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THE WAY WE LIVED.   6. Tattoos. [8min read].  

I love reading tattoos and often wonder about many of their origins.  Did they marry the person whose name they branded on theselves? These days a safer bet is to use one’s children’s names. At least, they will not normally divorce the parents.

As a doctor, one saw many of these tattoos as patients stripped for their examinations.  Some embarassing tattoos dipped their way down towards the nether regions!

In South Africa, unsavoury tattoos are often on people  “of interest” to police. Gang-affiliated tattoos are common in all countries, and one could only wonder at the fate of having a gang tattoo in the wrong part of town. 

Gangster tattoos.  26/XXVI is one of three major prison gangs.                                     26, 27 and 28 gangs have in excess of a hundred thousand members in prison and in Cape Town townships. [1]

Criminals and the neighbourhood toughs in Cape Town often had chilling tattoos.  It was not unusual to have tears tattooed below the eyes. Besides the unspoken pain behind those tears, I often wondered whether it was the permanent finger stuck up to all and sundry.  Was it a rebuff to those who marginalised the bearer of those tattooed tears?

I have also seen these tears in New Zealand and Australia.  Were their sad origins similar? These countries are so different in the opportunities that are available to their citizens. People from the “lucky” countries versus those from the seriously disadvantaged in Africa?

What’s the reason for this immolation?  Was it the pain of separation from a loved one, the breaking of a mother’s heart?  Is social alienation a cause? Many are from the wrong end of the ghetto or town.  In Cape Town, we often called these places “kreefgat”- crayfish hole – where even the police were reluctant to enter.

Around 1980, I examined a university student studying engineering.  He had a few coarse tattoos including a prison gang number. I asked him about it.  He had been imprisoned during the start of the student revolution in mid-1976.  Part of a deliberate government policy was to put the student activists in with the most violent prisoners.  For him it was sink or swim and he joined one of the prison gangs which ensured his survival.  I did not go into the details of his membership, but enrolment requires a significant violent act and getting out of a gang was not easy. Some ex-members are involved in rehabilitation programmes.

One of my favourite tattoos was “I broke my mother’s heart to please friends”. It spoke volumes of the youth starting out on the pathway of recidivism.  Many of the tattoos were crude, often done at home or while in borstals or prison.

The people that troubled me the most were those who often seemed to have given up on society.  They seemed apathetic, antisocial and psychopathic.  Often seen was  “cut on the dotted line” located above or below a line of dashes tattooed on the lower neck.  Someone with such poor regard for his own life must have equally low regard for the life of others.

“Born to kill” or “killer on the loose” always disturbed me. Almost without exception, these men had a cold, lifeless stare, the kind of Charles Manson look that can haunt one. [He has a swastika tattooed between the eyes – another one of those “up yours,” anti-establishment messages].They project a numbing, detachment. Spurned by society, they, in turn, reject society and its norms. These were guys to be feared on a dark night. It’s a chilling thought that the same blank look is visible in all countries in people with similar tattoos.

Some Australian tattoo parlours have unenviable reputations with occasional drive-by shootings which add to the spice of having ones “tat” done. Tattoos are popular at all levels.

Professionally done, many are works of art.  My desire for a forearm tattoo of a swallow versus a panther has always proved to be an elusive one. My small anti-establishment act was a garnet stud through the left ear lobe; done at the age of fifty-seven. I suspect the personal tattoo will have to wait longer.

I was initially surprised to see how many people Downunder had tattoos, but this is not so surprising considering the proximity to the Polynesian nations where the rite of passage to adulthood involves elaborate tattoos of body and face. New Zealand seems to have led the way with many new-style, tattoos  with Polynesian motifs dominating.

The hemi-torso look on the sculpted bodies of sports people, looks spectacular. The patterns have a language of their own which those in the know can read.                                                                                [Whose body is this?]           –>

Some tattoos are done in a circle around an arm, somewhat reminiscent of the Tanzanian Makonde wood carvings with different family tree generations stacked up in concentric circles.

Maybe that is the style I will finally choose to depict the blood of three continents flowing through my veins. Sparrow? Panther? Impressionist? Watch this body space!


[1] Kelly McLaughlin for Daily Mailonline. 11.8.2017


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