25 April 2012 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Wild tattoos

Gareth Putter creates beautiful and intricate tattoos for clients from all over the world.

Gareth Putter at work in his studio. Image courtesy Tamsin Putter

Talking to Gareth Putter in his Hoedspruit-based tattoo studio reveals early on that whatever box you’ve tried to put him in, it's probably the wrong one. He’s an artist and an activist, helping to organise Rocking for Rhinos (more about that soon), grows his own vegetables and creates beautiful tattoos for his clients from all over the world.

Gareth Putter. Image courtesy <a href=\ Gareth Putter. Image courtesy Tamsin Putter

I met with Gareth as part of my research for a piece on body art in South Africa. He’s been tattooing people for 7 years and has built up a reputation and a business in the lowveld with his special flair for wildlife art and tattoos. 

His sketches – which take up to 15 hours each to complete – are outstanding. These form the basis of many of his tattoo designs. Creating the tattoos can then take up to 10 hours to complete on the body, depending on the level of detail required. You can see a short film of Gareth and his colleague Nkosi Jubani at work below this post.

A leopard tattoo by Gareth Putter A leopard tattoo by Gareth Putter

Once perceived as the mark of the outcast, the rebel, the biker, the rocker or the prisoner, tattoos have to some degree cast off their macho image and become much more mainstream – as Gareth can confirm. His clients are a varied bunch, from game rangers marking their love of nature on their bodies, to parents who have lost a child, to teenagers wanting to rebel a little and assert their identities. 

In fact, ideas about why people get tattoos today are probably almost as diverse as the tattoos one can choose from. They can honour a loved-one – alive or dead, mark a significant event in your life, have religious or cultural meaning for you, or simply, show off your aesthetic taste or your love of art. Maybe you were dared, had some serious peer pressure or just got drunk and did it on the spur of the moment?

And elephant tattoo by Gareth Putter And elephant tattoo by Gareth Putter

South Africa has a thriving tattoo industry, with events like the annual Cape Town Tattoo Convention attracting artists from around the world. We also have a Council for Piercing and Tattoo Professionals to help regulate the industry. There are also various academies where tattoo artists can learn the business and complete apprenticeships, like Skin Art and the Tattoo Training Academy.

The history of tattoos is long and fascinating. If you’re interested, this article: Tattoo: Pigments of Imagination gives a great overview. Generally speaking, it's their permanence that either attracts or scares people (in my case, both). When you google tattoos, it's often Jimmy Buffet’s lyrics: “it’s a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling,” that come up (although with today’s technology, perhaps they are a little dated since you can have your tattoo removed.)

A cheetah cub tattoo by Gareth Putter. A cheetah cub tattoo by Gareth Putter.

The lyrics none-the-less get to the heart of the debate I have with myself  - were I to get a tattoo, what could I possibly choose that would still mean something to me decades from now? There is no doubt in my mind that getting a tattoo is an intimate, personal and permanent act so what’s important enough to me and how could it be represented in a mark on my body? What would getting that mark inked into my skin mean? I guess I’m still undecided. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts though and I may be paying Gareth a visit in the future.

A woodland kingfisher tattoo by Gareth Putter A woodland kingfisher tattoo by Gareth Putter
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