FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES. Today, two stories about art on the human body.
First, a Los Angeles tattooist who has done designs on stars, including Janet Jackson and Queen Latifah. He sees all his art, including the celebrity tattoos, as sacred work.
Mr. RONI ZULU (Tattoo Artist): My name is Roni Zulu. And Zulu is a name--a last name that I took. My original given name, I researched it and it's German. But I'm a black man. I wanted my name to reflect my heritage, so therefore I changed it to do so.
I identify myself as an urban shaman. I am a tattooist, but people come to me for more than just getting tattooed. They're coming to me for spiritual reasons. This is like someone going to church because I'm not tattooing Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck on people. People are coming to me to get spiritual markings, things that have to do with their ancestry, things that have to--commemorate the birth of a child, a death of a family elder, that type of thing. So it puts me in a position that is more than just commercial. It's far more spiritual.
My job is never to put a mark on you. It's to bring the mark out of you. In everyone, there's this ancient ancestry, there's this certain pride that's in you and, if you dig down, you'll find out what it is. And that's my job, to help you walk that path, go through that journey and then pull it out.
A lady came to me and she was overweight, very overweight, and she wanted a tattoo on her thigh. I did the tattoo. The tattoo took me 15 minutes. A week later, I had someone from her family call me crying. And I was like, `Oh, God, she's going to sue me. She doesn't like it.' But they told me that they are so happy 'cause this person hasn't worn shorts in, like, three years and now wears shorts because they think they're beautiful because their tattoo is beautiful.
And there's some stories that don't end so well. One time I was working in another shop and one of my clients was HIV-positive, and the owner of the shop at that time--that scared him. The owner would not allow me to tattoo him. And the client insisted that I would listen to the owner and not risk my job. So I told this fellow, `Well, come to my house in a couple of weeks and we'll tattoo you.' Before his appointment happened, he died and I didn't get to tattoo him, and I felt I dropped the ball. That's when I quit that shop and owned Zulu Tattoo, so I would never have to compromise my ethics because of somebody else's paranoia.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
Mr. ZULU: Of course, our lobby. This is where you first walk in and, you know, first person that you're going to meet is my wife, Khani-Jo, who is the manager, receptionist, basically the brains behind all of this. She's the one that you would talk to, book an appointment and all scheduling. And then you would come into the tattoo area itself where we actually do the work, which has the different chairs, tables and benches. And that's where it happens. There are two tattoo machines that I use every day. They're pretty much the extension of my right hand.
(Soundbite of items being moved around)
Mr. ZULU: Let's see, basically, all we would do is take the machine out and you put a tube and a needle in the machine. The needle will go and attach to a bar on the machine that moves the needle up and down, and...
(Soundbite of the tattoo machine buzzing)
Mr. ZULU: ...that's it.
When people are getting tattooed, I end up like being the psychologist, psychiatrist. I hear everything about who's cheating on who, this guy's having a baby with that girl. People tell you the most personal things when they go under the knife. You establish a real tight relationship real quick, because it's an intimate thing. I am putting this thing on your body. I'm touching your body and you put your trust into me.
When I get up in the morning, I go to my altar. I do my prayers and I make my offerings. I make offerings for those people that I'm about to tattoo to just make sure that everything goes well. I set up a spiritual protection blanket for myself and for my clients, so that any harmful negative energy can be dispelled before we get into this.
In traveling to a lot of conventions in the US, I've noticed that I'm usually the only black tattooist there. A lot of bikers, white supremists and so on show up at these conventions. So they see me and, of course, they're threatened. A lot of times you get harassed. The first tattoo convention I went to, I won a trophy because someone entered their tattoo into a competition. They didn't know it was done by me. So they announced the trophy and I walked on stage and they immediately called for a recount. It was the only recount they wanted. Everybody else got their trophies. So it gives you an idea how bad it can be in the tattoo world.
My attendance at convention is usually brought on so that the black and brown, people of color, can see me there and, therefore, they'll be able to say, `Wow, there is somebody for us. There is somebody that's going to relate to me. I don't have to go to the, you know, biker shop and say, "Hi, I'm looking for an African tattoo," and they look at you like, "What the hell are you doing here?"'
It is very important for me to be an inspiration. I would love for a young black tattoo artist to come talk to me 50 years from now when I'm an old man and say, `Zulu, I was inspired by you. You're the reason that I am doing what I'm doing.' So if I can make the path a little bit easier for those who come after me, then that would feel really good.
CHIDEYA: Tattoo artist Roni Zulu runs Zulu Tattoo in Los Angeles. He's also a film composer and cellist. There are pictures of his tattoo work and some of his music on our Web site, npr.org.