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Tattoo portraits by Niamh Walsh-Vorster: A conversation on identity and cultural belonging

The culmination of a fourth year portfolio project and a conversation with her father lead Cape Town based photographer Niamh Walsh-Vorster to what she describes as “an extended self-portrait series”. The exploratory images show people with tattoos – including Niamh herself – in the personal space of their own bedrooms. In the Q&A to follow she spoke to us about how the series came about, her journey with photography so far, and how the lens can be used for advocacy, resistance and insight.

Niamh Walsh-Vorster "I decided to get this tattoo a few days before getting it. I had no idea what I wanted and my friend asked 'what's something you loved since you were young?' and I immediately thought: Jimi Hendrix. My father introduced Hendrix to me when I was in grade 6 or 7. Little Wing is a song written by Jimi Hendrix about his mother. Essentially this tattoo reminds me of the love I have for my parents and Hendrix." © Niamh Walsh-Vorster

Niamh Walsh-Vorster

Before we talk about your tattoo portrait series, could you tell us a little bit about your journey as a photographer and the various influences that guide the kind of work you produce?

I majored in Photojournalism at the university currently known as Rhodes. I initially went there to study English and Psychology with Journalism as a fall back, but I began to enjoy it because we worked with people more often for stories. I had taken photographs for fun since high school, and I still find it a great tool.

Portrait and documentary photographs interest me the most. Long form photo stories that deal with identity and history are timeless and important, so that is what I gravitate towards.

Apart from photography you did anthropology as your second subject, how does this integrate into your work?

Anthropology was a really interesting subject that helped shaped my way of understanding (and accepting that not all needs to be understood!) the world around me. Through the readings that often try to unpack ‘The Other’, we had to learn how to reflect on ourselves in relation to people and their cultures as well as our own. It influenced how I approach the photo stories I do, as I want to present individuals in ways that are ethical, humanising and inclusive.

Simphiwe Mangi Wu Tang Clan “I got this one because of an American rapper, The Wu Tang Clan. I like those guys, they sing nicely for me.” 24 RAF “In the year of 2000 I was going to the bush...then something worse happened...I got in trouble...I go to jail...The tattoo says 24 RAF, which means Real Accident Fund. It’s not like 26,27, 28. I love to live, I love people. I don’t want to kill people. Love people. I’m a person. I don’t want, don’t need a friend. I have my children, my wife.”

Simphiwe Mangi

Could you tell us how your series of tattoo portraits came about and what you hoped to achieve through it from the start?

The photo story was for my 4th year final portfolio. It began as a conversation with my dad and became an extended self-portrait series in relation to people who also have tattoos. I included myself in the series as a way of trying to position myself as an equal with the other people in the photos, as an attempt to break power dynamics of the ‘invisible photographer/voyeuristic being’.

A lot of the conversation with my dad about tattoos linked to appropriation, identity, cultural belonging and artistic expression. It was an uncomfortable discussion as he has a very different view to what I do. The photographic portraits provide another perspective: a third voice. One quote which I used in the research of tattoos to try broaden the conversation, and one I liked, said: “Tattoos are culturally rich forms of self-expression and fulfilment, and hold power for their owners, both internally and externally.” (Garcia-Merritt, 2014: 1).

Identities are formed through this self-expression and the motivations and reasoning for why people get tattoos is different for each individual. I wanted to try and delve a bit deeper into the meanings and stories behind people’s chaps. This led me to discover that each one connects with greater social meanings and cultures.

Aesthetically, how did you approach the project?

I photographed people at home, in their bedrooms and in positions I thought were not exploitative or objectifying. I thought the subjects’ personal space that they created gave greater insight to how individuals present their room for themselves and others, as well as contextualised socio-economic spaces of each person – to a degree. The composition of these portraits have deliberately been set up as bedroom, sitting portraits to create a formality and theme, but also symbolic of the personal, intimate space of comfort.

Anjuli Daya "The quote "so it goes", is from Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, who is one of my favourite authors and whose work my father introduced me to.  The deathly Hallows symbol on my left forearm I got first, just after I turned 18. The Harry Potter series was a major part of my life growing up and still is.  The Art Nouveau on my right arm is personified Spring, from a piece called 'The Four Seasons' by Alphonse Mucha. He's my mother's favourite artist. As someone with (fading) self-harm scars I felt like I needed to put something beautiful on my body instead. Essentially I chose it because it's pretty."

Jude Daya

How do you think this series contributes to conversations around body image, heritage and identity?

I feel that the narratives provided by people in the series are powerful, honest stories of real people who have endured pain, love, loss, enlightenment – all human experiences. Getting a tattoo for some people was significant in empowering themselves and recognizing their worth. One portrait in particular tells of a battle with anorexia and learning to accept oneself. None of the images are airbrushed and so they present people in their honest form. There are tones of body positivity.

