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Drugged and robbed: I shook off a rocky start to thrive at tattooing

By Mona Ombogo | September 20th 2017

It may not seem like it now, but just a few years ago, having a tattoo was considered a risqué statement. It was often associated with a subtle rebellion, which meant tattoo artists were few and far between.

But as more and more people got interested in tattoos as an art form, the industry began to see steady growth. Despite this growth, though, tattooing hasn’t yet found its way to mainstream professions – and it is perhaps for this reason that many tattoo parlours shut down within months of setting up.

But then, there are those that have gone against the grain. One tattoo parlour that has survived and thrived for more than seven years is Immortal Tattoos, which is owned and run by 27-year-old Frank Kyalo.

Getting started

“The first time I saw a tattoo being drawn, I was in primary school and a friend of mine was practising how to do tattoos. He did one for me, a cross. I was so intrigued by the thought of this ink pattern being created just by using two needles, thread and some ink that I made him teach me how to do it,” he tells Hustle.

Frank learned quickly and started doing tattoos for his friends at a cost of between Sh50 and Sh100.

He admits his first attempts were extremely simple and were not the best pieces of art he’s ever done. But he steadily got better, practising on his own body and on pig skin.

“By the time I was in Form 3, I had quite a number of clients. I was charging about Sh250 per tattoo but I wasn’t really making any money. Most of the money went towards buying supplies. Also, because I was just a kid, it was difficult to pressure clients to pay me after the job was done. I often went at a loss. I didn’t mind that much because it was a part-time thing and I was still perfecting my craft.”

After Frank finished Form 4 in 2009, he had more time to focus on his passion. He was living with his parents in a small house in Umoja at the time, which is where he secretly ran his tattoo parlour from.

His clients would get tattoos during the day when his parents were at work and by evening, all evidence of the ‘shop’ would be cleared.

His reputation kept growing as more and more of his art got out.

“I wasn’t just working on my fellow students now, I got many people I didn’t know, some were even adults. My prices went up to between Sh500 and Sh1,000 per tattoo. I would tattoo maybe 10 people a month, so it wasn’t bad money for a 16-year-old,” says Frank.

In 2010, he got a job at a tattoo parlour in Nairobi’s town centre. But he found he had been busier handling his own clients than he was at the parlour, which would attract maybe one client in two weeks.

He didn’t see much potential for growth, especially as he was paid on commission, so he quit after a few months. He did however learn a lot about the industry, including new techniques and where to purchase machines, inks and other materials.

The expansion

Frank managed to buy a machine at a cost of Sh15,000, which came from his savings. It was far more efficient than the needle and thread he had previously been using, which meant he could see more clients and do even better designs.

He was now attracting clients who’d spend a minimum of Sh1,000, and often did tattoos that cost in excess of Sh10,000. With his earnings increasing, Frank quickly raised enough money to start his own shop. In late 2010, at the age of 20, he founded Immortal Tattoos.

“It cost me Sh55,000 to start my company. The capital was used to pay for rent and the deposit, two plastic chairs, a table and some inks. I already had a machine,” he says.

“I needed to make money quickly though, because rent would be due in another month. Luckily, some of my clients had got me referrals in Uganda, so the week after I opened my shop, I made the trip.”

A week doing tattoos in Uganda earned Frank Sh60,000; a substantial amount, but not enough to secure his premises for a few months.

“Immediately after returning from Uganda, I decided to travel to Mombasa, where more clients were waiting.

The setback

“Unfortunately, on the way back, I got drugged on the bus and was robbed of my cash, phone, inks and machine. I felt like giving up. I had worked non-stop for 20 hours on some days, all for it to be stolen. I didn’t understand why something like that would happen after I earned my money honestly.”

Despite this setback, Frank fortified and decided he had invested too much of his life in the art to quit. He also didn’t have another option – tattooing was all he knew.

To stir up the Nairobi market, Frank decided to lower his prices and offered a 50 per cent discount. It ended up being a remarkable success.

“That whole week, I would get to work at 5am and leave at 3am the following day. So many people were coming for tattoos because of the offer. Some were even bringing their parents, which made me happy because it showed the negative perception of tattoos was changing. At the end of that week, I had made more than Sh100,000 – more than I had made in Uganda.”

Immortal Tattoos does all kinds of tattoo designs, and a full arm or back can cost in excess of Sh40,000, depending on the design and colours chosen.

“I’m used to long hours,” Frank says, “I have created some tattoos, going non-stop for 26 hours. It all depends on the client’s pain threshold. Some can take it, some need a break.”

Immortal Tattoos currently brings in a turnover of about Sh130,000 a month. Frank’s vision is to open more branches around Kenya and eventually be recognised internationally as a tattoo artist.

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