Professional photography in this post by Lee Corkett of Weathervane Images.
I am grateful to have talked with Roni Zulu, the prolific Los Angeles tattoo artist and owner of Zulu Tattoo. Zulu is a master of symbols and the meanings behind them. He started as a graphic designer and session musician until a yearning for more led him to the world of tattooing.
Zulu has tattooed many noteworthy people including Janet Jackson, Deborah Wilson, Mariah Carey, Queen Latifah, Bruce Willis, Montel Williams, Christina Aguilera, Alanis Morissette, Ben Vereen, Rosie O'Donnell, David Duchovny and Lisa Bonet to name a few.
We talked about how he got his start in tattoo, racism, spirituality, and how the art can evolve.
How did you transition from being a graphic designer and musician to tattoo artist?
Well, the transition from being a graphic designer to a tattooist wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. I didn't know I would be venturing into a field that was primarily dominated by a prejudiced group of people: the underworld of tattooing was dominated and controlled by biker factions, skinheads and a lot of white supremacists groups. Upon entering into this world and seeking an apprenticeship, I couldn't get one. I was turned away, at times, laughed at as I walked out the door with racial slurs escorting me out.
So I realized that the only way I was going to learn was to teach myself. What I would do is go to conventions with a video camera and stand across the room and film people tattooing and in essence create my own instructional videos. Then I would go to the butcher market and buy pigs ears, a big flat piece of meat you can practice on, similar to human flesh. That was the only way I could break in because I could not get an apprenticeship.
When did you start tattooing?
I would say approximately 17 years ago.
Tell me about opening your own tattoo shop.
I assumed, well if I can't get an apprenticeship, I'm sure that I'm not going to be able to get a station in one of these shops. I went into many of them and saw that they were not the kind of places that I would want to be associated with. The one's that would have me weren't very reputable, and I decided I'm going to have to create my own world.
I opened my own shop after tattooing in my home. I started out tattooing friends and they would tell friends and it got to a point where I had to open a shop because I couldn't run that many people through my house.
When you opened a shop, did you get any resistance from other tattoo shops?
I got a great deal of resistance. It would be common to get to work check the messages and have messages such as "Nigger, close down your shop or were going to bomb it," or "Close down your shop or were going to break your legs." I got these kind of threats daily. At one point a lot of bikers came by with baseball bats and told me I had 24 hours to shut down the shop.
I'm not an advocate of violence but also I'm not going to run, so from that point on, for the next year I went to work with a 357 magnum strapped to my chest, where everyone could see it. I would be sitting there tattooing with a gun strapped so they would know. Like most bullies, they were cowards when they find you're not going to run. At that point, it was like by any means necessarily.
Since you got much of your initial instruction from going to tattoo conventions, do you do many tattoo conventions now?
I don't do many conventions in the US. I do conventions in Tahiti, Samoa, particularly in the South Pacific places that have more of a sacred respect for tattooing as opposed to the commercial aspect of Western society.
From your biography on your website, you talk about how you look to masters from the past. Which artistic and tattoo masters do you look to for inspiration?
Well in the tattoo world there are fellows like Horiyoshi III. Also, a fellow that I had the privilege of studying under Leo Zulueta who was primarily responsible for bringing the NeoTribal tattoo movement to the United States. There is Keone Nunes in Hawaii, Tricia Allen who is in Tahiti -- these are the people that I respect, who carry on the old traditions, who are not concerned with all the modern glitz and glamor. They are the real deal and they are maintaining integrity; that is the lineage I wanted to follow.
What do you find are the differences between indigenous tattooing and the modern Western form of tattooing?
The biggest difference between indigenous tattooing and modern tattooing in Western society is indigenous tattooing is always based on nature. Everything reflects nature, whether it's fish, fowl or trees. Nature is usually their god, and you always see it on them. The Polynesians always have some sort of oceanic theme; tattooing with native Americans you find the buffalo, eagle...the tattooing involves nature so they're in touch.
In Western society, especially the inner cities, I guess what you'll see is a reflection of their surroundings, not much nature but a lot of bling, moneybags, dollar bills -- a lot of things that unfortunately distract us from nature. A lot of Western tattooing I find to be almost sacrilegious.
