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Art, Reality

Gangsta Hieroglyphs

by Ang Lloyd / 26.10.2012

In 2008 UK-based photographer Araminta da Clermont came to South Africa. Not to take photos, but to detox. She’d been a heroin addict for eight years, and she felt that the bottom of Africa would be a good place to sort her shit out. During her recovery, she heard about prisoners with mysterious tattoos and an association with numbers. These prisoners were hardened criminals: the personification of darkness. Naturally, an intense curiosity developed.

She couldn’t just rock up at Pollsmoor and start taking portraits. So she tracked down some ex-cons: living in underpasses, collecting scrap metal, and begging for change at your local robot. But they were extremely cautious, and wouldn’t allow some random white lady to take pictures of them. Some of them still had gang loyalties, while others had deep shame. She persisted, and after a year of patient relationship building, the ex-inmates finally trusted her. They allowed her into their post-prison world, and they started to reveal their secrets.

da Clermont began to learn the language of their tattoos. Each crude-green image was a symbol, and when put together on the ‘page’ of a body, the person’s life story could instantly be ‘read’. Gangsta-hieroglyphics, if you will. The tattoos denote personality traits, previous crimes, rank/gang affiliation or messages to loved ones. For example, a spider means maliciousness and danger, while a Pound/Dollar sign means that the person only robbed foreigners on the outside.

She also learnt about The Number. The 26’s are the money collectors, and they never use violence. The 27’s are the executioners, who right wrongs and enact revenge. The 28’s protect members of all three, but they are allowed to have sex with each other, and take wyfies (although they vehemently deny being gay). Members of The Number also speak a secret dialect (sabela), which is known only to them.

[Read Jonny Steinberg’s excellent book The Number for more context. Or see his original research document here, free.]

Meet Moerse. His facial tattoos tell one story, but his eyes tell another. Moerse has a scorpion tattoo on his nose, which indicates that he’s malicious. Yet when da Clermont photographed him, he started crying. He sobbed repeatedly, “I’m just a hurt child… I’m not evil, I’m not evil.”

Meet Omar. The hand on his neck is the 28’s gang salute. On his chest it says ‘Man Hunter’. This was a warning to a certain someone, who had crossed him in prison. Omar commanded total respect in prison. He now lives under a bridge. He’s 6 feet tall, and he looks like a dangerous criminal. According to da Clermont, when she asked him for his photograph, all he gave was “a shy, sweet smile.”

Meet Danny. According to da Clermont, Danny is young and cocky. Being a Number is still glamourous and exciting for him, and he has yet to be crushed by a life of hard crime. The spider web on his throat shows that he’ll wait – patiently – for his prey.

Meet Ali. The crowns on Ali’s shoulders show a high Numbers rank. The gangs have a highly complicated pseudo-military set up; complete with generals, judges, colonels, and even accountants. Gang officers can give extremely detailed descriptions of their individual (and imaginary) uniforms. Son-af (which is tattooed on his eyelids) is related to the 28’s.

Meet Martin. His mother was an alcoholic and he got involved in crime early on. While in jail, he would write to his mother, but she would never respond. He decided that his final letter would be written on his face: the words, “Don’t cry for me tomorrow mom.” He hoped that she would see it, upon his release. It’s not clear whether she ever saw it or not.

Meet the twins. Both have fangs tattooed under their lips, and devil horns on their foreheads. According to da Clermont, the twins loved having their photographs taken. She reckoned that they’d probably never been photographed as a family before. They just wanted some “happy family snaps”.

Meet Akim. He’s a 27. They command absolute respect, because they hold the Laws of The Number and they take blood. It’s rare to find an ex-con who’s a 27, because a 27 must commit to The Number for life. In the summer, Akim loves to catch the Southern Line train, and then jump onto the platform (scaring the bejaysus out of the tourists in Kalk Bay).

Araminta’s photographic retrospective TRANSFORMATIONS is currently showing at the Casa Labia in Muizenberg until 25th November. Along with this body of work (entitled LIFE AFTER), there are two more bodies of work on display, namely BEFORE LIFE (featuring soon-to-be matriculants from the Cape Flats), and NEW BEGINNINGS (male Xhosa initiates).

*Information adapted from the Casa Labia Gallery Handbook/Araminta da Clermont. All photos © Araminta da Clermont.

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