IN THE heart of my grandmother’s hut, in the fire’s amber corona, smoke ascended in wispy tendrils, like incense from a thurible at midnight mass. In the shadows, it gathered and enveloped the space in a ghostly veil, then laced its way softly into the woven thatch. Antique cobweb necklaces, jewelled with dust and smoke, dangled from the thatch’s eye as the sweet scent of burning musasa logs filled the air.
Nostalgia has made all my memories of home romantic; and the scene of my grandfather’s memorial ceremony kumusha has become the memory I always return to when the pain of exile in England becomes overwhelming; it was the last time I remember my whole family gathered together. I remember the thumping of the drum in my chest as an old man, sitting in the semi-darkness, coaxed haunting rhythms out of the instrument wedged firmly between his scrawny thighs. And then my aunt beginning a song…
So when, most unexpectedly, I experienced the déjà vu of that scene, it was as though the breath had been sucked out of me. I was in a little basement, in a tattoo studio in Kings Cross in central London. But this was not just any tattoo studio, it was Divine Canvas – a place that had called me to itself. My left arm was being tattooed by Xed Le Head who owns the studio – a man who I had, in my head, begun to call Garabha after my favourite character from Charles Mungoshi’s novel, ‘Waiting for the Rain’.
Just as Mungoshi had described Garabha’s umbilical connection to his drum; “Now with the drum, there is a sense of quiet strength, the strength of mountains and a hard clear morning visio… He finds himself unable to utter a sound, only his hands driving on the drum, cheering, crying, numb with pain and joy…”; so was Xed connected to his tattooing machine. He loved and lived through his craft. And he had surrounded himself with like-spirited artists dedicated to the ancient art of body decoration.
It was a late night session and the studio basement was dark, except for a Morroccan-style lamp in Damien Voodoo’s station that cast a flailing orange glow into the studio, and the light emanating from the head torch Xed wore to direct the light onto the area he was tattooing. The smell of burning menthol filled the air, Fela Kuti was playing on the stereo and tears stung the back of my eyes. A few of the other tattooists who had finished with their clients for the day sat at the feet of the Master, watching him work.
In that moment – surrounded by this group of heavily tattooed white folk I had not too long ago considered alien to me – I was home.
Left: We are all marked, scarred, lined and decorated, says Tafadzwa. Right: Tafadzwa’s tattoo sleeve featuring royal African princess bands.
The man behind the needle
It had been about a year since I had began my tattooing journey at Divine Canvas and I was fast becoming the most tattooed Zimbabwean woman I knew of. Xed was tattooing a phrase in Shona around my arm, wrapping the words ‘Nezvino Zvichapfuura’ in curvy script from my thumb all the way round my arm into my armpit. ‘And this too shall pass’ – a phrase I had chosen to remind me always to keep myself in the moment, always appreciating how transient moments in our life are.
Xed’s body and face were heavily tattooed, covered in layers of his own work and works of friends and artists he admired and who inspired him; here was a man who chose to colour himself with the judgement and suspicion I had only just learnt to ignore as a black woman in a white land; and he wore it with such natural ease.
His body was a canvas beyond description, tempting me to trace the ink past the surface of his skin. In my mind – as he tattooed me – I followed the lines and curves traversing his skin with my fingertips like a priest at mass tracing the verses as he read from the Bible; my lips soundlessly moving, mouthing awe.
Romance allows me to recall in memories only the beauty of events and never the pain that always lurks on the fringes of it; well, a set of 14 needles being dragged through your skin is hardly going to be soothing! But the phrase, ‘The man behind the needle’, was all too true.
My first time
This was not my first venture into tattooing, so I knew about the pain. Nine years before, I had lost my ‘tattooing virginity’ on impulse; I woke up one morning and decided that day was the day I was going to get the tattoo I had been thinking about.
I headed off to a tattoo shop in Streatham in South West London that a girl at the hair salon I went to had pointed out to me on High Street. I proceeded to let someone herd me into choosing a design from a big black book; my only choice would be where it would go. In the perfect storm of bad decisions, I chose a tacky ‘tribal’ design and had it slag-tagged onto my lower back.
I could not tell you now what this tattoo shop was called, describe the atmosphere in it, name of the person who marked me for life or tell you what the tattoo itself meant; I just had to choose… quickly… as they had clients waiting! Everyone had told me tattooing was addictive but when I walked out of that shop I felt no inclination for more, it was literally like losing your virginity to an anonymous passionless one night stand!
My totem, my tattoos
It was therefore not surprising that it was another nine years before desire took over me again; but this time I took my time and found the perfect lover.
