An Interview with Mully - Tattoo Artist

Published: 07 January, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 138, October, 2006

Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
I grew up in a little town just north of Durban, on the east coast of South Africa, the life there was pretty much all about the beach and surfing, a nice open kind of lifestyle, all good really. From an early age I was drawn towards art, and knew I would end up doing something along those lines. I can remember copying paintings that were hanging in the lounge at home and when I left school I studied graphic design for a while, but that was after I came back from travelling.

Where did you visit on your travels?
Oh, mainly around the States and Hawaii, and it was in Hawaii that I actually picked up the bug for designing tattoos for people. At the time on the island on which I was staying, Kauai, there were actually no tattoo artists, so I guess it was just meant to be.

So as a youngster, what kind of music and other scenes were you into, apart from surfing and tattoos?
‘The Village People’, (laughs).

That’s just about all your credibility gone out the window and we’ve only just begun the interview. At what stage in your life did you become aware of tattoos and that scene in general, were they around you from an early age?
No, at the time, tattoos were still very much frowned upon by the majority of society back home and that has been the case for a very long time, its only very recently that things have become a bit more acceptable, I suppose that’s a more general thing and is due to the fact that tattoos are now much more accepted worldwide.

So when did you start to take notice of tattoos as an artform?
That was when I was travelling abroad with my mates, before that I actually hated the dam things.

Why was that?
Mostly due to the stigma and prejudice attached to people who were tattooed. I went to a private school and had a decent kind of upbringing.

So how do your parents feel about the fact that you are tattooed and have chosen tattooing as a profession?
Now they have accepted it but in the early days they would probably have left me out of their will.

So when did you get the first work done?
That was when I was travelling. I spent about a week designing a tattoo that incorporated all the members of my family, that’s the tatt at the top of my left arm. But later on I realised that tattoos were more a medium of art, a true artform, a challenging one at that, a chance to really express yourself and did not just have to be the result of a spontaneous drunken decision 

So at the time did you research the artist you chose to do the first work?
Yes, I looked around for a decent artist and came across Nina Rose, in Fort Lauderdale. Interestingly enough she did not have a single tattoo on her body, but I checked out her work and thought she was good. And, as you know, once you have the one, the rest are soon to follow.

I noticed when we did the photos that you have quite a few different styles of work on your body. So since the early days how did things develop?
It’s all about remembering different stages of my life with a tattoo and I don’t feel the need to stick to one style, bugger that. Its pretty much about memories but its also decorative, basically a combination of those two factors. And I’ve collected work from various artists as I’ve gone along. I worked with Vinnie Myers in the States and he did some work on me.

So when you had decided you wanted to become a tattooist, did you do an apprenticeship or are you self-taught?
Initially I had been asked to design a few tattoos for my mate’s abroad, and eventually we decided that I should do the tattooing because of the fact that I had studied graphic design for two years. And anyway the work that some of my friends had was so bad that I was sure that my early attempts couldn’t be any worse. So we though, what the hell, give it a go.

How successful were those attempts?
Actually we were well impressed. Happy days. My art background really did help though, its all about applying all of the principles used in drawing and painting onto another medium, the skin.  
So, as an artform, the only difference between tattoos and other art genres is that that they are inscribed onto living flesh as opposed to canvas or paper etc?
That’s right. But its also a pretty difficult medium to master because you are working on a living body and that can create its own problems.

How do you cope with that aspect of the profession?
Basically, I like people so I enjoy the challenge of translating what they want into an image onto their bodies. It’s a responsibility and I like that. Creating new stuff is what I enjoy but it can be quite intense.

So, once you had started tattooing, how did things progress from there on?
After I had designed the first stuff for my friends and bought the kit, things just went from there and the guys kept lining up, it was all good. At one stage I was staying at Huntington Beach and there were so many drug addicts there, they were like, “whatever, just put it on me”.

So how long is it now since you started?
Twelve years.

So you must have seen so many changes since those early days?
Definitely. And my own attitude has changed so much. To think that a little boy off the farm in South Africa, who used to hate tatts and now thinks ‘this is cool’, that’s pretty good, no?

So you’re from a farm background?
(laughs). No, but it sounds cool. A farm on the beach.

So did you ever actually do an apprenticeship?
No. But I think that for those who can get them, apprenticeships are a good idea. You can save a lot of time by having someone show you all of the ins and outs, the shortcuts, otherwise you just muddle along and learn by your mistakes. But apprenticeships are hard to come by anywhere, people are pretty much closed about letting anyone else in to the profession, but its like anything else, if you really want to become a tattooist, buy a tattoo kit and don’t worry about what anyone else says.

