By Tyler B. Murphy
My mate Ryan got stabbed in the back outside a bar in my old neighborhood. They snatched his friends handbag and left him thinking that he had been punched on his right shoulder-blade. Moments later as the blood cooled, he felt the wetness, and realised the truth behind the sharpened steel in the punch…
He had only recently retired his trusty “Okapi” knife, fearing that he had become too brazen with whipping it out, he was not wanting to become the bully with a knife. Ryan had mixed emotions about both not having realized the instant he had been stabbed, and the fact that he had not been adequately armed.
Regardless of what he could have done he decided not to let the occasion go unmarked. As soon as he had healed enough to possibly hold ink, he had me tattoo him on his scar. He wanted to have the same knife tattooed on him that he had carried for years. It was also very likely that it was the same make of knife that he had been stabbed with, since they have been a long time favorite in South Africa.
It was to be my first hand poked tattoo. We put it on his back, with the tip of the knife disappearing into the actual scar from the knife wound. The subject matter was criminal and the occasion it commemorated was criminal, so it was only right to make the tattoo like criminals make tattoos, or at least close to the prison-style. We didn’t burn rubber to ash and collect the ash to mix with spit for ink. We used a regular pre-made needle, long taper seven and some Talons. But we still felt pretty hard when we were done.
After that I was dead keen on doing more hand poked tattoos and that was in 2008… Since then I have started to bend and wrap the needle bar. My appreciation for the irregular and hand-made feel of the line work continues to grow. As the years pass and I look at how these tattoos age, they just get better. I find it the truest way to appreciate the inevitable decay of all things human and electronic. It takes longer than electric tattooing, but as Ryan often says, “It is not a race.”
WAT KYK JY?
I had been wanting to tattoo my buddy Ninja for years, and in mid-2009 he finally had a solid plan of what he wanted. His plan was to get some rough-looking hand poked tattoos and he wanted to do them himself. Soon after, he started to come hang out at the shop after we closed. I would help him stencil on the things he drew, and he would hand poke them. After he did the first one, we mixed up a special batch of pigment that would give the healed tattoo a more hand-made look. After the second piece he asked me if I would be keen on doing a whole bunch of hand poked tattoos on him. He stressed that I must make a special effort not to make them look too neat.
He had accumulated a number of ideas for tattoos, from studying photographs of prisoners that had been pardoned by Nelson Mandela, many years earlier. Since our country has a large criminal and prison population, the images and phrases tattooed on these prisoners where rich in symbolism and taboo. They were mostly tattoos that have been and still are being done in prisons across the country.
Some of them are humorous and others very serious, some with links to the three major gangs that have ruled life behind bars for more than 100 years. They are the type of tattoos many reformed convicts feel ashamed to wear, tattoos that can strike fear into an audience of hardened criminals.
But the era of these tattoos may soon be over. Since the fall of apartheid and the rise of narcotics profits things have changed. Street gangs have made their way into the higher echelons of the gangs inside. In the past it was forbidden to talk about prison gangs and the language used in prisons on the outside.
Whatever street gang you were affiliated to on the outside did not matter, and when you left prison you left behind your rank and gang. Now days the lines have been blurred. A life of incarceration with no prospects outside has been replaced with a desire to befriend and affiliate yourself with imprisoned members of organised crime syndicates. These connections can give you “gainful employment” on the outside.
Whatever importance is placed on these images in the future is impossible to know.They are the folk art of the down trodden, a legacy of the violent colonial system. They are the marks of those who, in their own way, refuse the system and create their own. As a performing artist, Ninja has taken the lead in showing sides of South African culture that are sometimes hidden but we are all linked to.
Yo-Landi Vi$$er and Ninja are writing songs that are making waves across the world. Part of their recipe is the way they look so closely at the details of the cultural weirdness of our country. As an outsider listening to their music, you are not going to be able to grasp all of the slang and humor, but you will get moved to either love it or hate it. It is not the kind of music that gets easily forgotten. Many of the tattoos I have done on Ninja and Yo-landie are related to their careers in music and film making…
For more info on Die Antwoord please visit their site: http://www.dieantwoord.com/