This series is an exploration into the tattoos, and lives, of members of South Africa’s ‘Numbers’ prison gangs (the 26s, 27s & 28s) after having been released back into society, normally after many years, of imprisonment.
This series is an exploration into the tattoos, and lives, of members of South Africa’s ‘Numbers’ prison gangs (the 26s, 27s & 28s) after having been released back into society, normally after many years, if not decades, of imprisonment.
Tattooing has always been forbidden in the South African prison system, with severe penalties, but the drive to create these marks is so strong that tattooing equipment will be created somehow.Pigment will come from grinding up rubbish bins, industrial rubber washers, batteries, or bricks. This will then be mixed with saliva, and will be pushed under the skin with nails pulled out of furniture, or sewing needles.
Tattoos may convey rankings within the hierarchy of the Number, may be testimonies to a crime committed, or may sometimes be a rather more personal statement: like a message of blame, threat, or regret, or a tribute to a loved one. A “Numbers” gangster can read another’s life story simply through the markings he has. The gallows symbol signifies that the bearer faced the death sentence, before it was outlawed. Many of the most highly tattooed men that I photographed, had been given the death sentence, before Mandela’s reprieve, and thus they had never believed they would be released, never imagining “a life after’.
Some prisoners will go as far as covering their whole body, including the face, with these 'chappies'. The motives behind such a drastic action fascinated me. Was it about a need to belong, or does it simply reflect an absolute immersion in “The Number”? Do the tattoos create an armour, or do they instead offer a voice, a potent form of self-expression, where the prisoners’ skin is perhaps their only remaining possession and form of self-expression? And then there is perhaps the most pertinent question of all: how does someone live with such branding after their prison sentence ends? In jail, the men I photographed are considered to be “Kings”. Once freed, their tattoos stigmatize them as dangerous criminals, obscure their humanity and evoke fear in the general public. Unable to get jobs, many become homeless ‘strollers’, suffering high levels of substance abuse. And so I found my subjects in Cape Town’s hidden places: homeless shelters, broken down tenement blocks, back alleys, soup kitchens, bus stations and township shebeens. I photographed them wherever them I found them, always in their own environments. As I worked, many questions were raised for me, especially regarding the choices we make in life and the prices we pay for them.
I also found myself wondering how it would be if we all had our past mistakes permanently emblazoned across our faces.