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Colouring Outside the Lines - Photojournalism project - Text by Dariusz Dziewanski
Exhibited at Alliance Francaise du Cap, Cape Town, South Africa, in May 2023

In what seems like a world away from the sleek tattoo studios of the City Bowl, artists in Mitchells Plain use bedrooms, living rooms, and yards as makeshift studio spaces. A few have professional tattoo machines, while others have built machines from odds and ends collected around their neighbourhoods. Most have learned their art from YouTube videos, practicing on themselves in lieu of formal training. Their will to make it as artists is a testament to what it takes to create meaning and money from tattooing in Mitchells Plain.

Increasingly, Cape Town is being recognised for its burgeoning tattoo culture. In 2016, it was ranked first in the world out of one hundred cities for affordability and parlour availability, according to the YEAY App and Global Tattoo Index. Tattoo artists working in downtown Cape Town are often booked up for months. Many have thousands of social media followers, and the best among them have their work profiled by journalists and culture writers. By contrast, tattooing in township communities like Mitchells Plain is largely ignored.

This photojournalism project sheds light on the other side of tattoo culture in Cape Town. It focuses on the work and lives of a number of artists from Mitchells Plain, capturing their struggles, successes, and motivations, using interviews and photography to portray individual and collective identity through body art. Tattoos in their communities have thus far almost exclusively been presented via menacing photos of inked-up gangsters that run alongside reports of deadly shootings. While gang violence has left an indelible mark on life in Mitchells Plain, most tattoo artists in the area refuse to have anything to do with gang signs or guns.

Instead tattooers use their art to help friends and neighbours find expression, hope, resolve, and even happiness in the face of unemployment, poverty, drugs, violence, lack of basic services, and other problems. Tattoos are – for artists and clients alike – an expression of the humanity that exists behind lurid media headlines and shocking murder statistics in one of the deadliest communities in Africa’s deadliest city.

“Everybody here knows the name Chad”, Chad says by way of introduction. “I’ll hustle twenty-four-seven… I’ll wash windows, collect bottles, or do anything that needs to be done that is legal. I’ll do it to take care of my family”. Tattooing is a part of Chad’s hustle. He relies on a homemade tattoo machine: a motor from a broken toy car that is connected to an old lollipop stick and a sewing needle he stole from his girlfriend’s mother, all of which are taped to the hollow cylinder of a BIC pen and a piece of wood. The power source is a frayed phone cable. For ink, Chad adds water to the burnt ashes of an old wristband, which he rubs between his palms to make a viscous black paste.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure in ghetto-style tattooing”, Chad explains. “If you don’t have the material that you need currently when somebody comes to you [for a tattoo], you use anything that is within your reach to make something out of nothing”. ‘Making something out of nothing’ is an apt metaphor for how Chad lives, scraping together what he can – however he can – to earn money for food, electricity, and other essentials.

But on the day we meet Chad, the tattoo he is doing is a labour of love, not money; he is etching the name of his one-year-old daughter – Cyana-Lee – onto his left hand “This [tattoo] has given me some honour in the sense of finally being able to put her name on me”, he says. After scraping some ‘ink’ into a small tin container, and burning his needle to “sanitise it”, Chad sets to work, patiently tracing with his rickety machine the letters of his daughter’s name, which he had previously drawn onto his left hand in pen. The process is painfully slow because his machine keeps breaking down. Still, he perseveres, saying: “things will always be an obstacle as long as you let them be an obstacle”.

This is another apt metaphor for Chad’s life. He has seen many obstacles. For example, Chad was shot in the eye when he was young. It turned a ghostly blue and now rests lifeless in its socket. There were also addictions to methamphetamines and Mandrax, as well as time in prison and membership in South Africa’s notorious number gangs. But Chad keeps hustling, hoping the next day will be a better one. Grinning through the silver fillings of his front teeth, Chad recites a popular saying within his community: “hou die blink kant bo” – keep the shiny part up. If he keeps at it long enough, tattooing might just help him work towards a brighter future.

“I didn’t actually choose to be a [tattoo] artist. It chose me”, says Arthur, who has been tattooing in Mitchells Plain for sixteen years. “Once I picked up a gun, I just went to it. I didn’t know about stencilling, and all of those things. I learned as I went along”. Like many other self-made tattoo artists, he has no formal training, learning first from a family member and then via YouTube tutorials. “You look online, and maybe you have training videos or artists that you follow. This gives you tips”, Arthur recalls. Eventually, he grew confident enough to practice on himself. “You’re your own canvas. I didn’t tattoo anybody else. You must tattoo yourself. That way if there are faults or problems, they’re on my skin. I’m the one that’s stuck with them and not someone else”.

Arthur is sanguine about the mistakes he made with his early tattoos, saying: “man was born to make mistakes”. His arms and legs are now mostly covered in ink. “It’s like an alternative to clothes”, he states proudly. “I don’t want to do something that’s hidden. What’s the point?”. In his favourite piece, death looms with a tattoo gun over his right shoulder and bicep. He did this tattoo on himself in a mirror in just over two hours. The piece means “tattoo ‘til I die”, and expresses Arthur’s lifelong commitment to his craft.

Arthur tells us all of this while tattooing Grant, who came to get his wife’s initial – ‘K’ for Karen – and a small heart tattooed onto his ring finger – just like a king of hearts playing card. He plans to surprise Karen with the tattoo later that day. But his new ink is more than just a declaration of love. It is also a way of staying safe in a dangerous neighbourhood. “I’ve been robbed twice [for my wedding ring]”, Grant explains. “We live in a place where we’re not able to wear those things. I wanted to get the tension off of me, to not let it happen again. So I decided, ok, I’m going to have it tattooed on me”. When it is all over, Grant holds his hand over his heart, admiring the tattoo, smiling and taking in what it represents, content no doubt that it is there forever and that nobody can steal it away from him.

“I grew up in Colorado Park… where people only thought about getting green lettering and their own names, and that was what tattooing was about”, says Jarad, recalling the part of Mitchells Plain he was raised in. “Where I grew up people didn’t have a deeper understanding of tattooing. They didn’t know like the full picture of the what the art form is”.

One popular type of tattoo in Mitchells Plain is the gang tattoo. Gangs claim bodies all over Cape Town’s second most populous township. But Jarad never had time for that. “People will get the [gangs] they are affiliated with, or money signs, or guns. But I don’t even consider that stuff tattooing. It’s like branding yourself, or marking yourself”, Jarad explains. “I know the symbolism behind it and still doesn't agree with me. I’ll stay far away from it”. There are also real dangers associated with tattooing gang members. One can be associated with a particular gang, and targeted by rivals; or if the artist does a tattoo that is not sanctioned by the gang, then there can be trouble.

Tattooing helped Jarad stay out of trouble and eventually find a career working out of Metal Machine Tattoo Studio – Cape Town's oldest tattoo spots and one of its best. Jarad specialises in colour tattoos. “I’m more colourful and playful [in my tattooing]. I add colour to people’s lives”, he says. He still will not do gang tattoos. But he has covered up a lot of them. “People from [Mitchells Plain] do come through. They want to get [tattoos] done to forget that part of their lives. They want to move on, you know to carry on”, Jarad explains. “Those are stories of redemption and all that. So it’s nice to be part of that part of people’s stories”.

He hopes that through his work he can provide tattoos that “represent personal growth or give symbolism in people’s lives”. If that’s not possible, then Jarad is excited to work with his clients to “do any other cool shit that you want, as long as it makes you happy”. That, after all, is what tattooing is all about – regardless of who you are or where you live.

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