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Are These South Africa's Most Extreme Tattoos?

A new exhibition explores the Western Cape's infamous gang tattoo culture.

12/10/2017 14:07 SAST | Updated 12/10/2017 14:07 SAST
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An image from the exhibition.

Indigenous South African tattoo art is finding its voice in a new exhibition, opening to the public on Friday, that explores the Western Cape's infamous gang tattoos, and cultures, through the eyes of popular tattoo artist Manuela Gray.

Gray's exhibition, titled "The Number", focuses on the so-called Number prison gangs -- one of the most infamous of the local gangs. Number members are tattooed with a number identifying who they "belong" to, but it's just one of the identifiers of the gang member tattoos that have become an aesthetic all of their own, Gray says.

Manuela Gray | The Number

"Because of our history, and the legacy of apartheid, the gang members have been marginalised and have never had access to education and training, so the style is very naïve because the typical expertise you get as a trained tattoo artist isn't there," Gray told HuffPost SA.

"They make tattoos that remind them of their youth, some from comic books and some from family memories, and a lot of the tattoos were inspired by the military at the turn of the century," she says.

"The Number" comprises a film that documents the history, personal journeys, codes and body markings of the gangs. Alongside these Gray presents prints, a book and a series of hand-stitched photographs.

"I love the style of the tattoos. I mean, I don't want to glorify them, but it is definitely the most unique style from South Africa, but people rarely see it like that. For me, when I see someone covered in them they are quite beautiful, like a soldier, or Maori warrior, you know," she said.

The exhibition runs until the end of October at the Southern Guild Gallery in Cape Town.