Mpumelelo Masinga takes a deep drag from his cigarette, his hand trembling with apprehension.
Masinga is preparing to spend three hours at Black and White Tattoo Studio in Johannesburg getting Nelson Mandela’s face tattooed on the centre of his back.
“I’m very, very nervous,” he explains with a sheepish smile. “It’s a big piece and I’m starting on a new canvas, my back.”
A year ago when Mandela died, Masinga decided he would pay tribute by getting a tattoo of the anti-apartheid hero.
“It’s art and a memory that stays with me forever,” said the sinewy 27-year-old, who wore Nike trainers and a black beanie embroidered with the word “DOPE” in capital letters. “One day I’ll explain it to my kids.”
He isn’t the only one getting inked for Mandela.
As South Africa marked the first anniversary of the statesman’s death yesterday, tattoo studios in the country reported an ever-growing demand for Mandela-inspired ink.
From Johannesburg to Cape Town, portraits of Mandela and famous quotes from the great man – most of them lifted from his best-selling autobiography,Long Walk to Freedom – are in demand.
“It’s really becoming popular nowadays,” said Chris De Villiers, a tattoo artist at The Body Architects Tattoo Studio in Cape Town.
“It’s not something that just happened overnight, it slowly but surely got popular.”
Nadia Smith, an assistant at Jaded Ink, another studio in Johannesburg, said the big fashion was for clients to request an “abstract, graffiti-style” tattoo of Mandela.
“The graffiti one is a little bit more rustic,” said Smith, whose studio has done about five tattoos of Mandela since his death.
Those with a Mandela marking use it as a reminder to follow his example of forgiveness.
Leeshan Ramasamy said his tattoo, a portrait of Mandela in a suit with his trademark benevolent smile, could not be better.
“It’s a real ice breaker,” said Ramasamy, a gregarious, 42-year-old businessman from Johannesburg, who fought against the apartheid regime as a student.
“The most important lesson he has given me is you have to forgive to move forward.”
Ramasamy believes that by tattooing the human rights icon on his body he is immortalising Mandela.
“You grow old and he is still there,” he said, taking a long look at his tattoo. “I can carry him around and give him life, basically he’s still living on my skin.”
In a testament to the former president’s power to transcend race, blacks and whites alike are lining up to go under the needle.
Back at the tattoo studio, Masinga was joined by his friend Marcel Bosthumus, a 21-year-old Afrikaaner from Randfontein, a mining town about 40 minutes west of Johannesburg by car.
Bosthumus chose a portrait in the style of an oil painting on his leg, with Mandela wearing one of his colourful shirts.
“I’ve always been a fan of him,” said Bosthumus. “He went through a hard time, and after going through that hard time he kept going.”
Official commemorations were to include an interfaith prayer service in Pretoria led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and the laying of a wreath by veterans from the country’s struggle against apartheid.
“Although Nelson Mandela is no longer physically with us, his legacy remains to guide us,” said the last apartheid president F. W. de Klerk in just one of many statements to mark the anniversary.
This weekend, poets will recite, musicians play, and bikers ride in honour of the anti-apartheid icon. Commemorative walks will be walked and marathons run and South Africa’s national cricket and rugby teams will even battle it out in a friendly cricket match that’s been billed the Nelson Mandela Legacy Cup.
Back in the Black and White Tattoo Studio, after three gruelling hours, both Masinga and Bosthmus have an indelible reminder of Mandela.
Masinga looks over his shoulder at his back in a full-length mirror, rubbing his goatee as he appraises the work. Then he gives his tattoo artist a high-five. “It’s exactly the way I wanted it,” he says. “It was worth it.”