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.