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Gangsta Hieroglyphs

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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RESPONSES (54)
  1. Nongidela says:

    All die kak is buite die boots.

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  2. luke says:

    danzig baldaev sends his best.

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  3. rene says:

    WIll they share in the proceeds of her book? What’s their share.?

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  4. porl says:

    After all the talk, its the raw power of her pics that tell the real story. Absolutely brilliant!!!

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  5. HarryCrews says:

    @rene Why would they share in the proceeds of the book?

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  6. Nongidela says:

    @HarryCrews

    Because benefiting from others’ hardships, and not filtering any kind of ‘help’ down to those subjects, is not really ethically sound.

    But ya know, subjectivity and all.

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  7. HarryCrews says:

    @ Nongidela – God your point of view is beyond naive. The photo is not the thing. You are projecting the idea of hardship and exploitation on to the work. The most the subjects could ask for is maybe a free copy of the book, and be happy to have their photo taken, which they were, or else they would have declined. If they want money, they can do their own project.

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  8. Psi says:

    Great! Actual photographic reporting on SA’s subculture. Not some bullshit stereotypical opinion.

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  9. Bonzo says:

    @ HarryCrews – the book would not be possible without the subjects of the photos, who all live in a state of extreme poverty. So why not allocate a portion of royalties to them, assuming the book generates any real profits?

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  10. Really ? says:

    So you’de want to hand money over to members of organized crime . Good plan.

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  11. rene says:

    They’ve DONE their time.. they’ve SERVED their sentences.

    . Besides If you feel uncomfortable paying them rather give the money to an anti drug campaign or some other (honest) charity. INstead of getting fame and maybe fortune out of their misery, for free. .

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  12. Nongidela says:

    @ Really ?

    You are a dom poes.

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  13. HarryCrews says:

    @ Bonzo – The book wouldn’t exist if the photographer didn’t find them worthy of documentation, recognition, they exist either way. I can’t argue with you anymore on this, you totally missed the point about the photo not being the thing. Everyone wants a handout. The photographer is hardly making fame or fortune out of “their misery”.
    The photographer has put in the hard work, I fail to see anyone could think the photographer owes them anything more than the recognition they already have received.

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  14. rene says:

    hardly making fame or fortune but trying hard.

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  15. Really says:

    “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.”

    So Danny deserves my charity ?

    @Nongidela : Wow , yes , I actually have Dom Poes tattooed onto my forehead . I’m planning on being an ironic electro-rap star .

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  16. rene says:

    NO Danny should be in jail and YES he needs to be in rehab or in training.
    Danny and his chappies certainly do not need to be glamorised in da photobook

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  17. Tee says:

    I agree 100% with rene. Its soo typical of foreigners/outsiders/whatever the correct term is, to come and take pictures, do research and then go back to where they came from with no ethical implications because its art or fart or whatever.

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  18. Tee says:

    first it was buttons and beads, maybe a mirror

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  19. HarryCrews says:

    @ Tee, your opinion only speaks to your myopic view of photography and culture in general. You need to read more. Just by looking at the photos and then by the blurbs you can tell the artist engaged with the subject matter in their environment. They aren’t simply shot from the hip, and away in a dash. So you can spout off about ethics all you like, but this foreign photographer has already done more to find out about these South Africans, than most of their compatriots. The photos and book are simply a byproduct. A document of their interactions. The photos are great – and that is the end of it.

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  20. popskiet says:

    Excellent pics, brave project, after all the expenses I wonder how much profit would be generated? I guess not much minus time taken, negotiations with various institutions, research, equipment bought, editing and finally printing and marketing. At the end of the day an awareness is created, well done to Araminta da Clermont who took the time and made the effort.

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  21. sue says:

    @ HarryCrew, If someone took a picture of you and put it in an exhibition with the point of making money out of it(which is the point,when all is said and done)you would want a cut of it.This is the real world we are living in.

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  22. rene says:

    Popskiet, this is probably exactly what they said after the Saartjie Baartman exhibitions in London in 1810. That and “oh she volunteered to come, out of her own free will”.

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  23. popskiet says:

    Rene I think the permission was granted by the subjects, this 2012 not 1810.

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  24. popskiet says:

    Sorry Sue not all people are driven by money, that is just an assumption.

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  25. Anonymous says:

    Lots of inconsistencies here and I think the story of the photographer is romanticised a bit. According to her CV she studied architecture at one of the most prestigious places in London, and followed this up with a degree in photography from a renowned art school. Not really the picture of the recovering heroin addict who just happened to take a few snaps in Cape Town.

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  26. niemandi says:

    Djul is bevok hwo x dn selfa 27 hnde. Hosh. Sonop

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  27. jade says:

    Hosh that owense is france hosh cause that is stuff they “sabela” buite boots

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  28. Mai says:

    I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good.

    I don’t know who you are but certainly you’re going to a famous blogger if you are not already
    😉 Cheers!

    Also visit my page – beautiful mature nudes

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  29. Keenzo Swart says:

    I am a 2$6 from Pollsmore Juvenile and seeing the elder Ndodas was interesting!

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  30. Typical says:

    Nah, these guys wont share the benefits that comes from this showcase.

    Just another extortion case by the white man.

