Tyler B Murphy holds a weapon loaded with truth and lies whose power is felt hemispheres away. He wields it daily in a shop in Cape Town’s slightly crunchy, never quite sweet Buitenkant Street.
The weapon is a modified version of what Thomas Alva Edison patented in 1876 as the stencil-pen, a device intended to perforate paper and so help duplicate documents. By 1891 the gizmo had morphed into what is now called the tattoo machine.
Murphy is an artist. His canvas is live human skin. Like bibles placed by the Gideons, what he puts there is not to be taken away. Except by death and decomposition.
Like many before he first put a needle into the patches of skin most readily available to him: his own thighs.
“They’re called toilet tattoos because you think you’re never going to see them but every morning when you sit down, there they are,” he said. “That’s where you practice because it’s pretty much the only place you can reach comfortably.
“It’s horrible – up to the point where you tattoo somebody else and you realise, ‘OK. This isn’t completely impossible’. Until then it’s sensory confusion. You’ve learnt from drawing and from watching tattoos getting done what they should look like. But you’re getting weird information back from your leg.
“You’re getting information from your eye about how it should look. But the overriding sensation from your pain receptors is that it’s too deep, it’s too sore, it’s terrible. So you do these scratchy, crappy lines and you wipe and there’s nothing there. So you go, ‘OK, I’m going in’.
“You get used to a certain kind of feeling – you know that’s a line; that’s in. And then you get to a point where it’s less painful. So you go looking for that pain and you wipe and you’ve destroyed the skin because you’re not looking at what you’re doing – you’re feeling what you’re doing. You can’t do that because from one inch to the next your skin reacts differently. You’re sitting there stressed out and digging away at your legs. It’s a nightmare.
“Eventually, when you start tattooing your friends and you’re just going by the information you’re getting from your eyes and your hands and you’re not connected to the feeling, you know you can do it.”
Murphy’s thighs and his friends have been safe since 2001, when he first earned steady money as a tattoo artist. He now owns Sins of Style, one of Cape Town’s most highly regarded studios, and counts Ninja and Yolandi Visser of Die Antwoord among his walking works.
His road to the indelibility of ink passed through the fragility of paint in precarious places, or graffiti. He left that largely underground, little understood world after one too many tangles with rivals.
“I knew it was time to get out when I took a bottle across my skull. It was a battle between doing graffiti fulltime or tattooing. Tattooing won because of its way of sustaining graffiti, and graffiti became more illegal.”
But there is still no discernible difference between paint and pain for Murphy.
“People used to ask, ‘But is it art?’ about graffiti and tattooing. Somehow they must have qualified because no-one ever asks anymore.
“Graffiti involves trespassing, climbing over fences and breaking into places, and there’s a lot of internal politics that results in violence and people getting hurt as a normal thing. With tattooing, there’s a lot of pain and a commitment forever. There’s a lot of shit you’ve got to go through to do it.
“If these become the criteria for what art is people like portrait painters are going to have to start bleeding and fighting each other and climbing over fences.
“Actually, don’t call us art. You can have your art that has maybe five rules. We’ll take our 50 rules and we’ll stay on the outside, lowbrow and horrible. We’re happy to be there. If the standards were reversed other artists wouldn’t be able to keep up. Forget about us again.
“But there’s a balance where people getting cool tattoos and are open-minded, and instead of tattoo artists coming from criminal fraternities and bike gangs they’re coming from art schools and a much happier background.”
Even so, Murphy is nostalgic for the days when society could be divided into the inked and the uninked. Or the profane as seen by those who regarded themselves as sacred: “I miss that in a way; being able to see who’s who.”
But there is also room under the skin for humour. And fate. And individualism.
“You can’t take yourself too seriously with a tattoo. You’re entering into an agreement with nature and it’s not going to keep to the rules. It’s going to do what it wants. Your skin’s going to age the way it wants to.
“It’s an indication of how you’re reaching for permanence. And all it really does is reflect how things change. You get a gang tattoo or something you’re really into – motorbikes or something – and later you don’t even care about that stuff. Or it’s a case of, ‘This is exactly what I am and what I’m going to stay as.’