In connection to heritage and identity, tattoos (in this series specifically) have been used to affirm and remind individuals who they are/who they used to be. However, in the written up conversation with my dad, the one issue that came up about tattoos was the point that there are people who bastardise and appropriate tattoos from other cultures for their own aesthetic.

To quote what my dad says, “there’s a culture in Mozambique called the Makonde of the Cabondelgary province where they have tattoos on their face, but for them it’s a structural needing, of cultural needing and corporate needing. Sometimes the markings will identify exactly where they come from. And it’s a spiritual expression of their culture and so on, and then you get people who get random tattoos of dragons and of these Chinese symbols.”

The series does not seem to reflect anything like this, so it becomes a bit of a rhetorical judgement, but a good observation nonetheless.

Amanda Mbonda "I seriously don't know. I got it done last year in PE. I like it, I like flowers."

Amanda Mbonda

You recently captured events happening in Cape Town around the #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing movements. What are your thoughts on photography as a tool for advocacy and resistance?

The week I was able to be on the ground was a fantastic reflection on the power of visual mediums and photography. We know this from the struggle photography days during apartheid. In that week the images that were made by the likes of Imraan Christian and other photographers provided an important insight. It helped mobilise, inform and present representations that mainstream media were limited to telling.

Even in Grahamstown where xenophobic violence has recently shaken the town, portraits of women accompanied with in depth personal narratives allow for this wave of photographic representation that humanises and tells stories in immediate, intimate and ethical ways.

What else are you currently working on?

I am working on the 6th edition of Ja. Magazine with my co-creator, David Mann. And I will be touring with Bianca Woods and her band around SA later this month.

View the full captions for these images on Niamh’s Instagram.

Natasha De Souza “I have my daughter’s name tattooed on my back. Riccarda is an Italian girl name. The meaning of the name is `Powerful, Brave Ruler’. She was with me when I got the tattoo, running around in the tattoo parlour Ink Sails.”

Natasha De Souza

Neo Baepi.  “The three circles function as a Greek wedding band because my dad has one. They each represent a part of my life – my parents, my siblings and my significant other.”  Self-portrait and tattoo series.  © Niamh Walsh-Vorster

Neo Baepi

Emma Atkinson  "My neck tattoo represents who I am. I identify with bees - their unnoticed workings, femininity, strange tragedy. But it's also connected to my home and memory. When I was young, bees would often fall and drown in my family's pool. I would spend hours each day watching over it, trying to save them. Not to get recognition or reward from anyone - just because it was the right thing to do. I always want to remember that I have that capacity for goodness. It's an easy thing to forget."

Emma Atkinson

Emily Corke Birds of a feather "All my life my body has been the site of great debate. People have always though felt that they had a say in what my body should look like. For most of my life it was too big. Then it was two skinny. Now it is too weak. The comments forever fed the misconceptions that festered in my mind. It eventually led to my own hatred for my body and then to my eating disorder. On 10 October 2012 I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. My life was designed by loss. First it was the weight, then my strength, then my personality. I watched my life crumble away as fast as my body did. I became as frail, dead and dull as an old building. I had disconnected from my body. Looking in the mirror, I could only see the festering images of the misconceptions: the image of imperfection. It is shattering. And exhausting. My tattoo was a way of claiming my body for what it was and what I believed it should look like. My birds symbolise my growth from naive confidence to my broken confidence to my aspiration to believe in my own beauty. My tattoo is all about shattering those haunting misconceptions. I realised the aspiration for perfection is impossible. The aspiration for the belief in my own beauty is far more valuable. My birds take me closer to that belief."

Emily Corke

Inga Sibiya “‘If God is for me who can be against me’ is my favourite bible scripture. I’m a deeply spiritual person and I glorify God in unorthodox ways because He made me an unorthodox Christian. Many wear a crucifix around their necks but I chose to wear my crucifix, as a tattoo, on my wrist. In the same way I have the Romans 8:31 scripture as a daily reminder of my devotion to my Creator. My tattoos are glory unto Him, my eternal worship to Him.”

Inga Sibiya

David Mann Roses  “This was my first tattoo which I got in 2011. I have always wanted roses. They’re classically old school and traditionally symbolise love. My tattoo however, shows three roses at different sizes and stages of blossoming which symbolises passion, growth, and hope." Knuckle Dusters and Barber’s Knife “I got this at the end of 2013. That year was an incredibly difficult year for me in that I held a lot of negative emotion towards certain people and events in my life. I’ve never known myself to be an angry person, but that year saw me hold onto a lot of hatred which ended up affecting me and the people closest to me. Both barber’s knives and knuckle dusters represent non-violence and non-hatred in traditional tattoo symbolism. This tattoo serves as a reminder to never allow myself to hold onto anger like that again, and to remind myself how bad things can get if I do." Diamonds on shoulders “I got my diamonds at the beginning of this year. After a tough 2013, I constantly fear falling back into the bad space I was in last year. Diamonds traditionally represent emotional wealth, strength, and prosperity. Shoulders are constantly referred to as the part of your body which you bear burdens with. My diamonds remind me to keep going when life gets a bit too overwhelming.” © Niamh Walsh-Vorster

David Mann

Martha Soteriades "I got it because I really like foxes. How they look, the folklore behind them, that they're supposedly clever tricksters though I don't think it has a meaning per se...though life is long and what something means to you will change over time which is why probably all my tattoos will one day be of pictures, rather than words."

