Under the Skin

Birds, feathers, infinity and yin yang signs, geometric patterns, hash tags, Roman numerals, maps, arrows, quotes and optimistic words like ‘Hope’ and ‘Believe’ are all popular tattoos around the world. For years the art of tattooing has been both controversial and widespread. Like many things, modern tattooing began as a statement, an act of rebellion but this has gradually morphed into something more symbolic – self-expression. Some choose to mark themselves for aesthetic reasons but for others, tattoos aren’t just ink under the skin, but real experiences and life events that have impacted them.


The tattoos of Lumumba Mthembu, an English master’s student and tutor, grace the brown of his arms in curious swirls and curves alluding to his troubled past. After nearly dying in a fire, Mthembu turned his life around and was awarded a Mandela Rhodes Scholarship in 2014. He claims this was “his biggest achievement” and subsequently got the words carved onto his inner arm in formal font. The top of his right shoulder is also taken up by the huge letter ‘M’. He explains that while all his tattoos bear import to him, if he had to choose, this one would be the one he valued most. “My mother, Mkhulu and Malume all died within the space of 18 months but it’s also a representation of my surname.”




Size doesn’t matter either, something that wholly transformed your life can be represented by the tiniest of tattoos. Taylia Meese is no exception to this. The second year has a small feather leading into the word ‘fearless’ inked onto her ribcage as a reminder of her decision to permanently leave her mother’s house to live with her father, “My dad told me, Tay, if you’re going to do this, then you can’t be afraid. And I responded by saying, right now, I’m fearless.”




Izzie Van Wyk has four tattoos. None of them are exceptionally big but they all wield a great deal of significance to her, “I love all my tattoos”. Van Wyk explained that the cherry blossoms surrounding the word ‘Hope’ on her wrist were important to her, “I had a friend who was in the US army, stationed in Korea and one day she sent me a card with these flowers on it, they were so stunning that I decided that I wanted them inked as a reminder of all the special times we shared. I was going through quite a tough time and the card came at exactly the right time”. Her last tattoo is poignant too, “Traditionally sailors imprinted them on their chests as guardians of sorts but the swallow is also a symbol of leaving home but staying true to your roots” and for Izzie this is especially applicable since she is a new student at Rhodes.



Second year, English major, Cara Ribeiro said, “I wanted to do something scary, to be forced out of my comfort zone. To make a decision and have to deal with the consequences for the rest of my life”. The intricate tree and delicate birds in flight that decorate her right shoulder are emblematic of her growing up surrounded by nature, “I was raised to always appreciate it. I would be with my father and grandfather, bird watching under the trees. My tattoo reminds me of my family and peace”




The term ‘tattoo’ itself is most likely a derivative of the Polynesian ‘ta’and ‘tatau’, a Tahitian word. The history of tattooing is unclear. Some believe that the origin of modern tattooing lies in the primitive practice of scarification. The Prehistoric man was said to have cut his skin and then applied dirt or ash from the fire into the wound. One of the most amazing discoveries of early tattoos can be viewed on Otzi, the Iceman’s five thousand year old body. He was found in 1991 and bears over 50 tattoos. Tattoos were also used as a means for funereal art, branding (which was mostly for aesthetic purposes), clan markings (used to identify different tribes), rites of passage, love charms, good luck, amulets, status symbols, signs of religious beliefs, adornments and even as punishment.


Body modification itself has a lot of stigma attached to it. Lumumba Mthembu believes that “the body is a canvas and our soul duty in life is to express ourselves. I love seeing people with piercings and tattoos, it means they’re being true to themselves”. Elizabeth Ross, a Catholic student at Rhodes says, “I have no problem with people having tattoos. It’s a question of personal style. God looks at the heart of a person, not appearance. I do, however, believe that Christians should be thoughtful about tattoos they put on their body. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and your tattoos should reflect positive meaning.”



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