Ruth asked me to provide moral support while she got a tattoo to celebrate her birthday. Even better, she invited me to bring my camera.

Instagram of SA Hardcore Tattoos, one of the most well-known tattoo parlors in Joburg. The owner is Orthodox Christian, hence all the crucifixes and Blessed Virgins. I dig the juxtaposition of religious symbolism and tattoo ink.

I love tattoo photography. I discovered this last year, when my best friend Claire and I got inked together back home in the States. I enjoyed documenting the experience almost as much as I enjoyed getting the tattoo. In fact, my D.C. tattoo post is one of my favorite 2Summers posts of all time. So I was excited to do it again, this time as a spectator rather than a nervous participant.

Ruth got her ink at SA Hardcore Tattoos in Parkhurst. Despite the intimidating name, Hardcore Tattoos is a calming place, with antique furniture, chilled-out tunes, and lots of religious iconography.

Upon arrival, Ruth conferred with Renato and Maks, her tattoo artist. She showed them a picture of what she had in mind. Maks started drawing.

Maks (right) and Renato put Ruth’s vision on paper. 

Once everyone was in agreement, Renato drew the tattoo onto Ruth’s skin. Then it was time to start.

Maks gets to work.

His expression of intense concentration inspires confidence.

Ruth’s new tattoo is actually a modification of an old tattoo. Many years ago, on another birthday, Ruth and her dad got tattooed together. Ruth had always wanted a tattoo of a flock of migrating birds, and she had a picture illustrating what she wanted. But she forgot to bring the picture with her on the day of the tattooing. So instead of a bird flock, Ruth got a bird foursome. Her mom said it looked like a fleet of NATO fighter planes.

Ruth has always wanted to transform the four-bird tattoo into the flock she originally dreamed of. Hence, yesterday’s birthday present.

Ruth barely winced during the entire process. Sometimes she even smiled.

Ruth’s tattoo is pretty hardcore, at least in my opinion. It’s not a simple little rose or butterfly, which would take a couple of minutes to do. Her migrating flock involved a lot of drawing and coloring in. It took about 30 minutes from start to finish. In comparison, my five-star tattoo (which I love, by the way) took about five minutes. I was impressed with Ruth’s stoicism.

One a positive note, the lengthy process gave me plenty of time to get good photos.

At around this point, I said something encouraging like “You’re getting close to the end!” I had forgotten that all the outlines still needed to be colored in. Oops.

At last, it was done. Maks did a beautiful job.

The finished product. The four birds on the right were the original tattoo.

Close-up. I love how every bird is different.

Ruth was thrilled with the result. I hung around the shop while she ran up the street to get cash, sneaking a couple of candid shots.

Maks enjoys a post-ink smoke.

I chatted with Renato, who is in training to become a full-fledged artist. Tattoo artists apprentice for years before they actually begin to work. Decorating a person’s body with permanent ink is a big responsibility, after all.

Renato seems like a sensitive, thoughtful guy. “My favorite thing about this job is talking to people about their tattoos, finding out what they mean,” he said. “All of mine mean something.” And Renato has quite a few.

Renato mans the counter, looking hardcore.

Renato got me thinking about what I might want, if I were to get another tattoo. I got inked in America…seems like I should get inked in Africa, too. The idea is tempting but I need to be inspired first.

Once I get my inspiration, I’ll know where to go.

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