Tattooist Tyler B Murphy on ‘Stoeka’ style, hand pokes and working with Die Antwoord
Over the last few years, Ninja and Yo-landi – the latter who finds herself featured on this month’s cover – have experienced a meteoric rise, travelling and playing their eclectic music fusion to sold out stadiums the world over. With their careers continuing to grow from strength to strength, the recent release of Neill Blomkamp's Chappie brought their much-anticipated big screen debut, and sees them share the credits with a host of big name stars like Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver and Dev Patel.
But-aside from their recent success – as with many celebrities, behind the big names there are often important people doing remarkable work, outside of the limelight. In Die Antwoord’s case, it is tattooist Tyler B Murphy. Although probably not the only one, he has been an ever-present part of Die Antwoord’s journey. As the founder and owner of Cape Town tattoo studio Sins of Style, Murphy has played a pivotal role in contributing towards the formation of Die Antwoord’s multilayered visual aesthetic, having been instrumental in the adornment of Ninja's body in his now characteristic Cape Tonian ‘chappies.’
Inspired by his work with Ninja, Murphy has subsequently gone on to develop his own signature take on this local Cape Tonian 'Stoeka' style. Derived from a combination of his conversations with Ninja and his own understandings of and interactions with local prison and gangster culture, these tattoos, their process and their multifarious histories provide a unique window into Cape Town’s myriad of subcultures.
Therefore, fresh from completing a new set of tattoos for Ninja prior to the filming of Chappie, we caught up with Murphy to find out more about where 'Stoeka' comes from, why it developed and how Ninja fits into the equation.
Being from Cape Town and despite having worked with you before, I am still very ignorant about ‘Stoeka’ style, what is it essentially?
Tyler B Murphy: Stoeka style is the style of tattooing, where you create intricate works with shading and depth without the aid of a tattoo machine. It is just a way of saying a fancy hand-poked tattoo that leans towards prison style tattoos.
In thinking about how they lean towards prison style tattoos, where does “Stoeka” come from?
Tyler B Murphy: I first heard the word Stoeka from Falko Star in 1995. He was the graffiti king from Mitchell’s Plein. He helped raise me up and taught me about Hip Hop. He explained that stoeka referred to the more elaborate works worn by the criminals from his neighborhood. Nearly all the tattoos that are made in the South African prisons are related to the “Numbers” gangs. These gangs have their roots in a single gang that operated more than 100 years ago in the eastern hills of Johannesburg. The influence and membership of these “Ninevites” – as they were known – spread into the mines. As the bandits entered the prison system they established and organised themselves in the same way as they had outside. There were tribes in South Africa that tattooed each other at that time. My thought is that the tribal markings worn by the migrant workers came to be adapted and became the techniques used to create the first 26, 27 and 28 tattoos that you still see today.
Seeing that Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town is considered one of the most violent prisons in South Africa and houses a large population of the Numbers gang, how connected is ‘Stoeka’ to Cape Town and the diverse cultures that occupy the city?
Tyler B Murphy: In the Western Cape more people have prison tattoos than electromagnetic machine tattoos made in a shop like mine. The culture and language of the prison gangs penetrate into nearly every home in poor communities. In contrast, people living in more affluent neighbourhoods can tell you little to nothing of this system that has outlasted colonisation and apartheid and has adapted itself to prosper in a free market in South Africa. Only in the last 15 years have I heard outsiders like myself mention having any knowledge of the goings on in prison. Yet it is hard to imagine a day in life of any South African living in an urban area that is not affected by crime or the fear of it. These crimes are often committed by repeat offenders who are as adapted to life in a cell as they are outside. Often prisons can offer more comfort, security and status to someone who is losing the battle against a capitalist society.
So considering all this complex and intricate history, why did you decide to develop your own signature version?
Tyler B Murphy: I got my head around hand-poked tattoos after watching the movie Memento (2000). (never answer the phone!) It took a few years before I tried my hand at it in 2008. I enjoyed doing rough, crude looking tattoos. I have a friend who is a rapper and he used to come by the studio and tattoo himself. He asked me to do some tattoos for him from the references he had collected while looking at portraits of ex-prisoners. I did the hand-poked tattoos on him but felt a little uneasy. After I started to educate myself about the kind of tattoos that had been used as references, I made friends with people that could help me get access to the places where gangsters lived. I visited the Hard Livings gang and got tattooed. I tattooed some of the top guys there and got to ask a lot of questions and in turn felt more at ease about having dipped my toe into this dark underworld. Having seen what I was not, helped me find my way to doing my own thing. It was not until I saw the level of excellence that SAM RULZ had achieved with her hand-poked tattoos that I stepped it up.
Your rapper friend, is it that Ninja you are referring to?
Tyler B Murphy: Yes
How would you describe the experience of working with Ninja and Die Antwoord?
Tyler B Murphy: It is always good to hangout with Ninja, whether he is getting tattooed or not. I have learnt so much from him. Watching him and Yo-landi manifest their dreams is super inspiring. I really respect the way that nothing is compromised. They always go for the best version of everything.
You tell us that he asked you to tattoo him after tattooing himself first, at your shop. Why do you think he chose to work with you and allow you the privilege of making these loaded marks on his body?
Tyler B Murphy: Because we are friends and I “get it.” At the time when we started his collection of hand-poked tattoos, other people, especially local tattooers didn’t “get it.” His career had been up and down, and it was clear that the time was right to commit.
That must seem like ages ago especially considering Die Antwoord’s meteoric rise. More recently though, did you do any work on Ninja for his role in Neil Blomkap’s Chappie?
Tyler B Murphy: Ninja wanted to get a collection of magically charged sigils tattooed on his body before the filming started. He created the symbols using a technique that he learned from Aphex Twin. They are super powerful and the meaning and intention behind each one remains secret until it comes to pass. In Iceland they call them magical staves.
For a project like this, what sort of process do you go through to create the hand-poked tattoo? i.e. the tools used, the way you design the image etc
Tyler B Murphy: The way I set up and put on the stencil is the same as a tattoo made with a machine. I use regular pre-made liner needles. I fold the needle bar into a triangle. It makes it fit into my hand so I can position behind the needle. This gives my index finger the driving seat. The whole process takes patience and an appreciation for the irregular and beautiful nature of all things hand made. Commercial tattooing that was taking place before 1891 was referred to as hand-poked, so for me the term, “stick’n poke” is a made-up term that should be forgotten.
The end product – these tattoos – connect with your extended art practice (signwriting, printmaking etc) to reflect your continued interest in history, tradition and antiquated, analogue processes, why has this been so important for you?
Tyler B Murphy: Art happens when humans get the gap in their struggle to survive. This gap allows the chance to imagine a future. The urge to do something properly, so that it will last, is an artistic pursuit. For me, I like to pay respect to the pioneers and practitioners that paved the way for us to get where we are now. Their work means that equal respect will be shown to today’s pioneers and practitioners. I feel that the slow analogue methods of creating art have an added value attached, which serve as a direct reflection of the patience and energy poured into the process. This reverence with a humble dose of current relevance will see these antiquated techniques employed practically. Because, at the end of the day you always want your work to remain relevant.
Murphy has also created a limited edition print series with 1xRun and Ninja and Yo-landi, click here to see more