Tanya, my housemate, calls down to me from the balcony of her third-floor tattoo parlour. I can’t figure out what she’s saying, but when the button on the intercom for the Cape Town Tattoo Social Club doesn’t work, I remember there’s load-shedding in Woodstock, and Tanya must be on her way down to unlock the door.
“Can we still do the tattoo?” I ask.
“Sure, we’ve got a UPS and a head torch.”
She leads me up the dark flight of stairs, limping slightly. “It’s these shoes. They cut into the backs of my heels.” I look down at her heavyset black loafers. They look hard to wear in.
Dusk has already seeped into the tattoo parlour. Tanya’s mentor, Milo, gets up out of a deep arm chair to shake my hand. His sleeves are done and he’s wearing a pair of ear-stretchers, bright white on either side of his white beard. Tanya’s got twelve to fifteen tattoos herself – she’s lost count – and half of them were done by Milo, including her very first. Most of the others she did herself, like the jaw bone of a rat on her hand. It reminds me of the silver wishbone that hangs off the chain she never takes off.
I put my bags down on an armchair and Blue, Tanya’s lab comes to greet me. Lykke, the overweight husky on the carpet, just stares.
We head out onto the balcony. There’s a square of astro turf on the raw concrete for the dogs to pee and shit on. “I’ve tried, but Blue refuses to go on it.”
The sun has already dropped below the horizon and the clear skies of Cape Town play out in shades of orange. The cityscape of Woodstock has its own feel; industrial, run-down, but very much alive.
Back inside I check out the rows of ink bottles, the sleek black padded tables, and the piles of sketches while Tanya draws up the definitive version of my tattoo. She has such a sure hand. It makes it easy to trust her.
The growing darkness brings a silence with it, broken only by the UPS, which beeps every now and then.
“You’d better hurry up,” says Milo, “It won’t last forever.”
I take off my t-shirt. Tanya dabs what feels like glue onto the side of my ribs and places the stencil with more confidence than I could ever have at such a crucial moment. I look at my reflection in the long mirror. It’s angled upwards slightly and catches the endless pale sky through the large block windows of the parlour. The placement of the stencil is perfect.
“Lie down on the table and roll onto your side slightly.”
Tanya raises my arm above my head and I tuck me knees in. The position feels foetal.
“I mustn’t move right?”
“No, it’s fine. Just relax, breathe normally… And don’t move.”
She fires up the needle. When I got my first tattoo, the artist told me it would feel like being cut with a box cutter. I think of that now. The vibrating needle goes deep and drags across the skin. I’ve never been cut by a box cutter, but I imagine it feels just like this.
I can’t turn to look, but I know my ribs are pale under Tanya’s head-torch. They’re the brightest thing in the room.
I’m watching the evening spread over the dark city. I like that we’re doing this in the dark. It’s a special darkness – a darkness that reminds you not to take things for granted. A darkness that says I’ve brought myself home.
“There you go,” says Tanya, dabbing what I imagine to be a mixture of black ink and blood from my side. “Done.”
I walk over the mirror and use a hand-held torch to light up my tattoo.
Milo emerges from the darkness while Tanya pulls off her latex gloves and cleans up. I hand over the cash and Tanya puts Blue’s harness on. Together we make our way downstairs with the keys to let ourselves out. Once we’re in the parking lot, Milo throws down a long piece of string from the balcony for us to tie the keys onto so he can let himself out later. He hoists the set up and we wave goodbye before climbing into Tanya’s car.
Albert Road is in darkness. Pedestrians run out in front of us from behind the parked kombis on either side of the street, and the headlights on Tanya’s car cast strange shadows that play tricks on our eyes.
“I feel like I want to turn my head torch on to see better,” says Tanya leaning forward onto the steering wheel to peer out the windscreen.
We drive through the streets of Cape Town and Tanya tells me her story.
“I wanted to be a tattoo artist since I was sixteen.”
She got her first tattoo at eighteen with Milo, but when she went back to ask him for an apprenticeship, she found out he’d moved to Italy and wouldn’t be back any time soon.
“The woman there told me I was wasting my time. ‘You’re never going to be a tattoo artist. Just go study something real.’ That’s what she said.”
We go round a corner. Blue is on the backseat and she catches the back of my ear with her wet nose.
“I didn’t give up, but I got this crazy fear to ask someone for an apprenticeship. It was paralysing. It took me two years to send Milo an email.”
“And how does he actually teach you?” I ask.
“I can never really explain what an apprenticeship is like. It’s such a sacrifice on the mentor’s part. I don’t think I could spend eight hours a day with someone who’s literally following me like a fart. I’d get so annoyed. He’s so patient. It’s such a special thing for someone to say, ‘Ok, I’ll have you in my space for three years and teach you everything I’ve learnt over thirty.’ That’s a huge gift.”
Blue starts to whine on the back seat. “Shame, I think she needs to pee. She just won’t go on that astro turf.” Blue whines even harder.
We’re nearly home when Tanya and I get to talking about why people get tattoos. “Most of my tattoos don’t have any meaning,” she says, “but if I look at them I can remember everything that was going on in my life at that point.”