I have questions. Rather, one question. I come all the way to Mpaka Road, Westlands, to have this question answered. It’s not the proverbial “burning” question. It’s not an awfully important question either, which means it’s not a life question. An important life question is a question like “Whom do I make better today?” Or “Is this the best version of myself I’m leaving with to face the world?” Or, “Is it sacrilegious to leave one chapati uneaten?” The thing with important life questions is that they can get tiring. You can’t be the guy who wakes up everyday and just goes around asking life’s important questions. People will avoid you. You will become stuffy, like those people who are always saying, my folks this… my folks that. So, just to be clear, this isn’t an important life question.
The man who is to answer it is currently working on a willowy young lady lying on her side on the black leather-cushioned foldaway bed. I have to wait. This game involves a lot of waiting. The young lady rests her head on her spindly arms, using them like a pillow of twigs. I’m mesmerised by her arms and how thin they are; her elbow bone juts out like a small smooth pebble off a river. She’s wearing black track pants. Her short natural hair is ochre, an urban warrior’s hair. But her weight and her fragility belies the tale her face tells. She’s streetwise. She looks like the kind of girl you’d see outside a club at 2am sucking on a cigarette in the cold, waiting for an Uber. There is a hardness around her mouth. A fearlessness in her gaze. She’s the type of person who will speak up when someone is cutting the queue they are on. The type who will shout from behind, “Hey, hey, excuse me? Excuse me?! This is a bloody queue, and we are all standing on it!”
Next to her, to offer moral support, is her friend who is even more badass than her. She’s much thinner that her friend, which is something I never thought would be possible to say. She’s seated on a chair next to the bed, one very long and very skinny leg tucked under her. The bones of her knees strain against her light skin. I can see their structure. She has one airpod sticking out of her right ear. [The other is in her friend’s ear]. Maybe they are listening to the same music. Maybe it’s a pop culture thing, I know not. It’s 4pm but she’s wearing a very short black lace romper that leaves her whole back bare. It looks like something you would wear in the house on a Sunday by just how little it covers, but because she’s badass and because she hangs with her friend who wouldn’t let you jump her queue she wears it outside. They look early 20s and they make quite the formidable a pair, the posterchildren of fearlessness and spirit.
She’s on her phone – as most people her age are nowadays – scrolling through something that looks like Instagram, but what do I know, at my age everything that has pictures look like Instagram. It could be Snapchat.
The man I have come for my question is called Barrington Kangwana but government names are not what you use to complain about your water bill, so he goes by @Barrytusker of Barry Arts Tattoo studio. Some names embody art and imagination. Paul isn’t one of them. Barry does body art. He pierces body parts and draws and writes things on the human body. He’s the ink doctor and he’s the big guy wearing the baggy sweatpants and sneakers and a leather apron written “world class” hunched over in his seat, a machine whirring in his gloved hands. He’s got a thick plantation of hair reaching for the ceiling, combed upward like Questlove’s, only his is cut at the edges like Mr Ts. He’s got lazy eyes. He speaks little. His mannerism mild. Kangwana is mungwana.
Nineties throwback hip-hop classics blares from speakers behind him, a collection of West Coast rappers. I can’t remember the last time I heard any song by Cypress Hill. He sits by the large window natural light pouring on the lady lying on her side, propped slightly against a small black cushion with pink cross bones with a skull. Skulls is a recurring theme in the room. There are posters on the wall of skulls; skulls wearing beanies, skulls wearing shades, skulls that look like cyborgs, skulls in pain, smiling skulls, a black silver model of a skull sits in the corner of the room, grinning back at us. I think Barry likes skulls because skulls don’t speak and Barry looks like the kind who thrives in silence, that’s why he plays his hip-hop loudly, to stay in silence.
I wait on the edge of this magic with my question, near a dentist-like reclining chair covered in clear polythene, something you would watch in Dexter.
He’s doing a tattoo of two butterflies on the lady’s torso, just above the left hip. Below the butterflies is a date; 21:05:1977. He doesn’t know what that date means, he never asks his client why they tattoo the things they tattoo on their body because he understands privacy. He himself has lots of tattoos, he calls them sleeve tattoos, I think. They all have significance, they all mean something, but he won’t get into it.
He’s done body art and piercings for 11-years, after quitting a course in architecture in UoN. He figured drawing on bodies is a better deal. Over the 11-years, he’s done tens of thousands of tattoos. He’s done tattoos on the inside of wrists, forearms, on the small of backs, on inner thighs, on the back of necks, on the little bone on the ankle, over navels and on the ass, on foreheads, on the back of legs, on fingers, on breasts, on toes. He’s done “countless” tattoos on vaginas as well. I don’t press further because that’s not the question that brought me here, remember. I’m focused.
People come to him for tattoos for cosmetic reasons; to correct bad tattoos, to hide scars, to mark occasions – a death, a birth, a loss, a chapter – and also for religious reasons. His longest tattoo was of Jesus’s face on someone’s back. Did it from 8am to midnight. It was like a brain surgery. There are rules; if you are under 18-years he won’t ink you. Unless your mom signs a consent form. He is averse to tattooing names of lovers on each other’s bodies. When couples come in – and they walk in often – and they say, “Barry, we want you to write our names here” because love makes you do shit like that, he tells them that it’s probably a bad idea. “Maybe you want to sleep on this for a few months?” He will suggest. This is the only time he gives his opinion on tattoos, the only time he advises a client not to do it. But love is love and nobody in love listens so they insist. They say, “we are sure, yes, we want our names on our backs. This love will last.” Well, until it doesn’t and one of them is back saying, “can you change Mike to Mikey Mouse or something? Or just put a skull over it.”
When he’s done with the lady he wipes her down with cotton wool and some liquid which I suppose is methylated spirit. It looks lovely, those two butterflies. They look real. Like they will fly away if she stands up. She stands and raises her hand up to admire the tattoo from the wall-to-wall mirror. She’s satisfied. Her friend is satisfied. He wraps a clear polythene around the tattoo. Outside, in the waiting room, seated on the tan deep leather chairs are more clients, a young man in a stud who will tattoo the word “Folasade” on the back of his hand and a small arrow on his finger. A quick Google tells me that the word means “honor earns a crown.”
I have two minutes to ask my question as he cleans down the area, stashing away things, stretching his back. I say, “Barry, does Bio-Oil help with tattoos?”
“No. It’s an oil and when the tattoo is fresh you shouldn’t because oil is viscous.” He says. “But what I know that Bio Oil is very good for scars and there are some scars that really you don’t need a tattoo to hide. Bio Oil helps fade it out. Smoothen it out. Ladies who come here with CS scars have told me they use it.”
“OK. Thanks for your time. Bye.”
“Is that it?” he says.
Then I leave.
Links to Buy: https://mydawa.com/Bio-Oil-200ml/product/1724