Offering a snapshot of a growing subculture, the Cape Town International Tattoo Convention attracts people as diverse as the countries they come from. Some are pretty conventional. Some certainly aren’t.
Bill has a favourite question. It’s an astute insight fired off at any tattoo artist a little too impressed by their own abilities. “Do you realise that some day, aside from photographs, there will be no record of your work? Your canvases will all be dead.”
Delivered with an amused twinkle, it’s an effective reality check. “You should see their faces when I ask them,” says the New Yorker. “They turn white.”
It’s something of a naughty chirp, given its source. The name Bill DeMichele is synonymous with tattooing as an art form. As a photographer documenting this subculture for the past 25 years, he’s been instrumental in re-adjusting the public’s perception. DeMichele’s acclaimed 1993 book, The Illustrated Woman, added momentum to a notion that tattoos were no longer the domain of bikers, criminals and freaks, but a tasteful and often very beautiful form of body adornment.
Like many tattoo devotees, DeMichele spends a lot time travelling, covering conventions from Amsterdam to Borneo. He was at the first of its kind – Seattle, 1975 – and while these early events were a crucial meeting point for the small global community, it also gave the artists the opportunity to make some cash tattooing attendees or ‘collectors’, as is the insider term for their clients.
These days, though, it’s mostly about the latter and each artist will rent a space or booth at a convention, spending the days working hard. They’ve become like big shopping malls and often the artists never see their peers, apart from the person working in the adjacent booth.
The Cape Town International Tattoo Convention (known locally as Southern Ink), however, bucks this trend, and it’s the reason people like DeMichele are in Cape Town. Now in its fourth year, it has once again attracted tattoo artists, vendors and press from around the world.
It is a much-anticipated event among this travelling circus of artists. Over the past decade, tattooing has come charging out of the shadows and inked the words “art form” across many a conservative brow. As result, the ever larger conventions have also become more impersonal. Up against this, Southern Ink is an intentional throwback. There’s a meet-and-greet party for the artists the day before it all kicks off, as well as a small wrap party to mark its close. The person behind it all, and one of South Africa’s foremost tattoo artists herself, is Manuela Gray. She’s made sure the event is a welcoming encounter for all attending.
“I’ve tried to make Southern Ink a more personal experience for the artists,” she says. “I want them to hang out with each other – it mustn’t feel like a production line, so it’s a more engaging experience. I think the public sense this too.”
It’s this approach that has attracted tattoo artists from superstar Robert Hernandez to Newton Omondi Wasonga, a Kenyan attending his first convention. You’d be wrong to assume Wasonga represents some ancient tribal culture of Kenyan skin art. “It does exist in
some small tribes on the coast, but that was just for the women,” he says. Instead Wasonga’s interest and style are as global as any of his fellow artists here at Southern Ink. The man from Malindi has flames and a fine semi-hollow body Gibson guitar tattooed on one arm. “Tattooing has become very big in the cities like Nairobi,” he says. “In the central business district there are probably about 30 tattoo shops at the moment.”
Read the full story in March's issue of The Red Bulletin.