Inking by numbers - Tattoos in Cape Town


Written by James Read
09 Wednesday 09th January 2008

Araminta De Clermont documents the prison tattoos of the Numbers Gangs from the Cape Town Flats. These men have literally covered themselves with tattoos, extending across their faces. She found many of her subjects roaming homeless in bus stations and soup kitchens; the same tattoos that marked them with respect inside prison, left them unemployable on the outside.

Gangs and tattoos go way back. From Japan's Yakuza to the Russian Mafia, bodies have long been used as storyboards for boasting criminal history. The tattoos of the Cape Town underworld have nothing of Tokyo's gaudy colouring, however, since the 'inks' used in South African jails are often ground plastics with occasional highlights in powdered brick. The high visibility of the tattoos also marks them out, with extensive facial tattoos being common. It is this that makes reintegration into society particularly hard for ex-cons. Araminta has focused on this with her Life After exhibition, telling the story of their attempts at rehabilitating themselves into society.

Martin (top) was recently named captain of the South African homeless football team for the Homeless Football World Cup that is currently taking place in Melbourne. His mother is an alcoholic and would beat him as a child. Martin grew up on the streets and was arrested as a juvenile. He spent years in jail and would write to his mother regularly. She never answered and finally in frustration he wrote to her stating that his final words to her would be emblazoned on his face and upon his release he would visit her so she could read his final letter. Thus, ‘Don’t cry for me tomorrow mom’ is tattooed upon Martin’s face.

In prison he was a member of the 28s gang and has the words 'Son Af' (Sunset - the gang's symbol) as well as their salute tattooed.

Twins, 2008

The Twins (Kojak & Bless) are 43 years old and spent 19 years in prison for stabbing a man who was ‘interfering’ with Kojak’s girlfriend. Bless who is more tattooed then his brother, is a member of the 28s. A spider web on his neck shows that he will wait patiently for his prey, and the four stars on his shoulders are like epaulettes, indicating his high rank. Kojak now works in construction for an old friend and Bless has found work as a security guard at the Cape Town market.

Araminta writes: "They both really enjoyed receiving my photographs of them together. I got the feeling they possess no normal family snaps of themselves at all."

Released in October 2007 after 27 years in prison, Fahiek carries himself with a great deal of dignity. He has a shopping trolley, which is filled with bric a brac, and a dog named Sheeba. He sometimes eats at The Crypt soup kitchen and is always there early as if there is something always to be got on with. He was a hitman for a gang. Fahiek has 'Son op' (sun rise, which is specific to the 26s gang) tattooed on his eyelids and for this reason hates blinking. He is sorry for the tattoos he has but says that much of the reason was prison boredom.

Halfway through exhibiting her pictures, Araminta was informed by ex-prisoners that Fahiek had been shot and killed. After two years of living on the street with Sheeba, Fahiek had returned to one of the out of prison gangs and was hired for a contract killing. Upon his return from the murder he was sent to a different address to pick-up his money. When he arrived at the given address he was shot several times and died.

The penis tattoo on Charles’ stomach is specific to the 28s. The gang is known to take ‘wyfies’ (wives) from the jail community, who are then protected in exchange for sodomy rights and household chores. However, the men in 28s deny any homosexuality.

Charles has been in and out of prison for most of his life, and now scrubs his face daily in an attempt to rid himself of his facial tattoos.

The tattoos MUM and DAD are acronyms for Man Under Money and Day after Day.

Omar, 2008

This is Omar, also known as 'Chappies' (the prison slang term for the tattoos, because he is so covered). The term 'chappies' comes from the bubble gum in South Africa, whose wrappers are covered on the inside with tiny “did you know?” facts (the tattoos perform a similar function).

The scorpion on his upper arm shows membership of the notorious Cape Town Scorpions. The hand on his neck depicts the 28s gang salute. Across his chest you can see the beginnings on his emblazoned tattoo 'Man-Hunter' which he had put on to warn someone who had harmed him in prison that he would eventually exact his revenge. He was imprisoned for 15 years (released 2004) for stabbing a guy he was fighting, who had hit him over his skull with a rock. They have since apologised to one another, which seemed important to him.

Omar was a 'king' in prison, commanding absolute respect. He now sleeps rough, inside a tunnel in the structure of an incomplete Cape Town flyover. He has not integrated back into 'normal society' and he spends his days at the city’s bus station, and sells wine to other street people.

Lazarus, 2008

Lazarus lives near Kuils River, Blue Downs settlement, with his wife Teresa who waited for over 22 years while in he was in prison.

Apparently (according to his cousin), Lazarus killed three men for raping a family member, though he says there is “no blood on my hands”. Lazarus was sentenced to death but was reprieved by Mandela. Lazarus did kill again when he was going to be raped in the shower by two inmates. Because he was given the death sentence, tattooing his face did not seem a particular issue with regards to repercussions: he believed he would never go back into the outside world anyway, and the pay offs for him outweighed the negatives.

Find out more about Araminta and her photography here

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  • Guest: waliedc
    Sun 08 - Jan - 2012, 11:32
    Hi I come from a deprived community such as havoner park,its true ex-cons don't get on well in society,they are not given the proper training as to how to deal with people if released,never the less working skills,most ex-cons will tell u its better on the inside than outside,they get treated as nt wanted by society,that's why most of them return to prison cause that's the only thing they no,if I could help them I would but I wouldn't know were to start or even who to speak to,its just sad to think,that can be someones father,brother,husband,if I had the finance I would have opened a construction company just so to employ most of these guys for a better future so that they don't think that everybody has left them behind