Tattoo artistry has often been described as a uniquely embodied act of self transformation; a healing, beautiful outward proclamation of individuality. While men still outnumber women in the tattoo world, that balance is slowly shifting globally and in South Africa. Reflecting on this, we catch up with five local female tattooists defying stereotypes and pushing boundaries in their field. They tell us what body modification means and how their practice appeals to the artist in each of them.
Name: Rocio Todisco
Salon: The Black Lodge, Johannesburg
Number of tattoos: 16. They all vary in size. Including a full sleeve in progress.
First tattoo: A spider at 16. It’s on my lower back, the good old tramp stamp. Ethel Laka (see below) actually did my first tattoo and she was the person who inspired me to become a tattoo artist.
Tattooing style and technique: Illustrative styles like neo [American] style, new traditional and new school.
On beauty: Definitely nothing on the exterior can make you beautiful. Like Roald Dahl once said: “If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it. A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”
Rocio began her apprenticeship in 2011. From animals to floral patterns to fairy-tale characters, her work is spectacularly intricate and often explores fantastical themes. “I draw my inspiration from life. I watch a lot of fantasy movies, read a lot of books and love to be in nature when I get the chance. I love Harry Potter and sci-fi; I am a big Star Wars geek. All of that seeps into the work,” she explains. She believes that the tattoo and body art industry is not a boy’s only club. “I work in a field where art has no gender and what counts is your willingness to push your skills,” she asserts.
Name: Ethel Laka
Salon: Ethel Laka Tattoo Studio, Johannesburg
Number of tattoos: I have never counted. The body is like a canvas, you carry on the art piece.
First tattoo: A butterfly on my lower back. I was about 20. It was tattooed by Terry Wrigley of Scotland, where I did my apprenticeship with Kevin Brown. He ran a few good tattoo studios in South Africa and took me in to show me the process and technique.
Tattooing style and technique: Realism, 3D and intricate, which is different to traditional styles. I love to blend and give life to any object and that requires a different way of tattooing, a different kind of machine, a specific thickness of pigments, and a different skin tone.
Ethel began tattooing 13 years ago after completing a health and skin care diploma with the intention to start a career in permanent make up. To her tattooing is a grand statement, one that communicates loud and clear who the wearer is. “The thing about permanency is, you have to be brave. It’s about knowing who you are and expressing it so that the world knows it too,” she explains. Her hallmark is a bold, photo-realistic style. In our interview, Ethel talks about the challenges she has experienced as a woman of colour in her industry. “It used to be difficult for me. I’ve always been a proudly black girl and have taken my work very seriously. Thankfully this is a visual form of art and we have portfolios to showcase. The stereotype is that the white fully tattooed man will do a better job. There is no way a black girl could be capable of doing, not only the job, but a grand job. It was, to some people, outrageous that I’m a black girl tattooist. It has not been that I’m a woman but that I’m a Black woman. You have to chip away at people’s trepidation and doubt. You have to find the humour in it or you’ll lose your mind.”
Name: Candice van Niekerk
Salon: Fallen Heroes in Johannesburg
Number of tattoos: I have lost count. My right leg is almost entirely covered, I have a few on my forearms and nape.
First tattoo: Still one of my favourites – a heart with an eye in the center with 3 daggers on either side, done in quite a traditional style – on the back of my forearm.
Tattooing style and technique: I do a variety of different styles – from pointalism to realism to illustrative tattoos and I enjoy all of them. I am quite fond of black work but colour always seems to creep into my tattoos (not complaining). People like coming to me for water colour inspired tattoos as well. So, I guess, it’s a mish-mash of all of the things.
Candice started tattooing full-time in August 2014. Her etchings comprise of delicate lines and fine detailing, and her works also comprise marbled, watercolor-esque designs. Candice describes how tattoos make memories for people: “tattoos tell a story and I love that. They don’t always have to have deep meanings – most of mine are just for decoration but I will always remember what I was going through and where I was (in life) at the time of getting a certain one.”
Name: Bianca Uyttenhoven
Age: 24 years old
Studio: Dakota Lee, Johannesburg
Number of tattoos: I have a full sleeve, and about 29 other tattoos all on my legs and one on my neck. I’m trying to save space for specific artists and designs, especially international artists.
First tattoo: When I was 15 years old, my mom took me to a tattoo studio to get my first tattoo, which is a really small crescent moon and a star, and today it looks like a pineapple. Just try and picture that. Haha!
Tattooing style and technique: I mostly like to do my own twist on traditional, geometric, dot work and abstract water colour styles. As a tattooist you need to be as diverse as possible, to accommodate for different clients. I wouldn’t say I have my own specific technique or application of tattooing. In general there are a lot of cool tips and tricks that I have learnt from other artists over time, like pepper shading and dot work.
On beauty: I think what makes someone beautiful is when they are comfortable in their own skin, when they smile from the inside. It shines and shows. Beauty should never be a physical thing, it’s how someone feels about themselves from the inside out, that is beauty to me.
New to tattooing, Bianca has been in the industry for just under two years, including her time spent as an apprentice. She sees skin as blank canvas waiting to be colored, stained and drawn on. “It’s like hanging a framed piece of art on your wall at home, which is an expression of who you are and what you like, so how cool is it that you can hang it on your skin?” she says. According to Bianca, tattoos are public statements of personal interests. “All of my tattoos show my likes and interests. I mean, I have a tribute portrait of my father, which obviously has a lot of meaning to me. But then I also have a tattoo of a pizza slice and in the crust it says ‘true love’ because come on, pizza will never break your heart, right?
“And then I have the most random tattoos ever just because I liked the artwork. So they do reflect who I am but not all of them have a very specific meaning. I also have three tattoos of the number 13. As every Friday 13th comes up I get a 13 tattooed. So there will probably be a lot more of those to come.” Her signatures are botanical tattoos. “I have a fascination with plants, leaves and flowers… I draw a lot of those.”
Name: Rebecca Claxton
Salon: Ink and Oil, Durban
Number of tattoos: I don’t know, they begin to all merge into one eventually.
First tattoo: My son’s name.
Tattooing style and technique: I love black work. Black and grey realism, black ‘traditional’ and fine detail.
Fascinated by body markings, Rebecca – known for her spare colour palette and traditional graphic elements – began tattooing at 18 years old. “I love body modification, I think it’s beautiful, and I have always had a passion for drawing. The two go hand in hand,” she explains. Her pieces are customised according to her clients’ preferences, she tells us. “The tattoos I do day to day rarely reflect who I am, unless I am tattooing a friend who wants my own personal designs. But the general rule is that the tattoos I do for people reflect them as a person, not me. I draw inspiration from my clients’ individual personalities. The more I get to know a client the better I become at designing for them. Otherwise, Satan. Just kidding!”.