By Waldo Del Rocca
Thomas Morgan (Spotlight Tattoo) and Shon Lindauer (formerly of Thicker Than Water) recently travelled to South Africa… The schedule: One week in Cape Town, one week in Durban, one week in Johannesburg and then one last week back in Cape Town. Thomas and Shon got here on the 10th and 11th of June, for me this was some nerve wrecking stuff (only knowing them online, following and respecting their work) not knowing who they are, as reputation sometimes proceeds. I didn’t know what to expect…
I picked Thomas up first, the man is intimidating and as legit as it gets, a tattooer’s tattooer. I was stoked he was in Africa and so was he. We drove from the airport back to the city, the highway leading back into Cape Town from the airport is lined with informal settlements and shanty towns as far as your eye can see. It’s rural and sketchy. Thomas knew he was in Africa, for sure.
The following day we caught a shuttle to go fetch Shon at the airport. We went straight to the shop where I was situated at the time (Sins of Style) to meet everybody and hang out.
The next week Thomas and Shon spent in Cape Town, it was slow. The air was thick at the shop, thick enough to choke on. Something happened while I was not there, the owner, Tyler B. Murphy took offence to something that Thomas and Shon drew, also I think this was to a lack of insight to his understanding to their history and vice-versa, different cultures, different issues…
We spend our time left in Cape Town sightseeing and driving around, Thomas and Shon where itching to tattoo by this time and work was scarce. This got me thinking and realized a crucial point of South African tattooing history…
America has a rich and overwhelming tattoo history that dates back to the mid-1800s. In short, not to bore you with too much of the history, South Africa does not have the rich and powerful foundations of tattoo heritage that America or Europe boast.
Although, South African tattooing dates back to the late-1800s, (or shall I just say Englishmen tattooing on South Africa soil) I believe the vast difference in western population in South Africa and the Americas/Europe is one of the key factors why tattooing is a very misunderstood and up until quite recently a very taboo topic of interest, excluding the extreme conservative and narrow beliefs of previous regimes.
Real street shops are not a popular thing in South Africa, real traditional tattooing is not popular and not understood, the public misperception and the lack of general tattoo knowledge, while this is not entirely a bad thing, I also do not favor it either. Nobody does proper flash tattoos, nobody paints proper flash in South Africa…
Back to the trip, after the first week in Cape Town it was off to Durban, due to a last-minute change of plans as Tyler didn’t want to travel with them because of the previous misunderstanding I opted to drive and kick it in Durban and Johannesburg with them. I originally wanted to, but I was tight on funds, and now I was left with no option, who wouldn’t want to hang out with great tattooers anyway? I was stoked with not having an option and it’s always better and safer to have a guide, a bit of local knowledge is always welcomed.
The drive is 16-plus hours to Durban through one of the most rural and beautiful provinces of South Africa, the Eastern Cape… lets hit the road! Surfboards on the roof and tattoo gear in the boot, off we went. Driving long distance with people you don’t know is a good way to get to know them or in some sense understand them. The whole world has the same issues, just more escalated in some countries than others, and some just a tad more fucked up.
We reached Durban in the morning hours, I took a bit of an unwanted four-hour wrong turn and detour, patience was wearing thin when we finally reached Durban. The next day we showed up at Mully’s shop, Electric Eye Tattoos in Durban, definitely has the best view of any tattoo shop in Africa, palm trees and the Pacific Ocean, all day, every day.
In Durban the mood was better, the people where friendlier and some tattoos where getting done, but unfortunately on African time and African money…
We hung out with Mully for most of our stay in Durban, he put us up in his house and took good care of us. Shon and Thomas hooked Mully up with a tattoo each, eagle on his chest and a pelican on the inside of his knee…
We were at the shop everyday to get some tattoos done but the punting was slow, we stayed on longer in Durban than we originally planned just because the vibe was so much better.
After almost two weeks of chillin’ with a great view in subtropical conditions we hit the road to a game farm on the Tugela river with Mully and a couple of his friends for some hunting and bushwhacking before we head off to Jo’burg.
When we got to the farm it was already dark. I was driving in my city car, an oldish Renault and following Mully in his Ford 4×4. Now I am sure what I pulled off with my Renault that night has never been attempted and done before, as Mully hit the dirt road onto the farm it slowly started to incline, eventually after dodging and manoeuvring past a couple of large boulders the road hit a 60 degree incline upwards, which resembled the side of a mountain.
With all the manoeuvring up to that point there was no turning back, I tried to move forward but needed a bit of a run-up. I saw Mully’s 4×4 stopped at the top and Thomas got out with a real concerned look on his face, selling the idea to me that there is no way in hell that I’m getting up there! Shon was motivating me from the back seat, “This is all you man, you can do this.”
I just figured the best path up and floored it, with the idea that we won’t make it, we did! Sucks that we didn’t get any photographic evidence, but when you see Thomas ask him he had a front row seat and Shon, he was in the back seat. I climbed a mountain in a Renault!
The next morning we went hunting. It was a little bit crazy as the guys that we were going to shoot with were already boozed-up by 10 a.m. and firing guns, armed with four trekkers and a Land Rover.
We set off to find a Kudu, which we shot just a couple of hours later.
The next day we made off to Johannesburg, which was just a six hour drive away! In Jo’burg the same happened, almost no work to do between five tattoo shops. Thomas and Shon gave up on the idea of doing any good amount of work on the rest of the trip and decided to just kick it at a guest house in Northcliff, Johannesburg.
This is where I started thinking a lot, talking about it and figuring it out, as I felt pretty bad for Thomas and Shon coming out and not having enough work, and this takes me back to the history and heritage of South African tattooing…
Although, I felt somewhat responsible I realized I can’t be responsible for a market that is almost non-existent. But, yes a big BUT, we can be responsible for making that change and putting some tradition and heritage back into the industry by promoting good tattooing, putting respect and thanks where it’s due… A long-term commitment and responsibility for tattooing in South Africa, with help from a lot of tattooers locally and internationally this can be possible.
Also, the Cape Town International Tattoo Convention (SIX) put together by Manuela Gray from Wildfire Tattoos, is putting South African tattooing in the spotlight. South Africa has some amazing tattooers on and beyond international standards, the industry down here is not what it used to be.
This is where I set out the idea to create a tattoos hop that serves both the purpose of a proper street shop and a custom tattoo shop. A real tattoo shop, no bullshit. Just tattooing. Educating people and clients on what a good tattoo is, taking their idea or design and make it into a good tattoo that is timeless, or flash off the wall, isn’t that what tattooing should be, whatever comes through the door? Whether traditional, realism or any another style for that matter, just tattooing?
Follow Thomas Morgan and Shon Lindauer’s travelling blog:
And special thanks to Thomas Morgan.