Hunt like a hungry lioness: A miniseries on Craft It about Nairobi’s creatives
#5. NEWTON OMONDI: TATTOO ARTIST
Newton Omondi’s fingers are a metaphor of urban strife, they’re the plucky fingers of a man who isn’t lucky but deserving of the fate he chose for himself at 29. When he realigned his stars and charted the trajectory of his creative career on his own terms.
His dreadlocks, graying at the roots, are tied in a loose bun at the top side of his head. He looks like an ageing Ziggy Marley. Sparse beard, laughing lines around his mouth, the mouth of a man from Siaya. His arms are swathed in tribal tattoos, Maui-from-Moana tattoos. On both palms are the round stamps of fading tattoos. Ink has dried beneath his fingernails, like something you’d see from a French impressionist painter.
I catch Newton after a week of phone calls, text messages and one email (my email, an email he responded to in a heartbeat. I was floored in humility. I felt particularly honoured because his email address is ‘needle2ink2skin’. You’ll live through seven summers before you stumble upon such an address).
Newton had been at a camp in Nanyuki tattooing a never-ending trickle of folk drawn to ink. This how his artistry goes, he later tells me – you set up shop to tattoo one guy and hundred others show up. It’s like moths to a flame.
He sits across from me at a table in Java. He has the sardonic weariness of a traveller.
He tells me he’s famished, “Have you kulad?” I tell him I already have. He has rice and chicken curry as we speak.
By the time this goes to publish, Newton will be back home in Nyali waiting for his kids to return from school.
This is Newton’s story.
AS TOLD TO FLORENCE BETT-KINYATTI
My Mum has always been liberal. She worked at a restaurant before she left to raise us kids. Dad was an engineer. We’re 10 at home, I’m the fourth. We grew up in Buru Buru. I remember days when I didn’t feel like going to school, like maybe there was a ka projo the next day I hadn’t finished, I’d tell my Mum I didn’t feel like going to school and she’d let me stay at home [he takes on a mummy voice], ‘As long as I don’t see you here in the house.’ She doesn’t have a tattoo. She wanted one but my little sister threatened to drop out of school if she did.
I made my dreadlocks at home myself. I used the white towel Mr Cheeks from ‘Lost Boys’ threw to the crowd when he was here in 2002 for a concert. I was in the front row. It still had his jasho when I rubbed my wet hair into locks.
Always tip the waiter. Always tip the shampoo guy at the wash basin.
I was the first black African guy at the 2012 Cape Town Tattoo Convention. I applied, they asked for my work, I sent it, they liked it, they gave me a booth. Three days and 1,000 bucks for the booth. I represented [Kenya] in a Tusker t-shirt. Got magazine interviews. I met this white TZ guy who spoke Kiswahili. We became sort of friends. Whenever he was around Nairobi we’d have a beer. He later became a professor at Dartmouth College. He had me invited to the college to speak to a class of Africa and African American studies about contemporary tattooing in Africa.
Tattooing, and getting a tattoo, needs patience. If a client is in a hurry and wants me to finish quickly, I take off my gloves and tell them to come another day when they have time.
I didn’t go to uni or to colle, I went straight into work after high school. My Mum was cool with it. I was called to Eldoret [Moi University] to do teaching or something like that. The letter to go work at Barclays Card Centre and the one to uni came on the same day. I had to chose. I started in data processing then moved to other departments. I worked at that Card Centre in Upper Hill for nine years. The thing I remember most about those nine years was the tedium and the boredom. I worked behind a desk. Suit and tie. I wore a akorino turban to hide my dreadlocks. I rode a motorbike to work, a Honda Shadow 400. I didn’t wear a helmet, those were the dark ages of my naivety. I’d roller-skate in the streets of tao after work, until 11 at night.
I was always drawn to skateboard culture and art. I picked it up from reading [international] magazines. Me and my bro were addicted to magazines – he has magazines that can fill up a canter, mine can fill up a small pickup. I liked Rolling Stone, Esquire, he liked Vogue.
I’d later sell some hair and black beauty magazines to some chick in Coasto who had a salon. The money from the magazines was the last money I had to survive in Coasto. I’d just moved out of my friend’s place, I’d slept on their living room floor for the month after relocating from Nairobi. I didn’t have a place to go. I sat with the call girls at this old disco in tao and drank a Fanta all night. Then I slept on the beach. I slept on the beach for three nights. My morale was low. My tattooing machine was in a muindi’s salon, he’d given me space to set up my tattoo parlour. I finally got on a bus to come back home to Nairobi. I was in Mtito [Andei] when the muindi called and said, ‘Eh, there are three clients here for you.’ So it began.
I never try to understand why someone has chosen the tattoo they want.
On the morning I quit my job with Barclays, I was listening to this rock & roll album, ‘Razorblade Suitcase’ by Bush. I didn’t wake up knowing I’d quit. I didn’t even go to bed thinking I’d quit. Something in that album spoke to me that morning. So I said, ‘Fuck it, this is my life, I want to be free.’ I went to a cyber cafe, wrote three resignation letters and dropped them off at the Head Office reception on Moi Avenue. It was 2003. I was 29.