“It’s a timeline: damn, remember when I used to be exactly like that and now I’m not. You have seasons where you don’t even really see your tattoos and you don’t even think about them or connect to them. You forget, essentially, what your culture is.
“People not from a strong religious background or a strong cultural connection to anything – those are the guys I’m seeing getting tattoos. They’re recreating their history of what’s happening now. They’re more interested in their own development and their own path than what has happened before.
“It’s a reminder to be what you were when you were at your best, which is probably what you were when you were tough and brave and had a bit of spare cash. It’s a good time to shout your name and stay who you are.”
So, the hipsters haven’t taken over the tattoo parlour?
“The people who use the word hipster the most are sports fans who drink Castle Lite and have boring lives and don’t do anything. People who are hip and doing cool shit aren’t labelling it, they’re just moving forward and doing stuff.
“It kinda goes with your mood and how close to a midlife crisis you are. I know a guy who swapped a new back piece for a new child. The negotiation happened as a conversation with his wife on a Sunday.
“She said, ‘I think we should have another child …’. Quietly, he said, ‘I’m thinking of doing a back piece’. She nodded. He nodded …
“As you get older your spouse starts to play a role in what you’re getting tattooed, which kinda sucks. Or it has the opposite effect – ‘I don’t give a shit what she says, I’m getting whatever I want tattooed wherever because I’m the same motherfucker that she married. I just didn’t know about tattoos then. It’s in my blood. I’m that dude’.
“Someone had open heart surgery and he had this big scar down his chest. He was proud of the fact he lived through it, so he had a tattoo done that made it look like a big zip.”
Which does not square with what Ethel Laka does in what she called the “quaint space” of her eponymous studio in Auckland Park in Johannesburg.
“I’m going for the sterile apartment look where you can have a good espresso and have great work done,” Laka said.
“I’m tattooing accountants, not the Mad Max crowd. I’m seeing clients who are normal people who just want great tattoos and nothing else: mom and daughter, and then the dad comes.”
But she understands that, even for her, perhaps especially for her, it’s not all straight and narrow.
“When I was growing up in the 1980s, when you saw the guys with tattoos you ran. They had a bad rep – they were the gangsters.
“Even now I can hear people hushing their voices and saying, ‘You know, she tattoos! She’s a girl who’s not white and she tattoos!’
“You can see the shock in their eyes. But thankfully it’s a visual thing. Once they see what I can do I don’t need to say much.”
But the incredulity sometimes extends to first-time clients.
“When they come in they’re expecting the white guy. But then they realise they’ve got no choice – ‘She’s drawn the design, she’s calling me to the chair, she’s got gloves on …’
“Often they say, ‘You know, it’s not usual for a …’ I know what’s coming but you’ve got to see the fun in it; this is South Africa.”
It seemed impolite to ask Laka whether she had toilet tattoos. Happily, she took the question out of the equation.
“While I was training (under renowned Joburg artist Kevin Brown) I was given a little spot to do at a time while they monitored me; I would do a tiny symbol or a little blue letter.
“I’ve heard the stories of people having to wash scars as part of their training but it wasn’t like that for me. We had a lot of respect for each other. I worked with a bunch of wonderful guys, big white men who are open-minded and who taught me a lot.”
After two years on her own, “it’s going too well, I’m scared I’m going to wake up and this is all in my head”.
A wall in Murphy’s studio boasts a large landscape painted by his father. Other walls are covered in cubist cartoons created by his son. Laka, too, had art under her own skin before she started putting it into others’: her uncle is Don Laka, the jazz musician.
As much separates Murphy and Laka as unites them. They are of different races and genders, they have taken contrasting routes to get to where they are, and it’s difficult to imagine someone as demure and decent as Laka climbing a fence with a view to breaking into a building and spraypainting a wall, however artfully. It is just as hard to think of Murphy – who has submitted himself to being tattooed by gangsters, prison style – indulging too many middle class tendencies.
But, as we spoke, a well-scrubbed, designer dressed young couple in the waiting area of Murphy’s studio who wanted their infant son’s name etched on them had hit a snag. They hadn’t quite decided on a second name. So the needle had to wait while they made up their minds.
A call to Laka to set up her interview sparked an alarming response: “Can’t really talk now. I’ve got blood on my gloves.”
All in a day’s work for those who sell the power of truth and lies.