Signs of unsettled times
Around the world, tattoos are losing their association with rebellious counter-culture, criminality and tribal messaging and becoming a common feature of mainstream global life. Even the prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has a raven, the symbol of an indigenous peoples group, inked onto his shoulder.
While the uptake of the trend has been a bit slower in this country, more and more South Africans are lining up to get themselves inked – including here in East London.
And they’re from all walks of life, all ages and across the gender divide.
“There are hundreds of shops across South Africa. More come and go on a daily basis. CEOs of huge corporates now have ink, judges, police officers, billionaires, soccer moms and neurosurgeons, all have tattoos.
Tattoos in South Africa are everywhere and will continue to show up more and more,” said Lewis Williams, star of the tattoo-themed reality DStv show Rumble&Hum in a recent Sunday Times article.
East London tattoo artist Desrei Holman, who’s been in the business for 25 years, confirms the rise in popularity and also the broadening out of both the social groups.
Holman, who tattoos men and women aged from 18 to 60, says gone are the days of clients being youthful students. More and more professionals are coming into Alien Station, the tattoo and body-piercing shop she owns in Vincent with her husband.
The reason, she said, seems to be that the stigma attached to tattoos over many years – as a brand mark of convicts, gangsters, criminals and deviants – is finally breaking down.
And actually there’s nothing new about tattoos. Human beings have been marking their skin, as well as filing teeth and festooning their bodies with ornaments since prehistoric times.
Using advanced technology, scientists in 2015 were able to trace the first recognisable form of this body art back 5000 years to the Copper Age, to the frozen remains of Ötzi the “Iceman”, found preserved by a glacier on the Austro-Hungarian border.
Both National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institute reported on the series of small lines detected on the frozen mummy’s lower back, ankles, knees and feet.
Scientists believe these were made by making vertical cuts into the skin and rubbing powdered charcoal into them, and that the tattoos were intended as a treatment for pain.
Similar marks were found on the upper thighs and torsos of ancient Egyptian female mummies.
Tattoos were also common in many other civilisations – the Romans, the Crusaders of the 11th and 12th centuries and the Polynesians, perhaps most famously, the Maoris of New Zealand whose tattoos were a means of story-telling, often recording a person’s family tree.
That’s all good and well, but why would a sane person in this day and age willingly pay good money to have needles stuck into their skin, a process which, by almost all accounts, is highly uncomfortable despite the numbing creams applied?
And when I say good money, it’s not cheap. Holman said prices generally range from R300 to R8000, depending on the size and intricacy of the design.
In an article, titled “If Tattoos Could Talk” in Psychology Today, Dr Kirby Farrell said the rationale behind the practice is as varied as the tattoo designs themselves.
“We’re always devising ways to enhance parts of our bodies – from diets and wigs to a Michael Jackson makeover,” said Farrell.
Lerito Roberts, the owner of East Side Ink, also in Vincent, agrees, but said generally the motive is to pay tribute to someone special, to commemorate an important date or as a means of self-expression.
“People will have a tattoo done in order to remember a loved one or to remember a phase of their lives that they’ve gone through,” he said.
A senior executive salesman in the insurance industry in East London, Jos Hall, for example, had names and birthdates of his four children tattooed onto his arm earlier this year.
“I've always had a bit of a fascination with tattoos, I’ve threatened to have one done and one day I just made the decision to do it. I found a tattoo artist, paid the deposit and went in.
I wanted something meaningful and thought, what’s more meaningful than the birthdates of my children?” he said.
Joshua Minter, also of East London, had a sailboat inside a circle inked onto his forearm this past weekend.
He did it as a reminder of encounters he had “with Jesus” while looking at an image of a sailboat he had on his bedroom wall during his boyhood.
But despite more inked arms, legs, ankles, wrists and shoulders being on display there is still disapproval in some quarters.
Hall’s wife was “horrified” and although Minter said he had lots of positive feedback, not everyone loved his tattoo.
Not entirely surprising since tattoos have been – and remain – a taboo in some Christian circles.
Roberts, who started his career as a 15-year-old using a makeshift gun made out of an old cassette player motor and a bent spoon taped together, rails against this negativity.
“We’re entering a different age and you’d have thought by now, that a guy could walk into an office with a half-sleeve and not be frowned upon.
“Unfortunately it’s not like that, you're still judged on your image, which I think is ridiculous – having a sleeve doesn’t make me incompetent to write a book or deem a doctor incompetent to examine a patient.
“We can’t continue to allow tattoos to be a representation of something bad. What about all the people who have had tattoos done for loved ones?”
In fact, he sees a tattoo as a sign that the wearer is creative and an unconventional thinker.
“I’d be more comfortable entering a doctor's surgery and seeing the doctor had a tattoo sleeve.
“To me it would show he has an open mind and thinks out of the box.
“I was thinking we should start this freedom of expression movement, because me coming into your office with a little tattoo on my shoulder doesn’t mean I'm not capable of doing the work.”
Sentimentality, self-decoration and making a power statement aside, Farrell wonders if the increase in the trend worldwide is not a symptom of something deeper – a need for permanence in a world that is increasingly unsettled and on the move.
“Tattoos are like an artificial limb, they make up for something felt to be missing or inadequate,” said Farrell.
“The tattoo also promises to stop time. The tattoo implies you’re in an eternal present, willing to change your body permanently, not worried that the image will eventually become an embarrassing cliché or a maze of wrinkles on grandma’s tired skin.”
That said, tattoo designs do morph and change from year to year just like fashions.
Nevertheless, the most popular tattoo choice in East London at present is the infinity sign. “This sign looks much like the figure eight . People want it on different parts of their bodies and in different colours,” said Holman.
And December is the most popular time for East Londoners to get tattooed.
“I'm not really sure why,” said Holman. “I think it’s because people get bonuses and may have a bit more cash and for some reason, many people want their tattoos done before Christmas or New Year, so we are always really busy at this time of year,” she said.
See you at the nearest tattoo shop – in search of permanence or infinity. — firstname.lastname@example.org. Edited by Dawn Barkhuizen