The Medieval Themes of Alexander Grim

Another of my aesthetic pieces was by Alexander Grim from Russia, at his studio in Prague. I really love the medieval woodblock style of art and with my skin tone, colour and shading are not ideal. What has the most impact on my skin would be bold lines and negative space and Alexander’s design of a knight riding a dragon captured that perfectly. Despite the size of this piece he managed to complete it in one sitting of 7 hours. A pleasant surprise by him was the bowl of candy waiting for me, sugar really does help with tattoo endurance and I would highly recommend consuming sugary products during a long tattoo session. Alcohol also helps to ease the process, but it has a downside in that it thins your blood and will make visibility difficult for the artist, who will need to wipe away that extra blood more often.

At this stage of the journey, even though the artists were doing a great job in tying all the pieces together, what I lacked was overall symmetry. I wanted the skin art to look as cohesive as possible, so for any consequent pieces I had to carefully consider their size and placement so that there could be balance and aesthetic completeness.

Ancient Cats but not Egyptian

These designs were inspired by the tattoos of the hill tribes from Indochina. The men tattoo themselves between their waist and knees with animal symbols as a rite of passage into manhood, to represent the nature of the animals (cats are believed to make the bearer more elusive and is a popular design for thieves), and for protection from evil spirits and wild animals. These types of trouser tattoos predate the Buddhist Sak Yants and are not blessed by a monk once completed. Usually the process of getting a full trouser tattoo takes place over a period of a few days using a bamboo rod, with opium consumed to dull the pain. Done in Chiang Mai, Thailand with machine by Ajarn (teacher) Raut who is the Luksit (student) of Ajarn Daeng, a former monk. As far as I know, there are still tribes in Northern Thailand where the original method of using a rod to tattoo these is still employed but without a translator and guide the logistics of such an endeavour would not be easy, not to mention the significant amount of extra time the tattoo would take to be applied that way.

Special thanks to Peter Jenx of The Thai Occult who facilitated this experience. Peter has been living in the Northern region of Thailand for a good few years and has been documenting the traditional and magical practices of that region, as well as the meanings and origins of the ancient Sak Yant tattoos through interviews with the teachers, magicians and holy people. His books aim to preserve this vast and eclectic knowledge which is mostly unknown to the Western world.

Burmese Villager by Adolphe Philip Klier, photographed in 1895

First Tattoo in my Hometown

After all the travels I have done to acquire ink, I finally decided to get one in my hometown of Cape Town, South Africa. I was made aware of a fundraiser being held at one of the top local tattoo studios (Good Things Tattoo) in order to raise money for the medical bills of one of the fathers of their artists. I initially planned on just making a donation but after having a look at the designs available for each artist, I was drawn to one by John James Case.

The design is inspired by the book 109 Apokrypha, which is a book of symbols inspired by spirituality and occultism.

Medieval Sigils by B.Ignorant

Benjamin Greif aka B.Ignorant is a hand poke tattoo and print artist based in Berlin, Germany. His work has medieval themes as well as a touch of blasphemy to them. The designs are based on actual historical artworks which once again appealed to my love of the woodblock print style from that era.

The designs I asked of him were not based on medieval artwork but rather on sigils of protection outlined in the Lesser Key of Solomon, which is an anonymous grimoire on demonology and the occult. Now the perception of the occult for most people is of a negative connotation. The word “occult” tends to be synonymous with black magic, but the reality is that there is no “colour” associated to it. It is something which, for the practitioners who believe in it, can be used for good or bad intent. This was something I learnt in Thailand as there is a strong occult following in that part of the world, but occult in that case being holy men or magicians casting spells to help people in their everyday lives with money, romance, work, protection etc.

I decided that my palms would be the perfect place for these sigils, what I did not expect was their difficult healing process. In my enthusiastic state I opted to have both palms done in one session. Benjamin is very quick, and they were both done in around 2 hours. It never crossed my mind at the time though how much your palms are required in your day to day activities. Opening a door, bathing, eating, twisting open a jar, all these activities require palm contact so the first few days after the tattoo were challenging. Out of all the tattoos I have had done the palms seemed to take the longest to heal. On top of that, the ink doesn’t often hold very well in that area and I needed to go back for two touch ups (and got a third tattoo from him as well, a war hammer crossed with a mace) as the ink needed to be pushed deeper into the areas where it fell out, and palms are really sensitive areas to drive a needle into.

The ink in the palms have held well for the most part after a year or so but I will need to have touch ups done again. Benjamin did point out however that sigils do not necessarily need to look perfect, as the intention for having these on me and what they represent is what matters.

The Tribal Designs of Borneo

Aman Sipatiti aka Durga is an Indonesian tattoo artist living in Berlin. He learnt his art from the indigenous tribes in Indonesia and Borneo and regularly goes back to spend time in the jungles to tattoo the villagers as per the ancient tradition of his ancestors. His preferred method of applying tattoos is by tapping which involves a “pricker stick” and a mallet. The rhythmic sound of the mallet is at times hypnotic and calming and contributes to the mental focus required by both the tattooist and the receiver.

The designs he chose for me were a pair of Borneo dragons (Nabau, for protection against malevolent spirits) and three “Iron Flowers” (Bunga Besi, the name given by the local tribal people for how the muzzle flash of a gun looked to them when it was fired). Like many of the traditional tattoos of this region, these are also believed to imbibe the wearer with spiritual powers.

As a side note, during the 90s there was a trend of “tribal” tattoo designs that the Quentin Tarantino movie From Dusk Till Dawn may have sparked, with George Clooney’s bold black sleeve. That “tribal” style in fact borrowed heavily from the traditional tattoo designs of Indonesia and Borneo.

