Tattoo Artist Ethel Laka On Bravery and Putting Art First
The first thing you see on the Facebook Page of Ethel Laka’s tattoo studio are the words ‘Do Not Conform’ over a black and white image of tattooed hands.
Ethel is an artist who tattoos people for a living. While TV shows like LA Ink emphasise the sentimentality of getting a tattoo, for Ethel, it’s all about the love of art. She sees tattooing as another medium and skin as another canvas at her disposal. Her work is inspired and informed by her background in Fine Art and her style is defined by intricate line work, expert blending and dimension to create a realistic finish. It’s a style she is insistent on remaining true to, and mastering.
Having worked her way up as an apprentice and a tattoo artist in shops in Joburg, she struck out on her own establishing an independent tattoo studio where she makes the calls, and where she’s relishing the opportunity to do what she loves on her own terms.
What made you want to become a tattoo artist?
I was always drawing and sketching. This was not a career far out from what I had known: drawing, painting. Art was always a part of who I was so taking up tattooing was natural and not outrageous for me. I went to an arts high school too where I specialised in Fine Arts: design, sculpture, drawing and painting.
After school I had an interest in permanent make up. I took up a short course on it and eventually met Kevin Brown who owned a few tattoo studios around Joburg. He took me in and apprenticed me in his studio. I also much rather enjoyed doing a peacock or flower than doing just eyeliner, or eyebrow hair simulation.
I naturally took very well to the art of this technique: tattooing.
I always affirm that I am an artist first, who tattoos. I strongly believe that art comes first. It is the difference that sets us apart from the rest of tattooists who have mastered the technique of tattooing but work with no flair or style.
Is it a tough industry to prove yourself in?
I never was out to prove myself: this is who I am, I don’t know how to be anything else or prove otherwise. I’m not in competition with anyone else but I’m outrageously critical of myself only. The tough comes in dealing with human nature and people’s preconceived notions of what a tattoo artist should look like, behave like, sound like, dress like etc. I have had clients with no faith in what I can do simply because I do not fit the box in their minds. I am not a white man, I’m not fully tattooed and I have piercings only in my ears. I have never had an interest in proving myself at all, it’s all a trust process that has to take place between me and the client. Thankfully one can see my portfolio and decide to come to me to have their tattoo done.
“I’ve had to be brave, I did not grow up seeing many black girls like me with tattoos, so it was an introspective thing for me to do.” – Ethel Laka
What were some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I’ve had the blessing to learn in a professional studio and had an amazing time there. A challenge to overcome was understanding human nature, with different cultures, idealism, as I meet a lot of different people in my work. The challenge to also fight to keep my portfolio true to my style. I like tattooing dimension and giving life to objects, you don’t always get such material to work with from people so I’ve had to and actually still do, challenge myself to stay on the course of my style of tattooing so that it is definite. I don’t want to tattoo all styles, I have an interest in one and want to tattoo only that and master that.
What would you say defines your style of tattooing?
My Fine Arts background for sure. My style is that of fine lines and dimensions, it’s hardly abstract. I prefer the realism of a portrait to a traditional bold-lined rose. I love both black and grey and colour tattooing, and in large scale too. This style takes many hours to tattoo and is not what one gets everyday.
“I have had clients with no faith in what I can do simply because I do not fit the box in their minds. I am not a white man, I’m not fully tattooed and I have piercings only on my ears.” – Ethel Laka
Do you feel there’s a certain bravery in getting a tattoo?
Yes, it’s a brave endeavour. Society has always had its ways with how it views tattooed people. It’s sore too, so some bravery there helps it along. I’ve had to be brave, I did not grow up seeing many black girls like me with tattoos, so it was an introspective thing for me to do.
What do your own tattoos say about you?
Nothing specific! I just love the art of it. I have roses on my arm and a small one on my back not fully tattooed yet. The idea that a tattoo has to mean something or say something about you has been strongly exaggerated on television shows. In fact in most cases we love doing pieces that are an artistically challenging design. It’s not entirely about what it means/says about one. Sometimes it’s the art of the design, nothing else.
What are the challenges and rewards of owning your own studio?
I’m the happiest I have ever been in my own studio! Shop studios were extremely fun but I think one grows up to define what they are and you set yourself up that way. I love the fact that I have a private studio set up. I love that I can decide who I want to tattoo and who I do not. I can play the exact sound and set up an atmosphere that I wish to so that my space is tranquil. I can provide a space that allows for creativity to thrive. I do not have to deal with walk-ins, which mostly I find time-wasting. I think also, importantly, my style requires full focus and concentration and I’d hate to have mounds of people walking in and out while I’m in the process. I love the freedom that comes with owning my own studio. I sterilise my own equipment, answer my own emails, conceptualise my own designs. I would not have it any other way.
What do you enjoy most about the craft?
I love meeting new people. The business is ever-growing. I enjoy that it still is art. I enjoy delivering and exceeding expectations all the time, and seeing a design/picture come to life as I work, and think and decide with my gloves on and the machine running. It’s always a new thing, never the same.