There was a time when tattoos were what our grandparents did to their body to make themselves more beautiful. These days, however, the young are making a fashion statement with it in Addis Abeba. Within the capital, it is now a thriving business in demand. A few tattoo salons in the capital have sprung up to meet the growing demand, even as unlicensed amateurs with rudimentary instruments are becoming options.
With demand booming, numerous tattoo parlors are proliferating across town. However, some unlicensed amateurs springing up to meet the spike in demand often use unsterilized tattoo machines because of the demands for cheap services.
“Since demand is vastly growing in the city, unlicensed tattooists are also taking part in the business,” Nahom Mikael, a professional tattooist inside Getu Commercial Center, told Fortune. “As we have large numbers of customers, the competition is not our biggest worry. The health costs are,” he added.
The art of tattoos has a long history in Ethiopia. Some claim that it was introduced to the northern part of Ethiopia with the advent of Christianity. Tattoo designs of crosses imprinted on the body were used as a symbol of demonstrating one’s faith. Tattoos are also still used as a means of beautification in the Southern and Western parts of the country.
In the rural areas, tattoos were used as a coming-of-age rite of passage for young adolescent girls. Mostly, in rural areas, tattoos are given with an overused sewing needle. Tattoos decorating the face, neck and hands are common, although painful. . However, it is now considered a harmful traditional practice and has become a taboo.
These days, the youth of Addis are lining up to be tattooed, partly influenced by peer pressure and popular culture.
Nahom at Getu Commercial Centre is one of the pioneers in the tattoo business in the capital. He joined the tattoo business after graduating from university. In a borrowed space inside a women’s hair salon, he tattooed countless people, before travelling to Bangkok to learn more about his craft. He has operated his salon for six years. Six years earlier, it was sufficient getting only a business license to open such salon.
These days, to open such a parlor, one is required to go through health and equipment inspections.
“The Woreda health bureau authorities inspect the presence and quality of all the required materials”, Nahom explained.
The health condition of the tattooist, the condition of the tattoo materials, and the condition of the shop is inspected by the authorities before any license is granted. However, it has been noted that the training or qualifications of the tattoo artists are not inspected.
Tattoo inputs including machines, needles, and inks are considered to be luxury products. As a result, a heavier tax, is imposed on these products when they are imported from abroad. This has contributed to the increase in the price of the service, tattoo artists say.
There are no training facilities to teach or train tattooists in Addis Abeba. Many became professionals through experience. “Having good sketching skills and a little bit of experience in creating designs is sufficient to be a tattoo artist,” one tattooist who wished to remain anonymous, told Fortune.
For professional tattoo artists like Nahom, teenagers and people in their twenties are prime customers. On average, he tattoos two people a day. Tourists and Diaspora Ethiopians are his other important clients.
Tourists and the Diaspora come to him with unique designs, observed abroad and within Ethiopia, and ask to be tattooed. Tourists prefer to be inscribed with Amharic and Geez designs and many Chinese customers prefer dragon designs. Famous artists and football players also come to see him.
“The local population in Addis might think it is expensive [to be tattooed in Ethiopia], but for foreigners Ethiopia offers the cheap service,” Daniel Akelew, a tattoo artist on Churchill Avenue explained. “I import my ink and needles from abroad at expensive price”.
“The price here is not much lower compared to what it is in Kenya. I got a colour tattoo of a skull and bones design for 60 dollars in Kenya,” a young client who asked for anonymity told Fortune.
Though the price differs between parlors, 600 Br is the average minimum. “There are complex designs that consume resources and time. We charge them up to 14,000 Birr for such services,” a tattooist, wishing to remain anonymous, explained to Fortune.
Temporary tattoos are easy to design and cost much less than permanent ones.
Feven Kahsay, who has been in the face painting business for long time, joined the temporary tattoo business two months ago.
“The price for temporary tattoos ranges from 150 to 350 Br based on the size and the intricacy of the design,” she told Fortune. “Since it has no hostile effect on the body and the designs can be easily erased and replaced with a new one, teenagers prefer it to permanent tattoo,” she added. Temporary tattoos last for 10 to 15 days.
Based on the size and the complexity of the design, the process of a permanent tattoo might take from a day to a week. Some tattooists imprint the tattoo after directly sketching the design on the skin, while others do it by applying stickers to the skin.
Sometimes, older women go to tattoo shops to have their eyebrows tattooed, so as to cover up baldness and thinning. The young, on the other hand, have their idols and loved ones tattooed on their arms, necks, backs or chests. Many tattoo artists in the city use anesthesia only when they tattoo eyebrows.
“Many young folks get tattooed with the names of their girlfriends and boyfriends while they are at the height of the relationship. When they break-up, they come back rushing to erase it,” Daniel told Fortune. “Since we do not have erasing facilities, we change the previous design into a new one.”
“Some people are allergic to tattoo ink. They have to be tested at health centres before coming to us,” Daniel commented.
Studies show that there are serious health concerns where tattoos are concerned. The ink used for tattooing contains various chemicals that may cause skin reactions.
Amateur tattooists imprint tattoos on different people using a single unsterilized machine. Hepatitis B and sexually transmitted diseases are common maladies that might be transferred through unhealthy tattoo practicing.
“Our white blood cells cannot kill and digest the foreign substances in tattoo inks like it does to germs,” explained Digaffe Tsegaye (MD), a dermatologist at Alert Hospital.
In addition to the health consequences, it results in financial costs for tattooing and erasing it. “It takes multiple sessions to erase tattoos through laser machines and each session might cost up to 5000 Br,” Digaffe added. “Tattoo has also psychological impacts that comes with fading up of the fashion and growth in age of the individual.”
The quality of tattoo machines and inks are not tested when they are imported; and the competence of the tattooists is not checked when licenses are given. Despite the fact that tattooists are making money and consumers are getting what they want in Addis, there is a serious need for regulatory measures to be taken.
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