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  31. Tyga says:

    @keenzo_swart aia…. Your a 26 nuh ?? You say it was nice seing the elder ndotas ?they cnt wanna come and tell the people here what the number is about,,that’s against one of the 1st rules of the number .. Minute

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  32. tee jay says:

    i would like to know how to sabela

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  33. anonymous says:

    I give all these soldiers the death sentenced…we have seen them we have heard about them and and all their names and their doings are written on the walls…because they have failed to uphold the oath of the gangs..there sentence shall be excution through suffocation…

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  34. John Mongrel says:

    Di kak is buite boot!! war is di manskap ek foja di franse dala!! nee fok

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  35. phomolo mongrel says:

    Pls my bror I want to be one of nombolo I dnt knw me now n I will go to jail I jst wnt to know di nombol plz my bror

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  36. dean says:

    Omission of conduct- die langpad. Any1?

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  37. sal danse says:

    Nangempela ndoda!

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  38. La$-gado says:

    hosh ma 2$6, bo ndoda ndoda ziphi?

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  39. griewelik says:

    Hosh minite my broer my stalaza is griewelik ek pigilela kamp regterkant van nkilikanjan gwala j chisana marobane bloed en vleis Naganie kan ek pagamiesa vir di nwata’s wat julle klomp frans uitgooi nobakanjan soos wat julle kyk hosh ek se bitta jo sabellas voor julle een en elk met I fidala chisana

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  40. griewelik says:

    En j jo fake generaal jo poes kom van suffercation strawe ek is vol en wys een en elk van staf en hoe di 3 kamp wrongs right nog nie gemeet met dies van suffacation ja miskien mut ons jo suffacate

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  41. griewelik says:

    Yes daai ndodas wrong to sell numba but also wrong to b living under bridges and whatafuck scrap metal !?! Eish what is the world comming to? Hehe if u read it u would know they sold her lies eish sorry girl nice try but they never gave u genuine truth only the kiddy version if u want truth go to jail like we all did…or find me …if ur my gf ill tell u all about nomber whole night long hehe no serios I would

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  42. mncedisi says:

    hosh am a 28 so hosh 26 are the barris they het and run as 28 we were black clouths becouse we boss and ama 26 were organic becouse they are seyaras

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  43. griewelik says:

    Hahaha u 28 piece of shit haha learn to spell before u post such fake kak online haha go an let ur general fuck ur ass hole hahaha how can u join a gang that closed their blood line hahaha u stupid selling ur ass for some stupid dark green cow cave river building shit number hahaha ur a real dumb fuck hahaha yea I bet u real mad by now reading this ne? Coz u know what? Da truth hurts !!!hahaha 28 ass fuckka!!! Hahaha

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  44. griewelik says:

    Haha what da fuck we wear organic cloths??? Like what? Our uniforms are made from carrots???hahaha u frans fuck hahaha 28 wear black coz they r dirty motherfokers haha no umm sorry that’s not true …I appologise they not mother fukers they jus fuck each other!!!hahah sicko’s!!!

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  45. nongoloza says:

    the. gang is all bullshirt they duck each rather what about hiv u are so stupid. go to school u are tromatizing your self and rather I thing they must be video in the cells so that they can stop raping. young one pls pls stop the gangs pls

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  46. nongoloza says:

    the. gang is all bullshirt they fuck each ather what about hiv u are so stupid. go to school u are tromatizing your self and rather I thing they must be video in the cells so that they can stop raping. young one pls pls stop the gangs pls they rape innocent people promise them lies and they do it even at autsite the law must be very street for them

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  47. bokang mojakisane says:

    wosh 26 london

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  48. @Lastozy 2$6 says:

    Qhosh nangempela ngikangako ngokhakhi ukungako ulandan ?

    Nangu sixxxxx

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  49. pomabaza says:

    kykie julle naaiers!!!!!!!!! die 26e…………die 27s……….die 28s.. …….en elke groepie……………JULLE ALMAL SE MAASE POESTE JULLE ALMAL WAS GENNAI LMJ GOS GWALA PIMABAZA MAN LM!!!!!!IMP!!!!!!!!

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  50. pomabaza says:

    KYKIE NOGGE DING IS …EK IS POMABAZA….SO JULLE ALMAL SE MASEPOES !!!!! J GRUWELIK!!JPU MASEPOES! KOM HIESA!!!! (KLAPS GRUWELIK BINNE IN HIS POES….AND ORDER GIYS 2 NAAI HIM LMBIMP…… KYKIE EKS UIT MOENIE NOG VI MY WAGGIE ….. EK GAT GOU VI MY N GEBBA KOEP LMJ MABY KFC….LMIMP SAFE JULLE MAASEPOESTE GENAIDE 26S 27S 28S ……
    (SPOEG IN HULLE GEVRIET)

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  51. thabang 2$6 says:

    Yes madoda ek landi nom ngo sulute.

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  52. Yes yah dintsizwa says:

    Maropane

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  53. General mathopa says:

    hoi yeah dintsizo….Eephe nombolo ya Madoda zi chaeza Nah…..ek es bedalla nut d nombol ….

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  54. 28 says:

    Hoi ya xela I nomboro e matasatasa ntabo ntlamalala phendoka manje ngila ne zinto se faningle,xene nompangela,xene o khakhathi qwala khuthi manje khilanelo entse le phikelela mashogo(28)hoi

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