My name is H, I like to live almost anonymously. I don’t want anybody to be able to remember me, so I can up and go whenever.
Outside my 9-5, I’m a tattoo artist and body modification enthusiast. I used to be an athlete with the strength to throw a discus. But ask me to take a 20-minute walk now; I’d rather die.
Give me all the tea on your tattoo journey
I’ve been a tattoo artist for almost two years. It happened when I moved to Abuja in late 2020; my friend was getting tattooed and asked me to come to watch. I went there with plans to get a tattoo but ended up telling the tattoo artist — now my business partner — to teach me. He asked if I was serious, and that’s how it started. I took classes, watched him tattoo. In a little under a month, he was tattooing someone and had to leave, so he turned to me and went, “You’re up.”
Wow, that was bold! How did the first time feel?
I was so excited, my heart was going off in my chest, and this person had no idea what was going on. He was just waiting for me at the table and giving me his body. It’s a new learning experience each time. Everybody’s skin and healing levels are different; needles and ink react differently too. It’s very intimate when someone leaves their house and says they want to pay you x amount of money to permanently mark them. My confidence peaks everytime this happens.
What was the first tattoo you drew?
It was a single Japanese character. I don’t remember what it means now. But my partner had done the line work and I just had to shade it in. I quickly learnt that fake skin is nothing compared to the real thing. You just have to be confident and finesse it. I saw it recently, and it looks great.
Ever messed up a tattoo?
No. The issues I had were healing-related. The customer ignored my aftercare instructions. When I tattoo people, I text them every day within the first two weeks, but every time I’d text her to show me the tattoo, she’d weasel her way out of it. After ghosting me for a month, she texted me saying it was hurting. I tell people they can’t go to the gym or go swimming until their tattoo heals, and they just do what they want instead. She was using aloe vera and completely derailed from my aftercare instructions. But at least, it didn’t get infected.
What’s the most common mistake people make after getting a tattoo?
Tattoos are open wounds, so they tend to itch while your body is trying to cover up the skin. People pick at it, not knowing that spot will end up not having as much pigmentation as the rest of the tattoo. They’ll need to come back and get it touched up. Don’t itch new tattoos. Also, for first-timers, start with small to medium tattoos on less painful places like the arms. I’ve tattooed someone on the back of her ear, and she said it didn’t hurt. Women would get painful tattoos for their firsts and take it like champs. They tell you to tattoo down their ribs and spine, no fear.
Now, I’m scared of getting a tattoo. What’s the most challenging tattoo you’ve done so far?
Haba, it’s not that bad.
I’ve tattooed over 50 people, so let’s see. I’ll say the person that ghosted me for a month without completing her tattoo. It was supposed to be an interpretation of the Gemini zodiac sign — a huge double-sided head on her back, which must’ve been painful for her — and we could only do one head the first day. She’s come back for a bunch of other tattoos since, but we haven’t gone back to the Gemini one because I want to see how it continues to interact with the ink. I tend to fix my sessions over the weekend so the client gets the whole weekend to let the tattoos heal. But there are so many styles of tattoos I haven’t tried yet.
There’s black and gray realism; that’s my partner’s specialisation. There’s blackwork which I’d like to do full time, but I don’t think the average Nigerian is ready to commit to that. I imagine it’s painful, but it always looks cool. Maybe I’ll convince a client to let me give them a free one and see how it goes. Tattooing is very reliant on word-of-mouth, and referrals are based on good work.
Does this mean Nigerians aren‘t daring with tattoos?
To be fair, everybody is getting tattoos now, which I love so it’s a 50/50 situation. There are people who want and get lots of tattoos, and people who have sentiments attached to it, so they get that one tattoo. There are those who want one but don’t want to commit to getting anything over the top, so they go for simple stuff they can easily hide. Not me, though. I have big tattoos, and when I get asked if it affects my 9-5, I’m like if I walk into a room with my tattoos showing and you decide not to work with me professionally because of them, that’s on you.
What’s your 9-5, and do your tattoos affect it?