Even after I’d been tattooing for a couple of years, I wrote to a few big names, Little Vinnie Myers was one of them, telling them my sad story, explaining how cut off we were in South Africa. Vinnie Myers did reply, telling me to keep up the good work and to send him more photos, but I never heard back from him.  So one day, when I was travelling, I just pitched up on his doorstep and said, “what’s going on you bastard”, (laughing), well maybe not the ‘bastard’. Anyway, he was well impressed that I’d made it all the way over from South Africa. I ended up working in his studio for a couple of months and that was all I needed at that stage, as I’d been working on my own for a couple of years. It just helped me to gain a few extra skills and to see where my work and technique was lacking, it helped me a lot, big time.

How does the European tattoo scene differ from that in South Africa?
In Europe people are just getting way bigger work, its at least five or six years ahead of us in South Africa. Back home, people are only just warming to tattoos as a medium, there’s still a bit of stigma attached, especially when it comes to large pieces of work, the small stuff is what you see most.

How has your client base changed over the last few years?
I get everything from teenagers coming in with their mums and dads, the odd grandparent, blacks, whites, all of them. But we still have a long way to go, we’ve got to just hang on in there.

Is tattooing popular within the black community?
Not much. But they are picking up the scent, especially after seing all these gangsters and people like Eminem and 50 Cent getting tattooed. Usually they want their name or something like that tattooed on them. There’s also a lot of gang related tattoos going on.

How are heavily tattooed people perceived by the general public in S.A?
There’s still a bit of stigma but its now seen as more of an attractive thing rather than as a dirty thing  

Are there any particular tattooists who have influenced your work?
There’s Bernie Luther, there’s Filip Leu. Those are just the gurus that you aspire to be like.

Is most of your work custom or flash?
A bit of both really, about 40% flash but custom work is much more enjoyable to do. 

What style of work do you prefer to do when given the choice?
I prefer to do big Japanese stuff.

Do you get to do much of that?
Not too much, but I’m going to start to convince everyone that this is the route we need to take, (laughs).

I can see from looking at photos of your work that it encompasses a wide spectrum of styles. 
That’s necessary to survive but I do prefer doing large scale, colour pieces, poking around with a little fairy’s face is crap.

What styles of work are most popular in S.A. Is there much interest in tribal for instance?
Tribal is still pretty big at home, but I’m trying to put a few slants on tribal so that its not just the same old stuff. But at the end of the day its about giving people what they want, with a bit of advice thrown in. There is not really an African style of tattooing around and that’s what I’m trying to create. A lot of the flash that I create is quite different, lots of red and black patterns flowing around. I am recognised for portrait work, Bob Marley, celebrity, family members, deceased family members, that sort of stuff.

Being based so close together, don’t you find the studios compete for trade?
Not really, I get my regular customers and mostly custom work and the other studio gets mostly walk-ins.

Are the majority of your clients locals or tourists?
Both, mainly South Africans but with all of the tourists, safari parks and stuff going on we are well situated so we do get tourists as well.

So. Things seem pretty good for you now. What about the future?
I’d just like to see my own work develop more and also see the development of the tattoo scene in South Africa. But as far as things go, I’ve got everything I need. A good dog, a Staffie, a good vehicle, what more would I want! Would you like to guest abroad?

I wouldn’t mind, but I’m happy at home. I could work in the UK, I have a British passport, I could make good money here and take it back, and I often do come over every year or so and get holed up somewhere and work. As to the future we want to see some international tattoo conventions in South Africa, we’ve had a few small ones in the past and the last one which we had back in November, 2005, was all about seeing who was on the map, the response was good, we now have another one planned for next month, May 2006, so things are looking up for us. At the moment most of the artists are South African but we are gonna invite some big names over, after all Africa is an interesting destination for those guys to see when they visit, surf, safari and convention all in one, (laughs).

Do you enjoy working at conventions?
I’ve worked at Dublin and in Hamburg.

How do you find that?
Its all pretty new to me and its not as comfortable as working in the studio, but its okay. I’d like to come over for the London one. It’s a good way of getting exposure.

Is there anything else you would like to achieve?
Surf Pipeline.

What’s that?
It’s a break in Hawaii, (laughs).  No, seriously, I just want to carry on living my happy life and I just hope it stays like that! I’m happy. I’m doing something I love, not many people can say that.

So how near to achieving your personal goal have you come?
I’m getting there, it’s a challenging medium. I could do with more business, but its all good and rosy. It’s a good time for tattooing as its taking on a new image and loosing its earlier one.

What else inspires you?
Nature, in all its shapes and forms.  

From what you’ve told me, it all sounds idyllic. Make me even more envious and describe your day to day routine!
Get up, take the dog down to the beach, surf if there are waves, then off to the studio, always start the day on the beach. After that you can’t help but smile.  

Is there anything else you want to say?
I just want to do my part in putting the South African tattoo scene on the map!


Photography & Interview, Copyright: ASHLEY Photgraphers Assistant: MICHELE MARTINOLI