Self-expressions with Tattoos: A Growing Trend, Business

Biniyam Legesse, 23, is fascinated by tattoos. In fact, he a few himself: one in honor of his grandmother and another of a tiger, which looks like it’s coming out of the skin on his back. He put the tattoo in honor of his grandmother on his left chest, right by his heart, to express his heartfelt affection for her. She raised him with love and great care, he says, and the words tattooed on his chest pay homage to the life she led. As for the tiger tattoo; well, the rationale for that is a little less sentimental: he simply liked the design.

These days it’s not uncommon to see several young people in Addis Ababa who are like Biniyam – donning permanent tattoos of the things and people they love dearly. Some put pictures of beautiful flowers or the initials of loved ones, while others put the picture of Jesus with a scarlet robe or of his mother, St. Mary, in places where they are visible to the passersby. Businesses that provide tattoos are also opening up in different parts of the city.

Before becoming a modern form of self-expression, tattoos had been used in different cultures for a number of reasons. History shows that tattoos have been used for rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, and to mark bravery. It was also used even to mark outcasts and convicts.

Nowadays, the art form has grown into a sophisticated and artistic craft. Though tattooing has been practiced in Ethiopia for centuries, its modern application as a form of individual artistic expression is fairly new. 

Not only is modern tattooing a new art form in Ethiopia, it’s also a new business enterprise. There are no institutions which specifically teach the subject, nor are there explicit directions on what must be fulfilled to start a business. In fact, tattoo parlors are still not included in the country’s trade system as an independent category of business; they’re still referred to as miscellany.  

However, it seems as though this isn’t deterring people from opening their own tattoo businesses, as there are even a few modern tattooists in Addis Ababa. Nahom Michael, 26, is one of them. He started to work as a tattoo artist after graduating from the Abyssinia School of Fine Arts in 2010.  He developed his skill by reading on the subject and learning from other artists. He is now running the Lucy Tattoo Center, located in the Getu Commercial Center near Olympia in Addis Ababa.

A modern tattoo parlor needs equipment like a tattoo gun, ink, sterilizer, different kinds of needles and its accessories such as tetracycline and Dettol (fluids which help to clean the skin and allow the carbon from the tattoo to stick to the body). All the materials need to be imported from abroad. With the exception of the sterilizer, tetracycline and Dettol, no trader in the Ethiopia is importing these materials for business purposes. Therefore, tattoo artists are forced to import it themselves, which can create a challenge for those interested in starting a business. What’s more, some materials, such as needles and ink, are disposable or need to be renewed, which means that one needs to continuously import these materials in order to stay in business. 

For Nahom, tattoo is more than merely an art, since it involves breaking the skin with needles; some health care issues (like allergies and infections) are also important, as well as having the know-how to draw objects on skin. These are some of the reason -- besides material costs -- which make him determine the price of his services. His minimum charge for a session is 1,000 Birr. But, depending on the size or complexity of the tattoo, he might charge up to 10,000 Birr or more. 

A tattoo, once printed on the body, is permanent. Therefore, being certain of which tattoo the artist should draw is very important. The canvas cannot be changed and the ink cannot be washed away or covered by other ink. To help the tattooist draw the tattoo more accurately, a tattoo design will first be drawn on paper with the tattoo carbon beneath it. The carbon will then be placed on the body. Finally, the tattooist will start inserting ink through needles by penetrating the upper layer of the skin using a tattoo gun.  

A customer should be certain about getting a tattoo since removing is so difficult and costly.  There is only one expert in the country who works on removing tattoos, Theodros Mesele (MD), a plastic and vascular surgeon. 

Nahom’s tattoo shop reception table is full of tattoo design catalogues. Customers may come in having already decided what kind of tattoo to get or may choose a design from one of the catalogues. Sometimes the tattoo artist and customer develop an idea together in order to come up with something creative.  

The majority of people who decide to get a tattoo want one that reflects what they believe in or adore. Some come in to have their damaged skin or scars covered by a tattoo with something artistic or of a similar colour to their skin. “Almost 80Pct of my customers choose to get tattoo [of] religious [imagery],” said Nahom.

According to Nahom, people sometimes visit him in order to replace a tattoo they already have with another. In these instances, he says, the options are limited. This is because it’s hard to replace a tattoo altogether; it is only by modifying the previous tattoo that a new tattoo can be drawn. This also requires more creative imaginations than coming up with a tattoo design for the first time.

An extensive tattoo which covers a larger part of body may require days, even weeks before it’s complete. But usually a tattoo can be completed within hours. Biniyam’s Tiger tattoo on the shoulder took eight hours to finish, from 3 P.M. to 11 P.M. Of course, there were breaks in between.

The process of getting tattoo can also be painful. The pain differs depending on the body part on which one decides to get the tattoo. Biniyam remembers the pain of getting tattoo in the left side of his chest:“It was so painful compared to the one I had on my back.””.

Tattoos can also be used for cosmetic reasons, especially by women, who get them around on their eyes and lips.  The technology has evolved such that one can even tattoo their iris, the coloured part of the eyeball. In Ethiopia, some women are wearing a tattoo on their eyebrows. 

Even though tattooing is changing the culture and business of Ethiopia, it’s important to be mindful of all that getting a tattoo entails. In a culture where people are prejudiced against those who have tattoos, physiological readiness is also necessary.  Biniyam prefers not to be judged by his tattoo, so he decided to strategically place them on parts of his body in which they aren’t visible to the public: “I am young. I don’t know my future; therefore, I don’t want to risk my future because of my tattoos.”


2nd Year . June 2014 . No.15


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