Martha Soteriades

Tarryn De Kock "It was designed by Dee Ellis under Steamed Rabbit portfolio/identity. It says 'Eigengrau', which is a scientific concept that states even in pitch dark the human eye doesn't see black, it sees grey, because our eyes transmit light. Eigengrau means 'eternal grey' and I chose it to symbolise the idea of 'in darkness there's light' but also in a more personal sense the strength of the self as an agent rather than a passive receptor. The storm setting of the piece is special to me because I find storms to be cathartic while also terrifying and destructive, and that's the feeling that accompanies that first step out of the darkness before everything becomes peaceful." © Niamh Walsh-Vorster

Tarryn De Kock

Lauren Matthew  “The African continent on my left calf,  I got this after I returned from a gap year spent in Scotland. It was my recognition and identification of being African. I did not understand my being, until I left (for a time).” Khanya Dube “Starfish are known to be able to regenerate parts that have been severed. And they are beautiful…I would like to think I have been able to grow in places where I’ve been hurt.  The stars, on our first date, my wife sand to me about stars. Since then, they have been one of the symbols of our journey together.” © Niamh Walsh-Vorster

Lauren Matthew and Khanya Dube

Sebastian Burger  "My ink essentially boils down to a love of discovery and adventure and the words: “Friends are the family we choose”. I feel it’s important to surround one’s self with people who trust and care for you, and to be the same kind of person to others. We are stuck with the family we are born with, with their fights and their terrible taste in music, but at our current age we are privileged enough to choose who we care for and cares for us.  Of course I do love my actual family, but they aren’t the people I spend my day to day with. I read Calvin and Hobbes all the time when I was growing up at the urging of my father, and so it’s also a bit of a throwback to where I came from.  The panels always had a lot to teach about life and death and I still have a few of the books lying in my room for when I’m feeling blue. The actual panel I chose has long been my favourite because it captures the vibe of enjoying life alongside those you care for, which is what I’m all about."

Sebastian Burger

Michelle Coupe  Cross on wrist “This was originally a little tribal design, which I later turned into the cross with thorns. I was brought up in a very Christian home, so this is a daily reminder of my roots, and my faith. Name on ankle “I have my daughter, Ruby’s, name on my foot, as a tribute to her.  Most painful tattoo ever! Symbolic perhaps of her birth, most pain ever!” © Niamh Walsh-Vorster

Michelle Coupe

Lumumba Mthembu "To celebrate my first year of financial independence; and to forget an ex who had cheated on me; I got the tribal jaguar on my forearm. I saw it in Garry's studio while a friend of mine was down for fest. He pierced his eyebrow; I got my first chap." "To commemorate the deaths of my Mama; Mkhulu & Malume; I got an M for Mthembu emblazoned on my shoulder. It's an upside-down Wu-Tang symbol; making it an M; the same M Methodman uses as his symbol." "My cousin Fox got his first tattoo. To show support; I got the ribbon on my wrist simply because it was pretty." "I got the V for Vendetta on my upper arm because I felt I had a legitimate beef with life." © Niamh Walsh-Vorster

Lumumba Mthembu

Kayla Roux "I have always wanted tattoos, as long as I can remember. The moment I decided on my owl, I got it and I've never looked back (except to look at my back). I think owls are cool, and they carry a lot of symbolic significance for people - from witchcraft to wisdom and strength." "Artemis and her hunting dogs represent my fascination with Greek mythology. She was a hardcore, no-nonsense woman who did things her way, too. I like that!" © Niamh Walsh-Vorster

Kayla Roux

Philippa Kleyn “I have an Africa with contours designed in the middle of it. I study geography so that’s where that came from. I’ve always wanted an Africa tattoo and I wanted it in a place that was just mine, where no one else could see it. It took me three years to decide to get it and also my dad threatened to disown me if I ever got a tattoo. He said to me “if you think you’re old enough to permanently disfigure your body then you’re old enough to pay for yourself.” I got to the stage where I could pay for myself and then I got my tattoo. When I showed it to him, because you know it was coming to December and that’s beach time. He got very quiet and very angry and said “you know what that means, no more pocket money.” © Niamh Walsh-Vorster

Philippa Kleyn

Between 10 and 5