting tattooed and this means knowing where best to position the piece, ideally not somewhere where the face you’ve had drawn on your bicep will end up looking like Edvard Munch’s The Scream when you are 60 and sagging here and there. Tattoos done when too young will distort too as with the body still growing, the skin will stretch and the artwork becomes distorted. Rather wait until the time is right.

It’s wise to consider how much of your body you want to use as a canvas, and best to contemplate this when you’re on lower side of 40 and preferably without excessive alcohol in play. Things change. You may not always love that guy you just met, whose name you want etched onto your shoulder blade for posterity. By all accounts, it’s not smart to tattoo on a whim. Give thought to the design, get the best version of it, shop around and aim for exceptional unique artwork. There are enough outstanding tattoo artists in this city to make your ink dreams come true



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