Black and inking – The South African tattoo artists challenging the face of the art form

The art of tattooing is one of the highest forms of self-expression, and gives people the chance to express their struggles and triumphs using illustrations and text on their bodies.

Known as still a very white, male-dominated space, the tattoo industry is seeing a shift in representation, as more diverse artists take part in the scene. These artists are breaking away from the stereotypes and giving a new voice to the culture. We take a look at some of them.

Sibusiso ‘Tiger’ Nkabinde

Studio: Black Crystal Ink Tattoo
Location: Naledi, Soweto

©Tshepiso Mabula

Soweto-born artist Sibusiso “Tiger” Nkabinde knew he was meant to be a tattoo artist while he was still in high school. Tiger, who began tattooing professionally in 2003, has inked top South African soccer players like Brian Baloyi, Morgan Gould and Teko Modise. He has also collaborated with brands like Jack Daniels.
What influences your work?
Life and my clients’ experiences. My approach to every tattoo is understanding why the client wants the tattoo, what it means to them and what the client wants it to look like
What are your future plans?
I want to expand my business and have a string of tattoo studios around Soweto, and the country.

©Tshepiso Mabula

©Tshepiso Mabula

Katlego Matjila

Studio: Hummingbird SA
Location: Soshanguve, Pretoria

Based in Soshanguve, Pretoria, Katlego Matjila is the founder of the Hummingbird SA Tattoo Studio. Katlego, who started tattooing in 2010, says he aims to elevate his studio to become one of the most respected parlours in the country.

Describe your experience as a tattoo artist in the industry
Being a black tattoo artist can really be challenging, as it is a white dominant Industry. But I have realised that nothing is impossible. Through hard work and patience, I can be the best at what I do.
What has been your community’s reaction to your work?
Tattooing isn’t accepted on a positive note within the black community, so I made it my duty to educate and create awesome tattoos that are a form of expression.

Ethel Laka

Studio: Ethel Tattoos
Location: Maboneng Precinct, Joburg

Ethel Laka started tattooing a little over 13 years ago. With a studio in Joburg’s Maboneng Precinct, she is steadily elevating her status as an artist.

How did you start tattooing?
I did my apprenticeship at the Terry Wrigley Tattoo studio in Glasgow City, Scotland. I was based there for a few months and then came back home to start working at one of his tattoo studios here for a few years,. This has led me to now running my own private studio, working by myself – no one else here but roots, reggae and tattooing.
Describe your experience of being a black tattoo artist in the industry
Everybody has their own perceptions. I have had clients who refused to get tattooed by me even after viewing my portfolio.

Lehlohonolo ‘Ryza Phatzo’ Letebele

Studio: True Black Body Arts Studio
Location: Newtown, Joburg

Based in the heart of the city, the True Black Body Arts Studio is quickly growing into an iconic tattoo parlour, owned by graffiti and tattoo artist Lehlohonolo “Ryza Phatzo” Letebele. Ryza, who started tattooing professionally in 2012, says the growing culture of tattoos is changing the stereotypes around the art form.

What reactions did you get from friends and family about your profession?
At first people thought it was a little bizarre but in time the culture grew. Even though tattoos were considered evil and dirty, the perception has changed and they have become some sort of fashion accessory and a new form of expression.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I have engaged with so many people from different walks of life and that has been a privilege for me.
Exciting future plans?
To grow the business and promote ethical professional standards in the industry amongst black artists. I want to reach out to isolated communities and encourage safe and hygienic practice.

Thabiso ‘Tazz’ Perman

Studio: Soweto Ink
Location: Diepkloof, Soweto

©Tshepiso Mabula

Tabiso AKA Tazzmaniac is one of the leading tattoo artists in Soweto. Thabiso, who is also a member of the Soweto Ink Crew, started tattooing in 2005 and says he finds inspiration in everyday life. He loves doing tattoos, he says, because his artwork is not confined to a gallery space, so everyone can see it.
What inspires the kind of work you create?
I am inspired by my emotions. I think being able to create art on people’s skins makes me feel good.
What do your own tattoos mean?
The most significant tattoos I have are the ones on my left arm. Most of them symbolise burning and fire, and that represents a time in my life when I struggled a lot.

©Tshepiso Mabula

Dada Khanyisa

Location: Cape Town
As a multi-faceted artist, Dada Khanyisa continues to shift conversations with his thought provoking work that depicts everyday life in South Africa. The artist, who was recently featured in 10and5’s Bayeza 2017 Top 10, is also a tattoo artist and says he favours ink with intricate line details, among other styles.

When did you start tattooing?
I started at the end of 2014, so its been almost three years.
Describe your experience as a tattoo artist.
I’m a multi-disciplinary artist who uses ink and a tattoo machine as one of my creative outlets. My views on the greater tattoo community are not as informed as they would be if I was practicing in a tattoo parlour and solely doing tattoos. But It has come to my attention that there are a few prominent black tattoo artists and that might have something to do with how hard it is to get an apprenticeship.

Sbusiso ‘Sbu Wama Tattoo’ Dlamini

Studio: Soweto Ink
Location: Diepkloof, Soweto

©Tshepiso Mabula

Born in Port Shepstone in KwaZulu-Natal, Joburg-based tattoo artist S’busiso Dlamini (or Sbu Wama Tattoo). Sbu, who started tattooing a decade ago, says although he has received some harsh criticism for his tattoos, he aims to break the stereotypes surrounding the culture.
What inspires the kind of work you create?
I am inspired by the idea of death and mortality. The fact that we only have a limited time on earth gives more meaning to the kind of work I create; the feeling that everything can end at anytime inspires me to create more
What do you enjoy most about your work?
It’s the traveling that I love. I am a farm boy and because of tattooing I got to get out of the rural area and meet great people along the way.

©Tshepiso Mabula

©Tshepiso Mabula


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