My first tattoo at Divine Canvas was by Damien Voodoo – The Transman from Iran. All I wanted was for him to tattoo the word Nyati on the back of my neck but he asked me what the word meant, and most importantly what it meant to me.
“Buffalo,” I told him.
I grew up knowing I was of the honoured totem of the Buffalo; in our totem the women are royalty, never controlled by men, and instead of leaving the family when they marry, they bring the men into their fold. I was descended from beautiful, proud, strong women.
And like all Nyati daughters, I had been called the royal title Muzvare, meaning Princess, from birth. Every room in our home had buffalo images in it – paintings and sculptures in stone and wood. My father could never resist buying one, whenever he saw them. When he travelled, he stopped by sculptors’ open-air markets and bargained them into the ground, walking away with yet another buffalo sculpture to adorn our home with.
I talked to Damien for ages and he unravelled my ramblings into beautiful patterns on my entire back, bringing my heart to my skin. I saw buffalo horns, flame lily petals, a shield and an unbroken circle of African Angels protecting me. He even managed to disguise the blunder of my first tattoo! I loved the feeling of being under his needle, under his hands, loved talking to him as he worked and talking to the rest of the tattooists working in that space.
Delphine Noiztoy, a flighty, passionate young French girl was new to the studio, and the Queen of Realism. After seeing her work, I was seduced from my romantic abstract nature and asked her to do a real-life buffalo on me.
But first, I made her watch the Youtube video of ‘Battle at Kruger Park’ where a herd of buffalo confront, challenge and overwhelm a pride of lions to reclaim a calf that has been taken from them. It is that strength, love and passion in that dignified animal that my family can only hope to siphon from the essence of the buffalo.
All concerns about my being a lawyer and not being able to get away with so much tattooing were soon forgotten when Delphine graced me with the most amazing buffalo on my chest, a part of my body I had never thought I would get tattooed but the only place it ever belonged; over my heart.
More work to follow
Xed is currently in the process of working on a complete sleeve for my left arm, staying true to my African essence in all the work I trust him to immortalise on me. Royal African princess bands have already gone around the Shona phrase on my arm – my son’s favourite piece on me. Delphine is also commissioned to do a number of Zimbabwean flowers on my chest around my buffalo and the top part of my left sleeve; hibiscus, protea, flame lilies…
I even let one of Xed’s apprentices Steve practice on me, using the ancient method of hand poking where needles are tied to a rudimentary stick and dipped into ink as you tattoo, art in its purest form. He gave me a Zimbabwean hunter rock painting on my ankle. And, I also asked Xed, on Friday 13th January 2012, to tattoo the number 13 onto my right wrist- its meaning secret only to myself and shared only with the man who put it into my skin.
I smile every time I look at it.
So my tattooing journey continues with no foreseeable end and more work commissioned from Divine Canvas!
More than skin deep
Tattooing has become a huge part of my life. I admit I have a strongly addictive personality, but I choose only to be drawn to things that will nurture my soul. My son, who is turning 4, in a few months time marked a new phase in my life; a time I came to myself after aimless wondering.
I started growing my locks when I was expecting him, before I even knew this, and he loves “Mummy’s hair”- always plays with it. And now he loves mummy’s tattoos and calls them “Mummy stuck” as he thinks they are stuck on me. He refers to my buffalo as the “Gruffalo Nyati”.
My body changed quite a bit after I had my son, a change I found hard to accept in the beginning. But I now feel I have been brought back in touch with this body that nurtured him to life; and I am enjoying embellishing it with my tattoos.
I do not speak for my tattoos – they are what they are. In their presence, they speak of who I am, how I am learning fearlessness and loving the journey. People can only look at them and decide how they feel about them; but they are part of me and therefore not for challenging.
I do not like to try to explain them; or maybe the truth is I am not capable of explaining them fully enough for anyone to grasp the depth of their meaning to me. They are evolutions of what I have showed of myself to people who have become friends; and they have managed to feed this essence, in images, back into me.
We are all tattooed
I have already dealt with the classic questions from tattoo sceptics;
“What will you do when you are older?”
Just be, I say.
And, “Why would you choose to mark yourself so permanently?”
But what they really mean is, “Why do I choose to mark myself so visibly?”
I say we are all marked, scarred, lined and decorated by our daily experiences and choices, just that no one but ourselves are privy to these markings unless we decide to share them.
Usually, we save this privilege for our closest family and friends, but we – the tattooed – invite everyone to see our life journey, our marks, our views, passions and choices. Perhaps I am challenging the world I know, but for me to try to explain the depth of my connection to tattooing to a sceptic is like trying to describe the colour blue to a blind man.
But will their failure to understand or appreciate it make blue any less vibrant, bright or real?