Caribbean Beat Magazine

Pictures made flesh

Tattooing has been around for centuries, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about the art. Today, more men and women than ever choose to express themselves through these permanent symbols on their flesh. The many cultures of the Caribbean contribute to a rich store of tattoo iconography. O'Leo LoKai explores this bodily art, and gets his own tattoo along the way

  • Photograph courtesy Tattoo Farm/ Alex Smailes
  • Photograph courtesy Tattoo Farm/ Alex Smailes
  • Budin at work on the author. Photograph courtesy Tattoo Farm/ Alexis Smailes
  • Photograph courtesy Tattoo Farm/ Alex Smailes
  • Photograph courtesy Tattoo Farm/ Alexis Smailes
  • Photograph courtesy Tattoo Farm/ Alex Smailes
  • Tattoo artist Giles Budin at his studio. Photograph courtesy Tattoo Farm/ Alexis Smailes
  • Photograph courtesy Tattoo Farm/ Alex Smailes
  • Photograph courtesy Tattoo Farm/ Alexis Smailes
  • Photograph courtesy Tattoo Farm/ Alex Smailes
  • Photograph courtesy Tattoo Farm/ Alexis Smailes
  • Photograph courtesy Tattoo Farm/ Alex Smailes

Since the beginning of civilisation, they have served as marks of identification, spiritual protection, and decoration. Now, at the cusp of another millennium, tattoos and other varieties of body markings are resurfacing as a popular form of individual self-expression. From barbed-wired biceps to broken hearts branded with ex-lovers’ initials, they each tell of a possibly life-changing experience in one eye-catching moment.

Tattoos are timeless, and can be as unique as the bearers they adorn. They don’t fade away like favourite t-shirts, or get lost or broken like school rings. They stay with you forever, until death. They become a part of you from the day you sit in the artist’s chair, etching your emotions alongside the needle’s sting, transforming a instant of your life into a symbol for the world to see.

The first time I ever saw a tattoo, it was on the forearm of an old East Indian woman. Weathered by age, it represented her initiation, early in the 20th century, into the New World, as an indentured labourer. Tattoos and other body markings also arrived in the Caribbean with African slaves, and indentured workers from China. They were sometimes the only permanent keepsakes of peoples snatched from their ancestral places. The Caribbean’s original Amerindian inhabitants also used tattoos to mark spiritual milestones. The Taino of the northern Caribbean islands, for instance, used vegetable dyes to affix images of their Cemis — spirit guardians — onto their skin. These images also indicated an individual’s lineage, or his or her social position. Each tattoo was both a personal history book and a mark of belonging.

Over the centuries, however, tattoos and other forms of bodily adornment have mutated, exchanging religious and cultural significance for individualist associations. Sometimes that mark of individuality has been confused with rebellion and non-conformity, often alluding to a stain of bad character. Tattoo-wearers have seemed wild, dangerous, even just plain bad.

But today, tattoos have come full circle. Celebrities, writers, lawyers, housewives, all proudly display their marks of rebellion. An entirely new perception of the art of tattooing has arisen, which is more than just a preoccupation with style. This re-discovered form of expression has spawned an entire sub-culture of individuals among us. They carry this common bond of distinction through their daily routines. Via the images on their forearms, shoulders, ankles, or torsos, they connect to each other, announcing to the world that it is OK to be unique and different.

It’s still a slap in the face for me when, for instance, during the Carnival season, I see intricate, unexpected designs exposed on people I thought I knew. As if pulling aside a mask, the teller in my bank, or my business associate, unveils a new side of his or her personality. It makes me wonder who else belongs to this daring group of people, and what form of pleasure they derive from something as primal as pictures on their flesh. What could I be missing out on?

The thought of getting a tattoo rambled through my mind for almost a decade. But the typical obstacles stood in my path to the tattoo parlour, the usual criticisms of having any mark made on my virgin Caribbean skin. Some insisted I would regret it two months later; or asked, “What if it goes out of style? You’ll look foolish!” I wondered, were they comparing a tattoo to a pair of jeans? My priest responded with a penance of ten “Hail Marys”, for being so easily mislead! So for years, instead of a tattoo, I covered myself with temporary transfers and flaky excuses.

As I got older and wiser — or should I say more aware and confident of myself? — my concerns about any tattoo stigma, the “tarnishing” of my body with Indian ink, slowly faded. I met people, some ordinary and some extraordinary, whom I admired and who had achieved high levels of professional success and social acceptance — with tattoos included. So what was stopping me?

The tattoo industry is growing in the Caribbean. There are numerous shops and freelance artists to choose from, and everybody always “knows someone”. So how was I to find an artist I would be comfortable with?

The true tattoo artist has had years of formal training and apprenticeship and has thoroughly learned the technical skills of the craft. He or she is a true professional who operates within a sterile environment, and will work with the client towards getting the right tattoo at the right time.

“Scratchers” — self-taught tattoo artists who have decided that their artistic talent far surpasses any need for training or sanitary standards — get away with not sterilising their equipment and reusing needles, often scarring their clients for life. But a professional tattooist is a true artist, as well as a craftsman and a technician. If the tattoo ink is injected too deep under your skin, your body fluids cause it to spread, and the design loses its definition. If the ink is placed too near the surface, it will prematurely fade or discolour. Your body is never the same after a tattoo, so choosing a tattooist I could trust was an important, life-changing decision.

With the help of a few tattooed colleages, I decided on tattoo artist Giles Budin, whose well-known studio, in Maraval, Trinidad, is called Tattoo Farm. After the hurdle of the front door, I realised I had walked into a surreal world — psychedelic colours bled over the walls, friendly iMacs spoke to me, and soothing music fluttered through the air.

