First Ink—Makeshift
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A Maputo tattoo artist recalls learning by copying designs and machines

— First Ink

08. Copycats Dispatches

Jair is waiting for me at a street corner in downtown Maputo to show me the salon he occasionally uses as a studio. He’s wearing a sleeveless shirt, revealing tattoo-clad limbs. When we met a few weeks ago, he told me he did his tattoos himself. “I wanted to be a tattoo artist, and I didn’t know how else to practice.”

Jair tells me how he picked up the craft while studying in 2000. A friend had a knack for drawing and knew how to use a syringe and Chinese ink. At a party, the friend drew a sketch on Jair’s chest. Equipped with the syringe and ink, Jair went home, locked himself in the bathroom, and followed the marker lines his friend had drawn with the needle. “I was fascinated by tattoos,” he said. “I wanted my whole body to be covered with them.”

The two began working together, with the friend responsible for creating designs and Jair for applying to skin. They offered their skills to friends, putting a few thick, unsteady lines on arms and chests. After a year, Jair met another tattoo artist using a self-made machine. He learned its mechanics and began experimenting with his own tattoo guns using found parts: the motor of a tape deck, a button off a shirt, bent wires, the case of a mechanical pencil.

New mechanics allowed Jair to advance his designs: outlines became steadier, shades appeared, lines became finer. Soon he offered his art professionally. “We tattooed people on the streets, at swimming pools, and parties.” But though his gear improved, it might last less than a single session. Jair had to improvise to finish each job.

Jair's homemade tattoo gun

Jair’s homemade tattoo gun

As the machines advanced, Jair’s understanding of technique and design grew too. He would find inspiration from books and magazines friends brought from outside Mozambique. Still using found parts, he copied designs and tested new machines on himself. “All tattoos on the left side of my body were done by me. I didn’t know that I could use pigskin to practice.”

The salon Jair uses these days is a mix between a fashion boutique and a beauty parlor—several steps up from the street and party sessions of years past. On the upper floor, there’s a small massage room Jair rents when not visiting clients at home. The space is largely empty. Everything Jair needs is packed in a small metal case he carries with him.

Five years ago, he got his first professional tattoo gun from a friend. Now, he has several, including a variety of needles and inks. Yet the reputation of makeshift art in Maputo, like his earlier work, remains a barrier. “A lot of people here want tattoos but are scared. There are many stories around here about badly done tattoos.” Jair has proven passion and experimentation can lead to a steady stream of clients. Now, he makes most of his living from his art. And he’s still working to cover his whole body in ink.


  • B.

    During your interview for this piece was there any discussion of HIV/AIDS?


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08. Copycats Dispatches