South Africa has an outstanding reputation as an up-and-coming holiday destination. But, apart from a few exceptions, not much is heard about tattooists from the Cape. Of course they do exist, but the weak South African currency and pricy flights make the exchange of knowledge and inspiration through overseas visits a rather difficult affair.
Besides Cape Town, subtropical Durban is one of the main spots where body artists gather in South Africa. Malcolm of Electric Eye Tattoo, located in one of the largest shopping malls in the southern hemisphere, had enough of isolation. He and his friends Andrew Loubser and Sean of Zulu Tattoo in Dublin invited over a group of European artists fondly known as the Malaka Crew. Those travel-happy fellows (whose most notable member is tattoo legend Bernie Luther of Tattoo Demon in Vienna) were eager to come. As was I. Derek planned on participating in Durban as well, just like Simon and Manuela from Wildfire, another top address in Cape Town. So, after a week in Cape Town, my old haunts, we are boarding a Kulula flight to Durban, a two-hour journey across this vast and beautiful country.
What? A rather odd announcement on the plane jolts me awake. “Smoking on the plane is prohibited in the toilets. Our bathrooms are fitted with smoke detectors and video cameras for the captain’s entertainment. The fine for smoking is 5,000 SA Rands, which is the approximate cost of a flat screen TV monitor!”
South Africans DO have a good sense of humor, but a flight attendant announcing that we are shuffled across the country by a voyeuristic pilot, is taking it a bit far, isn’t it? I join the laughter in the cabin anyway.
The first highlight was a three-day trip to a national park to the north of Durban, put together by the organizers of the convention. The drive featured plenty of wild animals (and that’s just the tattooists) and were loads of fun. This adventure will never be forgotten by the participating artists (and neither by all the rhinos, giraffe and zebras of Hluhluwe National Park). But apart from the incredible recreational value of the journey with its game lodges, beach hotels, excellent seafood and outstanding wines, the international visitors mainly came to participate in an event to bring people together and to contribute to the rising standards of South African tattooing.
Therefore, when the gates of the Ocean Conference Centre in Durban North Beach opened on Saturday morning, everybody was wide awake and well ready to go. There was hardly a cooler location imaginable than this modern, air-conditioned hall with direct access to one of the most popular surfing beaches in the country. Where else can one pursue one’s trade with a sea view, while beach boys and girls linger in the aisles? The bar and nearby restaurants had excellent food and drinks for rock bottom prices (especially for those coming with foreign currency). But even for the local tattoo fans, who traveled here from all over the country, the prices, including the entrance, were definitely affordable. Even with the oddly early opening hours (10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on both days), attendances were respectable, with about two thousand paying guests over the weekend. Not bad, especially in a country where tattooing isn’t the media circus it has become in Europe and the U.S.
As guests of honor, the Malaka Crew were assigned an entire window booth, where they were quickly booked out for the weekend, especially Bernie Luther, who had been guesting at Metal Machine Tattoo (Cape Town). He was swamped with demand for his work and kept on tattooing nonstop, supported by his co-worker Marc from Tattoo Demon, Vienna. Their mate Go/Go from Germany was busy as well, but certainly found time to get an African scarification design as a facial tattoo by his new South African friend Royston. Adam from Switzerland and Nestor (a proud Basque artist) tattooed both feet of crazy South African Joey, who was barely able to hobble across the hall after that. The charming Joey used to live in the U.S., where he got an entire backpiece and forearm tattooed within eight days by tribal guru Leo Zulueta.
Tribal tattoos are also the specialty of Völli (Kaha Tattoo), a German with Kiwi roots, who is particularly skilled at inking Maori Moko (with the blessing of his Maori friends), while Basti, a young talent from Germany, prefers color, and won a well-deserved trophy with a nice colour portrait.
It seems that color work is wildly popular in South Africa at the moment, with young talents like Danny of Voodoo Ink (Pretoria), Ronald of Tattoolya or Ryan (Phoenix Tattoo Parlour) all having fun designing and inking new-school tattoos. Convention organizer Malcolm (a.k.a. Mully) even created his own category, Color―Polynesian Style, jokingly dubbed Mully-nesian!
The fact that Derek Baker masters almost all genres of tattooing was impressively demonstrated again, when he bagged three first places in different categories to become the most successful artist of the weekend. And there was another happy reunion that weekend: Skilled hand-poker “Tatu Pier” Makanda, formerly of England’s Temple Tattoo and Into You, has retreated to a rural town in South Africa. Although Pier is enjoying the peace of his village (tattooing, working his garden and trying his hands at beekeeping), he had come to town to greet a bunch of his old friends from Europe.
A lot of work and even more fun let the weekend pass by all too quickly, and, in the end, everybody was happy that an enjoyable harbor cruise brought old and new-found friends together for a farewell from a country that is known for its hospitality. Let’s just hope that the goodbyes aren’t for long. Another Durban convention is already in the planning stages, as well as the long-awaited first international Cape Town convention, penciled in for January 2009.
P.S. On the way back to Cape Town, the Kulula flight announcement before de-boarding was the following: “Please be aware that any items left behind in the cabin will be evenly distributed among the crew. So, don’t forget your spouses, friends and children!”
South Africans really do have a sense of humor.
Wherever I lay my head is home!