I lead a small group of writers in a media company. So, no. I just get stares. But then again, I have a piercing in my mouth. By the time I smile at you, you’d know what you signed up for. Last year, I had to be on an advisory board with people from a private media house, NGOs, the Ministry of Justice, the army and the presidency. So I tried to hide some of my tattoos because I understand it’s a lot to take in at once. I wore a short sleeve, but you could see a bit of my parrot tattoo poking out. After we were done with the session, people came over to see the tattoo because it’d been distracting them. They asked what it meant, and TBH, I don’t know. It’s just a parrot named Polly.
How many tattoos do you have?
I currently have five, and they are all big. At this point in my life, I don’t want to get a small tattoo. The most painful one I have has some lines that run into my armpits. But, my tattoo artist “wisdom” is when the needle stops, the pain stops.
Most of the tattoos I want to have are floral. I love flowers. I think my body is a garden, and eventually, when we die, we’ll return to the earth, so why not prepare myself for that, I suppose? I have a tattoo that’s half face, half flower. So when people ask what it represents, I tell them it’s a tribute to the Mayan goddess of tattoos and body modifications. It’s on the back of my right arm, so it helps me to say a little prayer to the goddess — like, madam, I want to tattoo somebody, bless me.
Do you think tattoos have to mean something?
I don’t. If you like a tattoo design because you think it’s cool, do it. The people who get one just for fun are my favourites. It’s bold to come in and put something on your body that has no bearing on your life. In fact, you’re a hero. When people ask, “what if I change my mind?” I say, “well, you get another one”.
People change their minds all the time. I don’t do cover-ups, but my partner does. Recently, we had this couple come in to get matching tattoos, and a few months later, one of them returned to have it covered. Tattooing is fun like that, but it would be more fun if I didn’t have to take it as a business.
Oh? It’s not fun because you’ve had to monetise it?
Not just because I’ve had to monetise it. We’re in Nigeria. Tattooing is not a big thing here. Most of the needles, ink and equipment we need have to be shipped, so as the prices continue to go up, our charges have to adjust to make some form of profit. When clients come in, and we say how much it’ll cost, I feel bad because I don’t want to charge so much, but the country is weird.
What’s your price range like?
It depends on the size, location or style. A small one would be about ₦20k. I can’t say for the big ones. But the tattoos on my body probably round up to ₦500k. The biggest tattoo I’ve drawn was for a client-turned-friend of ours. It covered half of his back and took us two sessions; it cost about ₦300k. Some tattooists charge more than us; everyone charges differently.
Oh, I’m not judging. Art should cost as much as the artists think it should
Exactly. Tattooing takes a toll on your body. We bend over people’s bodies for hours. We’ve had clients leave the studio at 2 a.m. You have to be awake for a long time and be alert. If I have to tattoo something big, I don’t eat so I don’t get tired. It’s a lot of work. You have to soothe anxious or scared people and take in their underlying health issues. Are you hypertensive or do you have blood-related anomalies? You might bleed a little if you’re any of these things.
What’s been your favourite career moment?
I reached out to Adrian Harlow once. She does coloured tattoos for people of colour, which can be very tricky, so she gave me tips, and that was cool of her. Apart from black, I’ve only done red tattoos so far.
Generally, every moment is my favourite. You need to see me when I finish a tattoo, I always have the biggest smile on my face. Sometimes, I’m so jealous of the clients because I wish I had their tattoo on my body. I also like returning clients. Lately, we had five people come to get the same tattoo, that was nice. We’ve had people come with a friend and decide to get one too. It’s all just enjoyable to witness.
What does the next couple of years look like?
If I’m not dead, I should still be tattooing. Tattooing is usually a man’s thing, but we have more women like me doing it now. I want to be able to have my own studio. I love working with my partner, but who knows where he’d be five years from now? People grow up, marry or ideals change. He gave me the best gift. Fun fact: the tattoo I originally wanted to get? I still haven’t got it. It’s supposed to be a cat drinking wine. Now, it’s a running joke between us.
If you could tattoo anything on your body right now, what and where would it be?