I do believe that symbols are incredibly powerful. We know symbols were used before language and possibly before even spoken language. A simple "X" put in a specific place can mean so much depending on the intent. Some of my clients might come and want something written out like "I love who ever" and that sort of thing. I try to give them options that so much more can be said.
A fellow came to me and said "I want Black Power" to be written across his chest. I said, "Alright brother, I can dig that. I feel you. I feel where you're coming from especially with the the things I've been through." I told him that, if this was 1962, I would probably do that, but our people we have a little bit more to offer than just words. We sat down and talked. I showed him some Adinkra symbols from Africa and other ancient art, and he said, "You know what, I want an outline of Africa with an Adinkra symbol that shows how powerful this continent is and the people I come from." I said, "Now you're talking. There are no words that will ever be able to trump that."
So symbols are important. I don't care what tribe your from: if you're a man of African descent, we're going to jump into that; if you're German, I'm going to pull up some German art; if you're Hispanic, I'm going to run back to an Aztec or Mayan theme. Everybody has a history of tribes who were in touch with themselves and the world around them; there was always art and and symbols that reflected that, so a tribal tattoo isn't always just a black, big, bold tattoo. Sometimes it's very colorful, sometimes it reflects your family history. I always try to get people to go back as far they can and pull energy from those ancestral marks, because when you get those marks, I believe the ancestors wake up. They know you're taking the mark, accepting energy that flows through time and space and now putting it on your body, so it's a heavy duty blood right of passage.
There was a time when this was a blood rite. You were cut open with a piece of steel, ink was inserted and you bled. That's pretty heavy duty, and yet we've made light of that. I think we need to go back and realize exactly what has happened.
I've seen pictures of Debra Wilson, an actress who you've extensively tattooed. I've noticed you put a lot of color in her skin. From my experience, color is often an issue on darker skin. What's your experience in the differences between dark and light skin. What do you take into consideration?
A lot has to be taken into consideration if you're going to consider color and shading, depending on someone's lack of pigment or great amount of pigment.
I'll back up by explaining how tattooing is actually done. Whenever you see a tattooed person, you're looking through their skin -- you're not looking at the surface of their skin. The needle deposits the ink under the skin, but as it does that, it also tattoos all the layers in between. Eventually, the top layers exfoliate, leaving only the bottom layer, so when a tattoo is healed, you're looking through about seven layers of skin with the tattoo under it.
Now, if a person is Caucasian, their skin is transparent; it lacks pigment so you're looking through a clear window and you see the tattoo, all the bright yellows are very visible. With someone my color, the ink is still there but you're looking through a heavily stained brown window, you can't see all the yellow under there. It's in there just as much as in white skin, you just can't see it. Therefore, you have to take into consideration the dulling affect it's going to have on color. You have to know which colors can maintain the healing process. Just like any profession, you learn what works and what doesn't through technique and experience.
I've found some artists hesitant to apply color on darker skin tones.
A lot of white artists just don't have a great deal of experience tattooing black skin. It's a little bit different. Black skin tends to keloid so you have to work a little bit faster, you can't be as aggressive, and you've got to use more ointment to keep the skin lubricated so it doesn't tear. There are a lot of things you have to take into consideration. I can't tattoo you the same way I would tattoo a white person or it's going to be a mess.
Does someone have to relearn and adjust their technique?
It's a technique, just how a hairdresser cannot dress a white woman's hair the same as they can dress a black person's hair; it's two different art forms.
I see you have prominent facial tattoos and extensive work. What is the history behind some of your work?
Usually when I get tattooed, it happens when I travel to like Fiji, Samoa, Tonga; there are tribal ritualistic tattooists that I know and we tend to share work based on what's going on and if it's time, such as the last time I was in Fiji. There are certain tribes that tattoo completely different than western society.
