There’s this recovering junkie that used to go around to schools and give his testimonial, the gist of the message being just say no. And then because he was missing teeth and had bad skin and was the picture of unglamorous drug abuser, he scared the bejesus out of us. So much in fact that the first time I was offered a hit of a bong I said no, thinking it would instantly transform me into this guy like doodledoodledoop.

Now as a public service, and in order to allow others to learn from my mistakes so that they needn’t make their own, I’d like to work with this guy. He could tell his story about how sniffing his Tip-X was a gateway to selling his ass for tik, and then I’d follow up by running on stage, ripping my T-shirt off like Hulk Hogan, and talking about my tattoos.

Because, Oh My God, are they terrible…

The day after matric I got a portrait of the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara etched into my shoulder. A lot can change in decade, and while I was able to shave off the dreadlocks and buy some new clothes and start eating meat again, my regrettable tattoo of a murderous Marxist and the international symbol of shopping mall T-shirts will haunt me forever.

Now a lot of people see my arm and ask if tattoos are addictive. Not really, I tell them, well not for me at least. My fifteen or so tattoos are the result of trying to fight fire with fire. If you’ve read the Dr. Seuss classic The Cat In The Hat you’ll remember how what starts off as a stain in the bath results in all the snow outside turning pink. That’s a metaphor for my tattoos. I started with one regrettable tattoo and before I knew it I was covered.

You see, to try and balance out the Che Guevara portrait I then added an American Indian Thunderbird because Red Hot Chilli Peppers, followed this up with a portrait of Nelson Mandela (this was circa 2002 so all you basic bitches getting post-death Madiba tats – I’m better than you, so na-na-na-na-boo-boo, stick your head in doo-doo), there’s a tribal disc that’s exactly the same as the one that The Rock has, a pic of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, a Diane Arbus photograph, a Bitterkomix drawing of a man in his undies, some latin phrases, an anchor, the number 13, the letter M, a full stop, an inverted cross, both of my kids names…

Which is why despite my gorgeous rig I’m usually wearing a T-shirt on the beach. I know? What a waste!

Now my biggest problem with my tattoos isn’t what I’ve decided to go with but how other people see them as an invitation to ask me about the meaning behind them. Or worse, tell me about theirs… A tattoo is a very personal thing. F’rinstance, that Madiba tattoo doesn’t mean that I’m a white-guilt libtard pushover who is going to give you R10 for watching my car. It just felt like the right image to celebrate finishing up three years as the only white guy in my Technikon. Likewise the inverted cross on my chest doesn’t make me a Satanist, it’s a little memento that I got to remember my Devil Snake ex-girlfriend by.

A good rule for living a better life is to not wear your heart on your sleeve. So when you literally have a sleeve tattoo that looks like a Facebook page spewing your interests, beliefs, the books you’ve read, favourite quotes and heroes, you’re opening yourself up to a world of lame. Because what happens when you get a new favourite band? After all, the best part of having a mind is being able to change it. And you know how you can easily change your political views on Facebook from “apathetic” to “very” with the click of a mouse? Well this is real life, pal, and you can’t just Apple Z or CTRL ALT DELETE your regrettable skin art.

Skin art? AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA What’s artistic about a gross tribe of self-mutilators beating themselves even more hideous with the ugly stick? Firstly, it’s a problem when you start getting so into yourself that you become your own hobby. Then you start using phrases like ‘skin art’ and what started as a celebration of adulthood – “Yeah mom and dad, I’m finished school, and sure you’re still paying my rent while I study, but I’m going to show you just how grown up I am and permanently mark my body because I’M A BIG BOY NOW!’ – is just childish. Rather go and decorate the back of your maths exercise book.


The author gets his friend Warbot to do a tattoo on his already shitty looking arm in the spare room of his house using a borrowed tattoo-gun.

What makes my situation even worse was that I was still living in East London, which isn’t the capital of tattoo artists in South Africa, when I started getting marked. I should’ve learned from that time my gay uncle took me to get my ear pierced when I was in Std. 3, and because he was a gay convinced me to get my right ear done. So when I showed up at The Gap and all the other guys shooting pool and sucking on Styvies had sleepers in their left lobe and I had one in my right, I had to walk straight back to the local haberdashery, Dees Den, and get the lady working there to do my other ear. Which just ended up getting infected anyway, and I removed the earring long before my highlights had even grown out. So really, I should’ve known better than going to a scratcher working out of a VW Kombi to do my first few tattoos. Come to think of it, I’m lucky that Che is the only thing that haunts me forever. I could’ve got Hepatitis!

There are, however, some tattoos that I like. And those are the ones on friends of mine. My friend Brad especially. He’s filled his plus-size frame with the type of stupid stuff you come up with before the bar calls last round. Things like that Jesus fish but with “LOL” inside of it, a rollerblading dog in a sombrero, a racist drawing of a Chinaman with “Hurro” and “You pay now!” written around it…

I also like having my kids’ names on my chest, partly because they’re something that I’ll never outgrow, and also because I did those tattoos myself. Yes, if you’re paying someone thousands of rand to trace onto your skin you’re losing at life. My DIY tattoos cost me nothing more than a pen I grabbed off of a colleagues desk.

Now there are numerous techniques that you can use, but what works for me is to take a pen, pull off the nib, and then blow all the ink into a dish. Then you take the thinnest needle you can find, sterilise it with a lighter, loop a thread through the eye, pull that thread through the ink, and then just kind of stitch yourself up. What happens is that when you pull the needle through the hole, the thread follows through and leaves the ink behind. Ta-da!

The beauty of this style of tattoo is how homemade it looks, and how arduous and painful the task is. You have to really want something to do it to yourself.

If like me you’ve grown out of your tattoos then you can make yourself feel better by looking at the new wave of Cape Town hipsters pushing the stupidity envelope and doing things like getting hand, neck and face tattoos. Ho-ho, good luck finding a job when you’re done with your masters dissertation in gender and film!

What I also like to do is attend things like The Southern Ink Fest because misery loves company. Sure, most of the people here aren’t miserable, in fact they’re proud of their tattoos, they’re celebrating them, despite the majority of their tattoos being far worse than mine. But that doesn’t matter. Just seeing people with the least artistic and literary savvy devote themselves to the art of permanent drawings and sayings is enough for me.

  • Matthew Freemantle