Another visit to Sacred Knot

The third time I saw Sean was in his hometown of LLundudno, Wales. Sean has set up shop there and along with his tattoo business (with two apprentices Broc Ó Diolúin and Gloria Notarangelo) he also has Nordic based arts and crafts available.

I received two pieces from him this time, a Vegvisir on my hand (an Icelandic magical symbol if when carried, one will never lose one’s way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known) which was an extension of the sleeve he previously completed on me, and the mask of Tyr (the Norse war god who presides over matters of law and justice) under my right armpit. Out of all the tattoos I had received so far, the armpit was the most difficult area for me to endure. It is extremely sensitive and the linework had me feeling a pain I have never experienced with any tattoo previously. This was also the only tattoo where both Sean and I agreed that instead of pushing to complete it in one sitting, to rather call it day and see him another time. I had my hand done by him on the previous day and once again this was a case of me trying to push the limits of my endurance. A week later I was back and with the help of numbing cream we managed to get the job done.

There is quite a debate about the ethics of using numbing cream in the tattoo community. Some would argue that the tattoo needs to be earned and that the pain is part of that process, and for the traditional tribal tattoos that most certainly is the case. From a technical standpoint there are reasons why numbing cream should be avoided such as it tends to make the skin not absorb the ink very well, the tattoo needle can slip more easily, there is more pain afterwards etc. The two methods I am aware of are either a numbing cream or a spray. For the cream it is applied to the area and saran wrapped for about 45 minutes to numb the area. The second method is using a spray, but for this to work the skin must first be broken so this is usually applied after the initial linework is done. Both methods do not guarantee 100% pain free tattoos, but they can significantly take the edge off the discomfort for long enough to get through any difficult areas.

The Beast in Birmingham

Another aesthetically based tattoo was done by Robert Ashby who is the owner of the House of Thieves tattoo studio in Birmingham, UK. This large piece was to complement the dragon on the other side and move towards the desired symmetry I wanted across my body.

The wolf is a creature which is found in many mythologies (such as the Norse Fenrir, a child of Loki destined to devour Odin) and is mostly associated with danger, destruction, war and witchcraft.  

Inaugural Ethnic Tattoo Festival 2019

My second piece by Durga was done at the very first Ethnic Tattoo Festival in Warsaw, Poland. The Ethnic Tattoo Festival aims to bring together artists who still practice the traditional tattooing ways as well as other forms of primitive arts and culture such as shamanism.

The tattoo itself was a marathon effort of 8 hours with Durga using a few assistants who volunteered to stretch the skin around the work he was doing (stretching the skin by the area being tattooed helps to get the ink in more easily when hand poking or tapping). Gracious amounts of Polish vodka also helped with raising the spirits and numbing the pain 😊

The designs were of traditional Borneo dragons on the foot and Borneo hornbills on my shin, all surrounded by traditional symbols and lines between the existing Cambodian Sak Yants.

The Last Mambabatok

As a centenarian, Apo Whang-Od is considered the oldest tattoo artist in the world and holds the title of mambabatok (traditional tattooist) in her village where she is part of the Butbut people. Since the age of 15 she has been tattooing the women of the tribe as well as the Butbut warriors who had to earn the right to be tattooed by protecting villages or killing enemies (the tribe were known headhunters up until as recently as the 1960s). She has since passed down her skills to the younger generation of the women who will continue to preserve the art of this living legend. At her age she mostly only tattoos her three-dot signature while the larger tattoos are done by one of her protégés.

Getting to her village high up in the mountains was quite the experience, an 11-hour drive from Manila followed immediately by almost an hour hike in the rain. Once you are in the village it’s a matter of whether Whang-Od feels up to tattooing that day, absolutely understandable at her age. The trip was facilitated by Lagaw’Ta Escapades and I would highly recommend their services.

It was an honour and a privilege to be tattooed by Apo Whang-Od and despite her age she is still very friendly and accommodating. Below her signature is a traditional python which was done by one of her apprentices. The tattoo is applied using a thorn from a lemon tree and the ink is made of water and charcoal.

The Māori Markings of Gordon Toi

Gordon Toi is a wood carver and former traditional Māori weapons instructor in Mapua, Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand). He also fulfils the very important task of traditional Māori tattooing, as the heritage of these tattoos run very deep within Māori culture and to receive one is considered a great honour and not a something to be taken lightly. Gordon demands respect and focus on his tattoo table and rightly so as every tattoo he does is a veneration of his ancestors.

Along with his assistant Rossi (a stone carver and grave digger), the process consisted of 4 consecutive days on the table making this the largest tattoo piece I have had done so far. Along with the ink, I was also taught about the Māori culture and philosophies which are essential to understanding the importance of the ink I was receiving. It was done by machine as to hand tap this in the traditional Māori way would have taken significantly longer.

The Māori word for tattoo is “moko” and is derived from the name of the god of volcanoes and earthquakes, who marks the earth much like a tattoo marks the skin. The tattoo tools consist of bone chisels tied to a handle (from the mid-1800s sometime also metal, and more recently electric tattoo guns) which is then tapped with a mallet to cut grooves into the skin giving it a textured finish. This process is considered sacred and the design of each moko is unique to the wearer and conveys information about their genealogy, tribal affiliations, status, and achievements. When this tattoo is applied to someone who is not of Māori descent it is referred to as “kirituhi” (“to adorn the skin with painting”) rather than “moko” which is a term strictly reserved for the Māori people.