While the ink is punctured into his skin, a middle-aged man, with his arm resting on the chair, smiles and chats nonchalantly to his wife. She is waiting patiently for her turn. Both have a carefree demeanour as they get scripts tattooed on their arms. Another lies with his hands behind his head as if he were lying on the beach.
These unusually relaxed people are inside Fallen Heroes, a tattoo studio on one of the busiest streets in Parkhurst, a suburb in Johannesburg. Inside, the constantly buzzing machines compete with the music and chatter in the background. The scent of freshly-brewed coffee wafts through the air as the artists concentrate on their masterpieces.
Beautiful artwork adorns the walls, everything is immaculately clean and there is a tidy little garden at the back. It is strangely soothing and couldn’t be further from the grimy parlours seen in movies.
“It’s fun for me, it’s not really a job. I come to work and I color in,” says Jinx, one of the artists at Fallen Heroes.
Ethel Laka recently opened her own tattoo shop near Auckland Park in Johannesburg. Ethel’s Tattoo Studio is surrounded by creative businesses, vibey restaurants and bakeries. She is the only artist in her studio.
“I’m very comfortable with solitude,” she says.
Laka is an artist that chooses to use skin as her canvas.
“I love the skin tones and the shades they give. You can get so many different hues on different colored skins,” she says.
She also enjoys the social aspect of her profession.
“The human interaction is wonderful. It’s priceless stuff. You meet people every day and it’s fulfilling when you blow their minds. I live for things like that.”
“People want to connect; they want to talk to you. And it’s the vibe in the shop, the music, the attitude, how you treat them. Every day is different.”
Although they love their work, the life of a tattoo artist is not all play.
“Tattooing is really hard and humbling. It can be very discouraging because there are so many variables and you can feel like you’re getting it wrong a lot of the time,” says La, another artist at Fallen Heroes.
“It’s quite stressful sometimes but I don’t get too nervous anymore,” says Candi, also of Fallen Heroes.
“Everyone thinks we have a rock star lifestyle and go and get drunk and party. It’s not like that. You come in to work and tattoo from 10 ‘til six, then you go home, do designs, go to sleep and come back. It consumes your life,” says Jinx, who says if she had her way she would have dropped out of school to be a tattoo artist.
“My mom had a brain and made me finish.”
These women defy convention, especially in South Africa, which Laka describes as conservative. All have tattoos on their body. Although it is rare, they occasionally get judged because of the artwork on their bodies.
“Sometimes I’ll be in a mall and parents will put their kids behind them like I’m going to steal their child! I get mixed reviews and it’s from one extreme to the next,” says Jinx.
Glen Hodgson, the bassist in multi-platinum selling South African band, The Parlotones, gets some of his tattoos done by Marisa Noordergraaf at Tattoolya and Meghan Potgieter at True Blue Tattoos. Even though he is a rock star, his tattoos generate strange reactions.
“I get a lot of double takes; in the shops, at the golf course. Kids just stare at me! Everyone asks me if they’re permanent. It’s like they have never seen a tattoo before. Once, a lady at the check-in counter at an airport in Botswana took one look at me and outright refused to serve me! I’ve had people in shops try to ‘save me’ too. One guy told me I need to tattoo Jesus in my heart. I said, ‘It’s okay, I’ve already got him on my arm’. It seems that a lot of people just assume you’re trouble because you have tattoos,” says Hodgson.
Despite these reactions, tattoos are becoming more popular.
“It’s very hip. I’m amazed by how popular it is now. I never thought my most profitable enterprise in business would be tattooing,” says La.
“Media has a big part to play in it. People see television programs, like Miami Ink and Tattoo Nightmares, and come in the next day and want the same thing done. They want to come in and hold your hand; they want to cry about it because the girl on TV was crying about it… It’s free advertising, I love it,” says Laka.
Social media also creates business for these artists. The most common tattoo designs can be found there.
“If you look on Pinterest, anything on there. We have a lot of infinity signs and the birds bursting out of the feather,” says La.
“Hopefully that trend will go away quite soon,” says Jinx.
Laka gets the same requests and says it can get tedious, but she accepts it because she sees herself doing a service.
“You get tired of it, but wow, when you get a chance to do that outrageous eye the size of a ruler, or a bloody skull! Those are the things that inspire us,” says Laka, ever a fan of the macabre.
“Some things you want to do for the artistic value. A skull and the blood and the maggots would make a great tattoo but you can’t sell it to everybody.”
There is still some taboo associated with permanently inking your skin.
“There is an awareness about placement because people are worried about their jobs. Or in the case of women, their husbands don’t want them to be too big,” says La.
“A lot of people think that tattoos ruin your body, especially on a woman. It’s getting better but there will always be closed-minded people in the world,” adds Candi.
Health issues can be a problem. Pain and swelling can occur as well as infections, such as hepatitis.
“I’ve seen them and they happen a lot more than people like to admit. The problem is people get tattoos from unhygienic studios,” says Laka.
“There are three or four sterilizing processes that happen before you can start with the tattoo. Also, the needles are one-use needles. Other than the machine and the grip, everything gets thrown away,” says Jinx.
The artists also have to be wary about clients that are pregnant or on blood-thinning medication.
Post her interview with us, La noticed a small bump on her client’s stomach and had to turn her away after finding out she was an expectant mother.
A lot of people don’t get tattoos because they think it won’t look good as they get older.
“When I’m 80 years old, I’m probably going to be worrying about a hip replacement rather than what I look like. I’m also not going to be running on the beach in a bikini,” says Jinx.
“By the time I’m wrinkly, it’ll be normal for people to have tattoos,” says Candi.
People sometimes try and find a personal meaning to get a tattoo but the artists say you need to be careful about this.
“Meaning fluctuates and you change while your skin stays your skin. Tattoos should be decorative,” says La.
“If you enjoy a picture or a piece of art, you don’t need to link it with anything. Most of my tattoos are just pictures that I found along the way,” says Jinx.
Tattoos can be more than decorative though. They are often used to transform the scars on women who have had mastectomies.
Laka says she has done many areolar reconstruction tattoos and is happy to help women restore their confidence. Being a woman tattoo artist helps with this work.
“If a client wants a tattoo on their breast or has had breast cancer, they tend to go to a woman because they feel more comfortable,” says Jinx.
Whatever the reason for getting them, tattoos are becoming more popular. Candi is reluctant to call it a trend though.
“Tattoos last forever, trends don’t.”