Through a parlour scented with incense, I stepped towards beautifully lit showcases, displaying collections of stainless steel and titanium jewellery. These, I found out later, were the rings and studs used in body piercing. My eyes ran along the countertop and stopped at a stack of bound folders, labelled from “Abstract” to “Zodiac”.  I flipped through the pages, admiring exquisitely intricate designs needled into skin, too beautiful, I thought, to be called tattoos. I saw everything from screaming motorcycles and Celtic symbols to portraits of dear ones and faces of deities. I couldn’t help but think of my body as a canvas awaiting its own masterpiece.

I wanted my tattoo to be an extension of me, to communicate something about who I am and what I believe. I felt it should represent something from deep within my soul, something ready to be ripped out and brought to the surface for all to see. Either that, or something that would look really good and attract attention!

Giles, my tattoo artist, was patient. After much investigation and deliberation, and even a bit of tension, we decided on a final design.

Next was the easy part, or so I thought — sitting in a chair for a few hours, doing nothing but having my skin painted. With a great “Ouch!”, I found out a few moments later that it wouldn’t be quite so simple.

The question people always ask, obviously, is, “Does it hurt?” It did, but the sting was bearable. During the first few minutes, the hypnotic buzz of the electric needle sent my mind drifting back to stories read and heard. I remembered hearing about brave young boys going through the tribal rituals of manhood, their skin pierced with bone and marked with plant pigments to show their acceptance into the clan. I thought of warriors who kept a living life-chart on their torsos, displaying to the world what or whom they had conquered.

I remembered that some tribes even believed the tattoos on your body stay with you after death, helping you feel less alone in the afterworld. This was the only way a kindred soul could recognise you, saving you from a lonely existence. Perhaps, in a way, tattoos do that for us even now.

It took roughly six hours. First, an hour of preparation, while the equipment and surroundings were rendered sterile, my skin was made ready, and the design drafted. Then five hours of Giles’s needle etching into my skin. Five hours for me to think about what I was doing, why I was sitting in that chair. Each stroke reminded me of my decision to express something from within, to show something of what I am made to whoever is looking. My tattoo slowly took shape, from a dark outline to brilliant technicolor. Finally, there on my arm was a new creation, a combination of Giles’s artistry and my own sense of self.

I chose a tattoo of a scarab beetle, symbol of rebirth and perseverance. To the Egyptians, the scarab was the symbol of the god of the dawn, the one who bears the sun on his back, allowing each new day. But the scarab also holds deep personal significance for me.

Three nights after my father died, one of these beetles mysteriously flew into our house. It was so unusual that I kept it in a jar for a few days, then eventually let it go. I wondered where it came from, and how it had got to my house. Then a few years ago, when my life was in a period of painful changes, another scarab again flew into my house, and I once again released it into the night air.

After understanding the symbolism of those mysterious creatures, I decided it was something I wanted to be reminded of daily: the fact that although your dreams may change, or sometimes be destroyed, you are always renewed by the experience, made into something better.

The science of tattoos

Body markings have been discovered on ancient Egyptian mummies, and prehistoric “icemen” preserved in glaciers. The word “tattoo” comes from the Tahitian word “tattau”, which means “ to mark”. It was first noted by James Cook on his 1769 expedition to the South Pacific.

Various methods of tattooing were developed by different cultures. The most primitive involved rubbing soot into scratches. In Polynesia, this evolved into pigments pricked into the skin by a small, sharp instrument, shaped like a rake.

The modern electric tattoo machine, invented by Samuel O’Reilly, has not changed much since 1891. It is a vertically vibrating steel instrument that looks and sounds a lot like a dentist’s drill. The needles puncture the skin at a rate of 50 to 3,000 times per minute. Periodically, they are dipped into specially manufactured insoluble tattoo ink, which is sucked up by the machine’s tube system. The machine drives ink particles into the second layer of the skin, about an eighth of an inch deep.

Since tattooing involves a puncture wound, major emphasis is placed on sterilisation. An autoclave (generating steam at high pressure) is used for the reusable instruments, like needle bars and tubes. It maintains a constant temperature up to 132˚ Celsius. Other materials, such as gloves, cups, ink, razors, and needles, are disposed of after use, to eliminate infection.

The area to be tattooed is shaved (to prevent hair clogging the machine), and disinfected with an antiseptic solution. Some artists use a stencil to transfer the design to the skin, others draw freehand. Then the actual tattooing process can begin.

First the artist outlines the design. Then, using a thicker, darker line, he goes over the outline to create an even look. Next he adds shading, to create shadows, or a 3-D effect. Finally, he adds colour, making sure the lines overlap to prevent an uneven tone. The finished tattoo is sprayed and cleaned, and one to two hours after completion a bandage with antibacterial cream is applied. A tattoo can take up to three or four weeks to heal, during which time it should not be exposed to sun or direct water.

Why did I get it?

Ayodele, business student, 21

“To me, it established my independence, and my ‘cool’ side was released. I chose the Spider-man logo as my first tattoo. I wanted to get something nobody else had.”

Deja, radio announcer, 23

“I wanted this tattoo for a long time. It’s a combination of my initials and my birth date, on the inside of my right wrist, to remind me to be myself and stay true to what I believe in. Now I feel as if it’s been there since birth.”

Rachael, operations manager, 32

“My first tattoo was of crying eyes, for my mom, on my right shoulder-blade. My second is of a seductive fairy, on my lower back. She represents my alter ego.”

Denise, sales representative, 35

“A tattoo should symbolise your personality and your outlook on life. I have never regretted getting one, and I believe my tattoo represents who I am: a sword with a rose wrapped around it, on my upper left shoulder. It means I can be aggressive and sharp, but also lighthearted, warm, and caring.”

Phil, personal instructor, 36

“My sisters, brothers, first cousins, and myself all decided to get our family name tattooed on our bodies.”