It takes a lot to get me angry. But even when I’m angry, it’ll be short bursts of five, ten minutes then I’m out of it.
The possibilities in this world are endless. Most of the people I grew up with in Eastlands have a limited view of the world, it’s like they’re wearing blinders.
Japanese tattoos are more impressive than American tattoos. Japanese tattoos are about folklore and mythology, the tapestry is impressive. American tattoos are about aesthetics but they’re more elaborate and with thick lines. Most of the tribal tattoos are Polynesian, the tribal tattoos from Africa are mostly from Ghana and West Africa, they have actual designs and symbols.
I went to hairdressing school after leaving Barclays. I’d always admired hairdressers and I wanted to get into something artsy. I went to Pivot Point [Hair Design & Beauty School]. The guys in my class were 18 year-olds fresh out of high school. I had a bull ring, a lip ring and six piercings on both ears.
My Mum wanted me to return to corporate employment. I was in beauty school for four months, I learned the basics then left because I knew what I wanted. I wanted to get into high-end glamorous styling for runways. I got a job as an apprentice at a salon in Village Market. I don’t remember the name. It was owned by a Greek mathe, her name was Eleanor; she was tall and she had a tanye. I was the only African guy there. My job was to wash and shampoo hair. I put my back into it. I wasn’t getting paid but I’d keep my tips. I was positive and mature, it helped me get along with Eleanor.
Stay free. Live like a plant, don’t complicate things. Be formless.
Tebori is a traditional Japanese tattooing art. It’s done by hand, sometimes they call it hand poking. They use a needle and drawing ink. Prison style. The needle is sterilized with a lighter. It’s dipped into the ink and tapped into the skin. Tap tap tap, like this. It’s painful. But all tattooing is painful. All these tattoos I have on my arms, my bro did them for me with tebori. We did tebori before we got the tattooing machine. The machine has more precision and it saves time, it’d take three hours a tattoo I can now do in one hour.
We were broke, me and my bro, months after we both left our jobs to become tattoo artists. He used to work with Railways. We were sharing a one-BR in Uhuru. Some dingy city council houses. Our rent was 1,500. We used to eat ugali and cabbage every day. We were living with my cousin but he left, he said he couldn’t survive that jela with us. Ha-ha. We got the cabbage on credit from Wangechi’s kibanda, and the unga from Pius’s kiosk. We didn’t have furniture. We didn’t have electricity. But we had freedom and happiness and a couch and many magazines.
I named my kids. They’re twins, a boy and a girl, four years and nine months old. This is them [he shows me a family photo on his phone]. My wife is Taita. I looked exactly like Jahawi when I was a kid, only that I was very dark.
Eleanor had a tattoo parlour in her salon. She’d mostly get rich kids who wanted to be tattooed. She wasn’t very good at it, I could tell. One day I’m cleaning up after her and I hold the tattooing machine, I got a feeling so strong, I can’t even explain it. It was like a lightning bolt. My mind just opened up and I thought, ‘This is it, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’
I relocated to Coasto in 2004, a few months after my bro and I had gotten our tattoo machines. We got a guy from New Jersey to send them over. I didn’t even know who he was, we called him Man Geo. I trolled him and a couple of others online and something in his email told me I could trust him. We didn’t have the money to buy the machines, we needed 42K. I wrote a list of 42 people in my estate and said I’d borrow from them and pay back after two months. Crowd funding, yeah. But the first guy I went to said he had the 42K. We sent it all to New Jersey. We waited and waited and the machines came. Me and my bro did house calls. We charged about 2K for a tattoo. I remember we came back home one day with 11K, we were chuffed.
I usually wake up at 4.30a.m. I exercise. I read a book to the kids then we ride our bikes for an hour before the school bus comes for them at 8.30.
I was mugged and stabbed in my left wrist once in Coasto. I was living in Likoni. One of those Swahili houses for 8 sok. It was around 7. The muggers had marked my route from work. I had a Siemens M30. Ugly phone. I used to hold it in my hand because it couldn’t vibrate and I didn’t want to miss a call from a client. There were four guys, they cornered me around a dark alley. I couldn’t afford to lose that phone. And I’d been brought up in Eastlands, there was no way I was going to get robbed by washamba of Mombasa. I became like an animal and fought them off, I was screaming, rolling on the ground. One of them said, ‘Mtoboe, toboa.’ I got stabbed but my phone never left my hand. Here’s the scar.
Sometimes I can’t believe I’m making a living off tattoos. I sit like this and think that I chora chora people to get money for rent. My work has taken me to Europe – Germany, Austria, Sweden – to the States, and to Kampala, TZ, South Africa. I never travelled when I was in Barclays, I didn’t even have a passport. Cape Town remains my favourite destination because I love beach life.