Now days, depending on where you live, getting inked can be as easy as ordering a Big Mac. You enter some parlors, select a design from a catalogue and exit a few hours later with a pizza tattooed on your arm. This is where Samantha Miller’s tattoo studio differs. Walk in and the atmosphere is like a tranquil gallery. Masks adorn the walls and a bookshelf displays a variety of literature on the topic of tattooing. It’s not often you come across a female tattoo artist, or studio like this. We spent time chatting to Samantha about her chosen profession and the ins-and-outs of running a studio.
How did you get into the business?
When I was 19, I moved to the UK. I used to take my portfolio to studios and chat to them. Some people were nice and others weren’t. Eventually, I landed an apprenticeship.
How long does an apprenticeship take?
Anywhere between 2 – 4 years. I did 4 because I worked full time in bar to pay for my life. During your first year, you’re basically working with the machines – building and cleaning them. One day a week my mentor would allow me to get as many people as possible and sit with me while I was tattooing so if anything went wrong, he could fix it.
Surely, you don’t begin tattooing people though?
No, you practice by tattooing grapefruit. Some artists use pig skin.
You’ve been practicing in the UK for some time. What made you decide to return to SA?
The business is great here. In the UK people want to pick something off the wall. I don’t flash work.
What do you make of the tattoo culture in Cape Town?
I don’t think there is one really. I think my studio is a bit different because I do gentler stuff. It’s not very hardcore. I don’t do heavy lines and most of the work I see here is very heavy, bold and bright.
Tell us about the process of getting a tattoo?
Clients come to my studio and we have a chat so I can see what they really want to get done. Then, we start the drawing process and go back and forth until we get what we want.
Have you ever had any strange requests?
You get weird and wonderful people. With what I do, you just never know what kinds of requests I’ll get. A client once got a stripper’s name, who they’d met the night before, tattooed on them. I told them to come back in 24 hours so they could have a cooling off period. He was quite adamant and the stripper came with him.
Are there any areas you’d discourage people getting inked on?
The hands because of the wear and tear.
Are there any tattoos you’d discourage people from getting?
Names and portraits – it’s just bad karma. It’s a sure sign you’re not going to be in a relationship. I had a woman, who got her boyfriend’s name tattooed at the back of her neck. It was huge and was supposed to be a surprise. She was so excited but when she went home to tell him, he had already packed his bags and left. She then had to cover it up with a big bat sign, like Batman.
What’s like being a female tattoo artist in an industry dominated by men?
I have had experiences while I working in a studio in the UK where people would rather get work done by the other artists, because I think I did’t look hardcore enough. As for here, I don’t go to conventions and I don’t really know other studios. I think it’s a competitive industry and I’m not competitive. When I opened up, I kept to myself and I didn’t advertise. I’m lucky to have a gentle clientele, who want more spiritual stuff. I do bookings only so I can be with my clients for a period of time. Sometimes I might do a walk-in.
How would you describe your tattoo style?
I do a lot of sacred geometry, a lot of dot work and only use colour about 10% of the time. It’s the way I’ve been drawing since I was a teenager.
So, is tattooing really addictive?
I don’t think so. I think people who have an addiction, when they’re get off whatever they’re addicted to, and find tattooing that becomes the new thing.
On average, how many hours do you spend with a client?
As long as they can sit. If you take breaks then you lose momentum. Sometimes I’ll sit with a client for 6-8 hours. 4-5 hours is good. After 3 hours your body starts moving around because it’s going through quite a bit. It’s a psychological thing because you have to sit and can’t focus on anything else. Even if it’s not sore, you can still feel the burning sensation.
Do you think there’s still a stigma attached to the practice?
I think people are generally open minded although sometimes a bit conservative. You’d be surprised at the clients I have.
What makes a master tattoo artist?
Experience and the way the tattoo feels. It’s so much better if you get it done by an artist with experience because it shouldn’t be that painful.
Find Mantra Tattoos at 142 Buitnegracht Street, Cape Town. Contact Sam on 082 528 0566 or at firstname.lastname@example.org