I gave up the ghost of understanding what exactly I was getting myself into. Described as irritating to some and excruciating to others, the only way I was going to sate my curiosity was if I risked my own skin (so to speak). That blazing inferno of a Cape Town morning along with the weight of my undertaking etched the interior of my skull; this year’s Southern Ink Xposure I would get inked. It took twenty-six years to come about, but there was no room for trepidation today – I had a job to do.


Verba Volant / Scripta Manent

Words by: David Ward

Photography by: Lene Janse Van Rensburg

The first thing I noticed as I flew between the stands at Southern Ink was the obstinate lack of any discernible grimace – these were not the anarchists parents shield their impressionable children from. These were artists enthusiastic to mingle with their audiences more so than any other medium of art. The very unique aspect of the tattoo is using the audience as the medium; how much more intimate can you practically get. The sound of metallic wasps often married with a deathly silence you would get inside a tattoo parlour was now having an affair with laughter and excited conversation. These artists, whose work is usually cut off from the distraction of the outside world by design, were now in the thick of it – displayed as if stars in a counter-culture cabaret. However I never got the sense they enjoyed it as much as they should have; they were the rockstars of the most beautiful city in the world for a day and they were acting as if it were another day in the office (it was no doubt). The responsibility to artistically scar someone for life is a heavy one to carry; I suspect the most conscientious ink-dealers would allow this to influence their lifestyle. Southern Ink would never have worked without the artists’ personal presence and craft on display; although it seems that goes without saying but stating the obvious here validates these bold artists who walk the line of a needle under duress of flash photography, mind numbing questions and mainstream sensibilities.

It should be noted that the SIX 2012 Cape Town International Tattoo Convention was less of a tattoo convention and more of a counter-culture gathering of minds albeit with tattoo art at its core. If next year’s event were to suddenly open itself up to even more aspects of that, it would not be unwelcome nor irregular. Indeed, unless you were there to be drowned in the crowd unimpressively, get a tattoo or drink excessively, there was not much else to do after the first hour. From the self-depreciating popularity that is Rockabilly to your vanilla Goths, whatever definition you choose for yourself (through rebellion or submission), there was more than enough to engage your senses – more accessories and products available than you could possibly need, or know what to do with (seriously, what WAS that tube of cream really for). Emulating exactly the definition-defiance counterculture prides itself on was The Book Lounge’s selection of recommended reading; it was clear what ‘target market’ the counterculture fell into. From Tim Burton to Hunter S. Thompson, all of our dysfunctional (in ways we can only love) role models were there to share the wisdom of the rogue. For those wanting to round out their experience with a more alternative offering, perhaps Southern Ink 2013 (if the Mayans are mistaken) will incorporate a little more; without feeling wholly pandering and without detracting from what is undeniably the main attraction – the tattoo.

The loss of a single life is devastating, the loss of several thousand is a statistic; a macabre example but this is what it felt like to be surrounded by so many tattoos. At first I was starry-eyed and naïve, but one day at the tattoo convention had me feeling like a Nam veteran; “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” The fear many ‘normal’ people have with tattoos, I feel, isn’t the aesthetic quality. Okay, sometimes it is (especially if you’re plastering the devilish grin of the Pope on your calf) but most times it’s the incorrect assumption that most tattoo enthusiasts happen to be kind of anti-social, dangerous or suspicious. A soccer-mom is shopping at Woolies, in steps Lucky Diamond Rich and the rest you’ve already concluded by now – she’s instinctively uncomfortable. Unfortunately even tattoos going ‘mainstream,’ which many of the artists at Southern Ink ironically explained as regrettably natural, hasn’t stopped the perpetual ignorance and misunderstanding of the skin-art. Events like the Southern Ink serve to bring a middle-ground and understanding of the art to the public; in its own way acting as some pseudo-aquarium with tattooed fish (I definitely saw prepubescents running around pointing at “kiff tribal shit”). No matter how mainstream tattooing gets, we will always have to earn our ink at the end of the day. The incredibly courteous and skilled Anthonie from Metal Machine in Cape Town explained that no matter how wildly available and popular tattoos become, we still have to earn them through pain and conviction on top of the obvious monetary fees.

Even though a pay day is a great motivator too, as is only humanly natural.

Eventually after a few Sailor Jerry Pina Coladas and a brief blurry casing of the pavilion, I was ready to earn my own ink. Having vicariously lived through the convention it was time to become a part of it in earnest. Sitting in the chair at the Metal Machine stall, I couldn’t help but feel like an anatomy subject under academic scrutiny – eyes and cameras were on my humble little tattoo as I gritted to anticipate what was once described to me as the most ‘consistently painful feeling in existence.’ As the needle entered my skin I raised an eyebrow, “It feels like a cat scratch.” “So I’ve been told many times,” replies Anthonie.

If I were to summarise the importance of the SIX 2012 Cape Town Tattoo Convention I would say that although it’s main focus is to celebrate tattoos through its artists and enthusiasts, it’s maximum effect will be had on the ‘uninitiated,’ the ignorant, the soccer-moms – this may sound like criticism and it might be if you take intention into consideration, but be reasonable; no one need take themselves that seriously.