If I'm in Fiji and I decide I want to get tattooed, I don't go and tell the tattooist, "I want a whale, give me a tattoo." If you're really going to do it the way it's traditionally done, you go to the holy priest and you tell him, "I'm ready to get tattooed or I think I am, am I ready?" He'll do his mojo with the gods and if he thinks that it's time for you to go through that particular right of passage, he'll say, "Yes, now let's go to the tattooist." Then you'll talk with the priest and the tattooist, they will decide what you're going to get. You have no say so whatsoever. That's what happened last time I was in Tahiti. I went to the holy man there and he talked to the tattooist; then the tattooist decided I should have my head tattooed and receive the mark of the warrior for their tribe.
That must of been wonderful.
It was. I couldn't just accept the tattoo on its own. I had to prove myself. I had to go through a few other rites before I could earn the privilege of wearing it. I had to learn a particular war dance called the Haka. I had to learn some of their songs in their native tongue, and I had to perform other things to prove that I was worthy. So in these cultures, it's just not a given that on a whim you can receive these sacred things, it has to be earned in some type of way -- which is the way it should be.
Do you still create in other mediums other than tattooing?
Oh yes, I still oil paint. I have pencil drawings, sketches, sculpt a little bit here and there -- my fine art is still very alive and strong, and a lot of my tattooing draws on that.
I tend to tattoo more like an oil painter than a tattooist. A lot of people will see some of the stuff I do and wonder how I get such rich color. Instead of taking purple out of the tube and just running in, I'll put a light layer of blue, then a light layer of red on top of that so that your eye will mix it in kind of a more lush sheen then just a straight given, so my technique comes a lot from my fine art and graphic design background.
There are a plethora of tattoo magazines out here now. What are your thoughts on the absence of dark skin people in most of the magazines?
The lack of people of color in tattoo publications is intentional on the part of the magazines. I used to date a girl who worked for one of these magazines, and she informed me that, in the cutting room, she heard the editor say to someone who received a bunch of pictures of people of color to just throw them in the trash and it's still pretty much like that today. People think this is all things you hear in the 50s or 60s but it still goes on today, and particularly in this business, they are threatened right now. They know that people of color are hot on the heels of this industry and surpassing a lot of our white counterparts -- not to be elitist but this happens because it is a tribal art form and we tend to be more in touch with our self tribally then the Caucasian population in the United States. When we bring what we bring to a tribal form, we don't steal it, we just reclaim it. We do what we have always done, so it just comes naturally to us, it's not a struggle.
You used to write a monthly article for Urban Ink magazine called "Ask Zulu." I noticed you stopped writing for them. Is there a reason for that?
There is a definite reason I stopped writing for Urban Ink. In the beginning, I told them I will write for this magazine if you can keep it out of the ghetto. If this is going to be a very informative and intelligent publication, then I'm on board. I know it takes a little time for that kind of change to happen, so I wrote for the magazine. Then I started to get letters from a lot of black women asking me how can I write for this magazine that exploits black women. There are just booty pictures in there, women just displayed in a very vulgar way and making our African queens look like a bunch of whores. Not being prudish -- there is nothing wrong with the female body being nude -- but I decided that I really can't accept this any more. I talked to the editor and said that the way black women are being exploited by this magazine is unacceptable. The way they're showing a lot of the black tattooists seemed they'll accept anybody who's wearing a doo-rag on their head and throwing up signs. I told them if that's going to continue, then I can't be a part of this magazine.
The editor wrote me back and he said, "I completely understand and agree with you, but the magazine is funded by a certain people and those ads are what keep the magazine on the rack." Therefore, I had to gracefully bow out and say this is a wrong representation of the black people who are out there and want to experience a positive thing. This was too negative, and I decided that just wasn't for me.
What is next for you -- are there any projects coming up that your working on?
We are in the midst of talking about more shops: one in New York and one in Paris France. I have big following in those two places. I have so many people flying in on a regular basis from Europe and the East Coast that maybe I'll take our little mojo to them.
A big dream for me that I've been working on is putting together textbooks and a curriculum to open an institute of tattooing. I'm going to present it to UCLA and various schools so that it can be examined and studied. My goal is to eventually have young people in school be able to major in Dermal Graphic arts, even get a Masters Degree in Tattooing. I'm not sure when it's going to happen but that it is going to happen. That's my big goal.