The practice that was once considered a subversive practice has in recent years gained widespread popularity. Many people get their skins etched with designs that portray strength, life motto, verses or a memory of a loved one.
Tattoos come in different styles and prices; they are drawn by different artists in different places, but the common factor is ink.
Today, seeing middle-aged or young people with tattoos is not strange. More people have skin art on their forearms, thighs, and even their face.
The thriving art of tattooing has created hundreds of jobs for creative millennials.
Gone are the days when only artistes would get inked - lawyers, policemen, doctors - basically almost all professionals have embraced the culture.
Social influencer Erica Tafari says a tattoo represents her inner expressions on the outside. “What I put on my body reminds me of what I live by,” she says.
“To me, when I choose pain, I need a good reason for that. I want something that will forever be a reminder. Whether it is to last a lifetime or just a memory of a wild night. People think it is painful, but I say it is sweet and bearable,” she adds.
Buju Msanii, a tattoo artiste based in Nairobi says the tattoo industry has grown exponentially.
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“Things were a bit different when we started, but thanks to the exposure from the internet, movies and music, masses are quickly conforming and embracing it as an art,” he says.
Buju says the cheapest tattoo he has worked on cost Sh3,000, while his most lucrative was a full-back tattoo that earned him Sh280,000.
“I have tattooed every part. There are, however, weird demands, like the day I had to save a man’s wedding by inking his fiancé’s name on his private parts. It was for a high fee of course,” he says.
H_art the Band’s Kenchez Muya says the etched designs on the body are an expression of self-beauty and emotion.
“People should stop stereotyping the ‘tatted’ community as every piece of fine art engraved brings out a memory that you want to live with forever,” he says.
Together with his bandmate Skoko Abednego, they practised the art commercially and as a way to pass time and make money before they took the musical route.
“I got my musical note arm tattoo from him, but later came to understand they all have a deeper meaning. For example, a snake tattoo expresses healing as described in ancient history, yet most who lack the knowledge will demonise it. Why demonise a reptile ignorantly?” he asks.
Eric Ssantamu from Uganda moved his tattoo business from Kampala to Kenya and has no regrets.
“For Kenyans, tattoos are like a drug. I remember even at the height of the pandemic; I would still get numerous ‘home calls’ clients who needed to be inked. Getting a tattoo is addictive. It could be anywhere. At home, in a hotel, at a party,” he says.
However, the true test of professionalism arises when someone wants to be inked on or around their private areas.
Eric says people are getting bolder with their sexuality and want art that defines them as such, thus the rise in the demand for adult and deviant art.
They may range from gothic designs that run through private areas to kinky wording or a command. People want designs that are going to spice up their love life.
“It is not about a kinky affair for us as artistes. It is the epitome of the art career. The most sensitive,” says Eric.
Certain religions have shown hostility to the culture of tattooing. Lydia Njeri, says while the Bible is against it in the book of Leviticus 19:28 “Ye shall make no cuttings in your flesh… or incise any marks on yourself...”, many Christians are still getting tattoos.
“The New Testament encourages them to be simple and modest in their appearance; furthermore, if you got tatted before salvation just be sure there was nothing offensive about the tattoo,” she adds.
Frank, who operates from Nairobi says although business is booming, society has not fully accepted the practice.
“We still have individuals who demonise persons with tattoos. I have had incidents where a friend missed out on employment because his tattoos were visible.”
Slim, a tattoo artiste based in Umoja, started his business in 2014. Then, he was a young man and his family accepted his choice.
“Every day was a learning experience and in 2019, his business started to peak with customers flooding his spot. It took me five years to perfect my skill and it played out well,” he says.
He says he has received many tattoo requests, some of them outright absurd.
A man once wanted a lower back tattoo of a girl with pigtails and two bunnies on each side of her. Slim turned down the request and referred the customer to a female tattooist.
“As a male artiste, some customers, mostly female, may decide to be innovative when it comes to payment methods of the services provided, which ends up being a problem for a misguided artiste,” he says.
His main goal when handling customers, is building a long-term relationship with them.
Nicholai, who has loved art from a young age, started his tattooing business in 2020, immediately after high school. His mother bought him a tattoo machine and gave him the capital to start his business.
Nicholai says tattoos are purely art, but that he once had to decline business from a man who wanted a tattoo on his buttocks.
He says maintaining a professional relationship with his customers is important to him.
However, some tattoos do not go as planned and people have to erase them or cover up.
“Before I inscribe a tattoo, I always have a session with my client to make sure that they are okay with the etching and will not regret it within weeks. I once etched a couple only for the lady to return months later asking to have it scrapped. This ends up being messy, painful and costly,” says Eric.
Even though there are only a few businesses with laser machines, laser surgery is advised in the event of a change of heart.
Scarring or dermabrasion are other options, although these could leave scars if not done properly. The final choice is to cover the tattoo with another, to make the design vanish.