Soweto Ink makes its mark in the tattoo industry

A Soweto Ink client shows off the ink on her back.
A Soweto Ink client shows off the ink on her back.
Image: sowetoink / Instagram

According to Days of the Year, July 17 is observed to celebrate one of the most ancient art forms - tattooing. This makes today Tattoo Day and apparently the best way to commemorate it is by getting your skin etched.

If you’re too scared to go under the needle, like many of us, we think it's best that you use this day to celebrate this dynamic duo who want to change the township narrative when it comes to tattoo culture. While many think of a dingy backroom or garage when they hear of a tattoo parlour in the hood, Soweto Ink wants to professionalise tattoo culture in their township.

Founded by high school friends, Sibusiso Dlamini and Ndumiso Ramate, Soweto Ink is one of the very few black-owned tattoo parlours. Like its namesake, Soweto Ink is based in the heart of one of the most iconic townships in the country.  Dlamini and Ramate are set on building an empire from a culture considered taboo in some black communities.

Co-Founder of Soweto Ink, Sibusiso Dlamini working in a new design.
Co-Founder of Soweto Ink, Sibusiso Dlamini working in a new design.
Image: Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius.

“The culture is slowly growing amongst us black people but there’s still that stigma that tattoos are evil,” says Dlamini.

The self-taught artist has been in the business of body art for more than a decade and his clientele boasts the likes of Burna Boy, AKA, Priddy Ugly and Gigi Lamayne, among other stars.

“I didn’t think I’d be a tattoo artist, I wanted to be a farmer but then that’s not what I studied. I studied carpentry and ended up doing tattooing,” he says.

And it seems that decision has paid off as he can now proudly say he’s part of the trailblazers in formalising a tattoo culture among black artists in the country.

“We’re the first professional black-owned tattoo company and we’re the first to do a black-owned tattoo convention in Africa,” says Ramate, the business maverick behind Soweto Ink.

The Soweto Ink Convention is an annual African tattoo culture and lifestyle event. Ramate says they started the convention after seeing that there aren’t enough spaces for black tattoo fanatics. “I did market research [and found that] there are people that like the lifestyle, that are accustomed to the lifestyle, ‘so why don't we create our own convention that's going to create that environment for everyone’,” he says. The convention includes entertainment and seminars aimed at empowering budding tattoo artists.

Ndumiso Ramate shows off his tattoos at the second Soweto Ink Tattoo Convention held on the 15th of December 2017.
Ndumiso Ramate shows off his tattoos at the second Soweto Ink Tattoo Convention held on the 15th of December 2017.
Image: Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius

Apart from running a successful business and an annual tattoo festival, the founders of Soweto Ink want to empower upcoming tattoo artists by sharing what Ramate calls "hidden information".

“For example, if you’re operating from a backroom you can’t order from suppliers, that’s number one. And number two you can’t get into a tattoo convention if you’re black, they automatically tell you there’s no space. I’ve experienced all these things first hand,” he says.

Soweto Ink has grown from strength to strength since its inception in 2012. The duo want to see it grow beyond Soweto as they aspire to see their parlour sprout in other parts of the continent. With pop-up stores in Botswana, it seems they’re well on their way.

“People are in love with the culture and are willing to blend into the whole lifestyle. Amazingly, the lifestyle is bigger that side; they love us and they want a part of us so we're looking into opening up a space in 2020 but it's still under wraps.” Ramate says proudly.  

This seems to be a step in the right direction for the pair who see their company dominating the continental tattoo industry.

“It’s going to be one of the power houses in the tattoo industry in South Africa, that’s how I see it. It’s definitely going to change a lot of lives, not only in South Africa but around Africa.” says Dlamini.

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