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Tattoos are big bucks

By | August 25th 2011

Body piercings and tattoos are increasingly finding acceptance in society, helping shape them as a means of livelihood, writes FREDRICK OBURA

You know a country is changing when a fad—previously looked down on—becomes big business in its own right.

This is what has happened to individuals who specialise in carrying out body art—the practice of piercing and tattooing of the body for the purposes of beauty, as a sign of identification with a particular group or in worst case scenario, to send a sign of rebellion and independence—straight up.

The more urban population is increasingly taking on to the tattoo religion. The rapid changes in the social scene and growing popularity of aesthetics largely influenced by mass media are fast turning tattooing into more than a fad — it is a business.

Take the case of Bernard Komen, Hong-Kong trained body artist who opened up a one-man tattoo shop in Nairobi in 2008.

In a span of three years, his business, Kwemz Ltd, has expanded to Mombasa and looking into opening up shop in other parts of Africa with huge potential in tattoo business like South Africa.

Though the Mombasa office is fully operational throughout the year, he mostly depends on tourism seasons to make a kill.

He says the case is different in Nairobi where the youth and middle-aged group — both professional and non-professionals — frequent his shop throughout the year for different types of tattoos and body piercing.

"When we were setting up in 2008, many people were not into tattoo, it was still considered a preserve of few individuals in the society," he says.

"Many people associated tattoo with rebellion, worship, and class," he notes.

"This has changed as many individuals across all age groups and social class are now donning various types of tattoos," he says.

It is understood that peer pressure; liberalised society, fashion and the changing aesthetics are some of the factors driving many Kenyans into tattoo.

"We are also seeing youths between 18 and 35 years getting interested in tattoo to show their affiliation to a feeling that is deep within their hearts," he says.

According to Komen, the fast growing media, fast Internet and social networks in the country are a blessing to local tattoo businesses.

He says youth now have various channels through which they can research and learn more about various types of tattoos.

"This has helped us grow the number of clients over the past two years. We expect the number to grow as more mediums of research are being opened up," he says.

Kwemz Ltd specialises in tribal, religious, Celtic, cosmetic and the Gothic tattoos. In a good month, Komen takes home Sh100,000 after all expenses have been paid

Francis Kyalo, founder of Tattoo Shop Ltd along Nairobi’s Tom Mboya Street, says he charges between Sh1,500 to Sh10,000 for his services.

"There is no standard cost for tattoo design," he says. "If you want a large tattoo design covering a large part of your body, then it will cost you more."

"The prices are based on the size, colour, and other details in a tattoo client chooses," he says.

In a week, Kyalo serves up to 10 clients.

"I attribute growth of the tattoo business to many media outlets that have emerged in the past few years," he says.

"Through various channels and Internet, many get to learn about different tattoos," he says.

He says that unlike in the past where a majority of the clients were men, the landscape is fast changing. "There are as many women coming for tattoos as are men," Kyalo says.

"Most of our clients say they are looking for beauty from a tattoo," he says, adding that others also don tattoos in respect of their significant other and mentors in various disciplines.

Tattoos are probably better and safer now than they have ever been.

"Tattoos are today are more creative and varied, and in many cases applied by highly trained and skilled body artists," Kyalo says.

The type of design of a tattoo is completely up to the client and where they feel most comfortable to have it done.

The arm, shoulder and back are among the commonest areas tattooed. There are, however, people who also have tattoos in the most likely of areas including on their rear, thighs, boobs and eye brows.

Komen says a good first step is to shop around for a reputable tattoo artist, as well as spend some time using books, magazines, and the Internet to locate a perfect tattoo design.

"Once you are sure you want to get a tattoo, it’s always a good idea to understand how the tattoo process works."

A professional artist would observe the hygiene and use the right equipment to lessen the pain that comes with tattooing.

"Getting a tattoo is a lifelong commitment and one that entails some risks, but if you know what to expect, the whole tattoo process will be a lot easier."

Though figures of the number of tattoo outlets are not immediately available and the contribution on the economy, it is estimated that Nairobi is home to as many as 500-licensed tattoo artists.

It is estimated that in 2006, there were over 15,000 tattoo parlors in America making somewhere north of $2.3 billion annually.

A recent research by Pew Research Centre study says more than a third of Americans ages 18 to 25 have a tattoo, as well as 40 per cent of folks in the 26 to 40 range.

In contrast, the study found only about 10 per cent of people age 41 to 64 is tattooed.

Surprisingly, the tattoo business proved to be one of the best trades when recession hit America in 2008 — proving the industry’s resilience and hold on society.

When the stock market flattened out and most businesses took a nosedive, the tattoo business still recorded stable incomes.

Just as the art of doing tattoos is big business, so is the business of removing them.

As individuals get older, relationships break or for some reason associations are broken, and so comes the need to do way with a tattoo.

While tattoo removal is yet to pick as a business up in Kenya, it is booming business in other countries.

But far off and stretched, one of the challenges in the tattoo business is that there is no set of regulations—given that it can be injurious to the health of an individual.

In Kenya, while tattooists are officially licensed, a lot can be said in the day-to-day rules governing their operations or a course to seek redress if something goes wrong.

This may prove to be the opportunity—and the stumbling

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