Tattoos, once the province of those living on the fringes of accepted society, have become part of the mainstream like never before. On the Garden Route internationally respected tattoo artists Moog Muller and Estelle van der Walt attract clients from around the world – and from all walks of life.

WORDS Candice Ludick  PHOTOGRAPHS Melanie Maré

Body art has always had a mixed reception – from being a mark of wealth in the upper echelons of European society in the late 1800s and the epitome of 1960s revolutionary expression to subversive subcultures and gang association. Today, tattoos are a recognised art form with a following across all social classes, genders, age groups and races.

Learning from a master
Moog Muller started his trade as an apprentice to tattoo artist Alain Reymond, whose hard-core reputation for travelling to war-torn regions to tattoo the foreign legion was legendary. Moog followed in his mentor’s footsteps and spent years in East and West Africa as well as Johannesburg before he moved to the Garden Route and opened Otherworld Tattoo in Knysna in 2007. He is the only manufacturer of coil tattoo machines in South Africa.

Among Moog’s more well-known clients is 5FM’s DJ Fresh, whose often-featured tattooed tribal armband was designed and inked by Moog. Not that the fame of some of his clients phases him: “I’m interested in the tattooing, the tattoo; it doesn’t matter if you’re a granny or a celeb,” he says.

His interest was sparked as a fine arts student when he got his first tattoo. “The tattooist had really good skills and could work from existing stencils, but had no artistic inclination. I had a specific idea in mind and provided my own drawings, which inadvertently planted the seed for this extraordinary career.”

After completing his art qualification, Moog began an apprenticeship under Alain in Johannesburg and also travelled with Alain for work, inking his first client in Djibouti, East Africa. “It was absolutely nerve-wracking. You’re leaving a permanent mark on someone, you have to do it right the first time.

“I’m ‘old school’ and when I learned, tattoo equipment was not readily available in South Africa. I learned to make all my equipment from scratch, including the coil machines I use to tattoo my clients.” Moog now sells
 coil machines to tattooists across the world.

Moog takes care to discuss his client’s choice of artwork with them to avoid regrets in future. “It is the main reason why the true professionals will not tattoo spur-of-the-moment walk-in clients under the influence of drugs or alcohol. No serious tattoo artist wants his or her work covered up – we have artistic pride like any other creative professional.” A large percentage of his work, however, is cover-ups. “About 40 to 50% of my work is covering up bad choices of subject matter and poorly executed tattoos.”

While many people choose from designs in reference books, there is a significant increase in people who arrive with definite ideas and pictures. Moog designs and also refines a client’s idea as part of his service but remains flexible to what they want. “There isn’t only one way. It is the client’s tattoo, not mine,” he says.

“The current trend in men’s tattoos is sleeves and for ladies, finer work on their ribs. It is constantly changing. What people see influences them in terms of their tattoo choices.”

Moog charges R900 per hour (Summer 2016/17) and takes a deposit for design work. Booking is essential and a waiting list of several months is not unheard of.

Not an ordinary woman
While other girls read Blush magazine, a teenaged Estelle van der Walt read tattoo magazines and drew pictures in pen on herself. “There are many reasons why people choose body art. It is something you do for yourself, no-one can take 
it away from you and it brings you joy,” she says.

Estelle’s formal education includes textiles and jewellery design in school, 2D and 3D art, and painting at the Cape Technical College. “My dad is an artist, and art has always been an important part of my life.” At 17 Estelle took an apprenticeship in leatherwork, which she regards as part of her journey. “I’m still working with skin and needles,” she laughs. “It is such an amazing job because it is rewarding in the sense that the appreciation is immediate, as opposed to putting artwork in a gallery. It is also one of the most difficult industries to get into. You have to be persistent.”

Estelle worked in henna for a number of years before securing a henna job in a tattoo shop, where she learned the ink trade. Morag Pringle of Skinscape Tattoo in Sea Point was not keen on an apprentice but Estelle’s talent, 
willingness to learn and persistence eventually paid off. “An apprenticeship is a commitment from both parties. You basically work for two years in exchange for knowledge, it isn’t easy to survive.” She has been tattooing for 11 years. While her business, Ocean Ink Tattoos, is based mostly in Plettenberg Bay, she has travelled to Thailand and Spain to complete commissioned work.

In the beginning she tattooed herself with water and also practiced on oranges. Every time she gets a new tattoo machine she first practices on herself so that she knows first-hand what her clients will feel.

Estelle mostly tattoos her own designs and has a waiting list of clients for new designs and larger pieces, such as backs and sleeves, which require more than one sitting. Many clients will continue adding to their old pieces over the years. A full sleeve can take 35 to 40 hours to complete. “Some people can sit comfortably for three hours while others can sit for six,” she says.

“Every tattoo is for a different person with a different story for a different reason. I interpret people’s ideas onto paper and skin, a lot of it is very intimate.

“People come from all over the world. I have tattooed gynaecologists, doctors, deejays, film producers, professors, primary school teachers, policemen, traffic officers and other tattoo artists – people from all walks of life. The oldest person I have tattooed was 75.”

Estelle says about 50% of her work is cover-ups – either bad work or the clients have emotionally outgrown their existing tattoos. She also helps people cover up scars, for example from cutting, and works with people who want to mark a turning point in their life, like recovering addicts.

She likens tattooing to therapy. “I call it needle therapy. It is a space where people are free to express themselves; a kind of pain therapy.”

Estelle likes to work with the shape of the body. “I often look at a person and get a picture in my head. It may not always be what they see but it is there. Getting a tattoo is a journey, a process; going through with the process is 
a commitment.”

Estelle charges R850 per hour (Summer 2016/17) and takes a deposit on design work.

The needle-in-skin methodology and permanence of tattoos require careful consideration when choosing a tattooist.

  • Do your homework: look at samples and reviews of tattoo artists, and ask others to make recommendations.
  • Check that sterile equipment is being used (a good tattooist will have an autoclave).
  • All surfaces must be impervious and sterile.
  • Check that the tattooist uses sterile gloves while working, and sterile needles and fresh ink for each client.
  • While there is no legal age restriction, most tattooists require permission from parents of minors.
  • The Western Cape government has bylaws regulating tattooing, generally pertaining to health and safety requirements.
  • The Council for Piercing and Tattoo Professionals (CPTP):

Otherworld Tattoo
Moog Muller
082 514 7648
Facebook: Otherworld Tattoo
Ocean Ink Tattoos
Estelle van der Walt
073 613 6209
Facebook: Ocean Ink Tattoos SA