Body art in Africa can be traced back to ancient tattoo, piercing, neck elongation and tissue stretching rituals usually performed as spiritual rites of passage. Tattooed remains from Ancient Egypt and Nubia dating as far back as 2500 BC display various picturesque and geometric projections of identity published onto flesh. These were marks made on the skin to act as armour against evil spirits and incantations. This tells us that even in its pre-colonial context, beauty was widely deemed by Africans as a bi-product of suffering; as an attribute amplified yet not quite defined by the orchestrated traumas endured in order for it to be fully revealed to the world.
Like a sociological tattoo, the narrative of African bondage and oppression has been permanently etched onto the collective black psyche. It's a manmade blemish that grows as we grow. Its damning symbology contorts to the rhythm of our broadest gestures. The storms of colonial history are left unavoidably embroidered on all melanin enriched skins. Narratives as elastic and dynamic as the bodies they're documented on. Entire paragraphs of colonized narrative are redacted by the scars of engineered erasure, leaving even our dreams edited by white oppression.
Tattoos and other cosmetic body modifications mutilate us into individualized forms of beauty similarly to the way the cruelty of oppression has a tendency to synchronize groups into beautiful forms of resistance. It's a beauty which blooms from the most brutal mutilations. Jazz, rap and black conscious activism are all allergic reactions to the mass-induced tragedies that have cornered black people into myriad therapeutic forms of self-expression.
In the West, as well as in South Africa, which in many ways is still an appendage of the West in terms of its value systems, tattoos have almost always been the chosen exoskeleton of white dominated subcultures like biker, metal and punk scenes. Like in the US, South Africa's legacy of segregation seeps into our daily preconceptions. All aspects of culture are demarcated and divided across racial lines. The ironic identity politics of body art in this country is that it's seen as a white thing even though it adorned the bodies of our ancestors and those of aboriginal people all over the world since long before their colonizers arrived to brand them with new far more insoluble markings.
A new wave of tattoo artists of colour in South Africa has emerged to reclaim the practice of tattooing as an aboriginal art form. For their black and brown clientele the reclamation is twofold. They get to choose their wounds instead of having them imposed upon them by whiteness. These are the five black and brown tattoo artists winning in a white dominated subculture.
1. Angelo Pillay- Rising Dragon JHB
Angelo Pillay is the owner of Rising Dragon Tattoo, a pristine studio situated in the affluent Fourways suburb in Johannesburg. He started tattooing in 2001 at the age of nineteen by making needles each day for each tattoo. Anjelo's since evolved into one of the most established tattoo artists in the country, boasting an elite clientele list adorned by celebrities and some of the dissident figures of local business and politics. Angelo's style characterized by his dream-like assemblages of iconic imagery rendered with photo realistic precision.
Warren Petersen, the acclaimed proprietor of Baked Ink in Cape Town, is in a league of his own as a tattooist. Originally from the Port Elizabeth, Warren's unique style is largely informed by his background as a fine arts graduate and graffiti artist. He's known for his mural-like Yakuza style sleeves and body-suits typically rich in colour and mythological imagery. He treats his clients as living breathing canvases exporting his oeuvre into the moving world. Though his tattoos typically take longer to finish due to their sheer scale, the end products are always breath-taking bodily masterpieces that are guaranteed to cause those stop-and-gawk reactions at the mall
With over nine years apprenticing in studios Ethel Laka finally decided to pursue her ambition of opening a studio of her own. She's now based in the trendy Jo'burg Maboneng where she runs an exclusive heavily booked studio known for its feminist approach to the medium. She prefers to engage potential clients in thorough dialogues on the proposed work and its rationale long before she decides whether to take them on. It's a process not based on profit but on love for the both human body and spirit's potential for genuine metamorphosis, and more importantly on how those changes can interact with each other. Ethel is best known for her deft detailed work in flora, fauna and portraiture work. As one of the only black female tattoo artists in the game, she's changing the image of more than just her clients with her work.
4. Ndumiso Ramathe and Sbu Dlamini, Soweto Ink JHB
Ndumiso Ramathe and Sbu Dlamini founded their now iconic Soweto Ink brand in 2014. What began as a cramped tattoo lodged in the belly of Soweto has since grown into one of the iconic township's landmark sites and an annual festival celebrating black tattoo culture and promoting health and safety practices in the budding local industry. The Soweto Ink Festival takes place in December every year and is undoubtedly one of the coolest cultural events in South Africa. In terms of their own work, Ndu and Sbu collaborate on pieces and are acclaimed for being some of the only artists who specialize in darker skin tones. Their style is recognizable by its bold lines and its fluorescent take on Afrocentric motifs and iconography.
Pretorian born Leigh Soulink is the eminent owner of Sleight of Hand Tattoos in Observatory, Cape Town. The nomadic tattoo and digital artist well known for his incredibly detailed etch and dot work pieces in black and grey. Apart from the intricacy of their finish what makes Leigh's tattoos particularly stand out is their strength conceptually. His themes are centred somewhere between the organic and the speculative, and his motifs seem to bloom with imagery that borders between the playful and the philosophical. The sheer subtlety of his genius keeps Leigh Soulink as one of the most sought after guest tattoo artists in the country.