Tattoo artist Micheline Teta proudly showcased her forearm adorned with dark ink, revealing a meaningful inscription from inner elbow to wrist. With a beaming smile, she confided, “It means ‘Follow your heart and let go’.” This intricate tattoo began with intertwined faces symbolizing the connection between past and future, followed by a lifeline representing “follow,” then the letters “ur heart,” and culminating in birds for “Let go.” She personally designed this tattoo and also had two others, one on her back and another on her chest. Already a skilled visual artist, Teta, earlier this year, made a significant career upgrade upon recognising the rising demand for tattoos. Overcoming her initial fear of needles, she discovered that her existing artistry garnered trust from customers who sought tattoos. “Once my friend bought me a tattoo kit, I was hooked,” she said. Since then, the 24-year-old has amassed around 80 clients, with over 70 per cent of them being first-time tattoo recipients. Occasionally, she dedicates specific weeks to providing free tattoos and accommodates up to three customers in a single day. Amidst the scorching summer heat in Kigali, when skin is inevitably exposed, the presence of body art becomes increasingly conspicuous. Whether at the gym, park, or pub, one will encounter a vast assortment of designs rich with concealed meanings adorning midriffs, legs, bottoms, and hips, serving as vibrant manifestations of human creativity in its diverse forms. Some may include a small symbol representing a difficult period in one’s life or a prominent date signifying the loss of a loved one. Some individuals choose words as their preferred motif, such as Ines Gihozo, a 19-year-old who had “self love” permanently inked onto her lower abdomen as a personal reminder. Other designs opt for simplicity and minimalism, featuring elements like butterflies, small hearts, or tulips adorning the waistline. According to Teta, women have long been avid enthusiasts of body art, often seeking discreet locations for their tattoos. “They believe that I know hidden spots, truly concealed. The only one I can think of is under the feet,” she chuckled. This growing inclination for individual self-expression has sparked a surge of creativity within tattoo studios themselves. They are driven to provide distinctive and innovative designs that deeply resonate with their clients. In Teta’s words, this artistic endeavor also instills a sense of ownership, making her feel like the tattoos she creates are truly her own art. With six years of experience in the art of tattooing, Emmanuel Nkurunziza, commonly known as Sacha, has made his mark as the founder of Last Pharaoh’s Ink, a tattoo studio located in Kacyiru. Since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sacha has witnessed a remarkable 60% increase in his clientele. He attributes this surge to the impact of music and movies, which have contributed to the growing acceptance of tattoos as a powerful medium for personal expression and storytelling. “The intricacy, time consumption, or size of a tattoo design hold little significance compared to the meaning behind it and the person’s motivation for getting it,” Sacha said. He shared an intriguing example: “There’s a tattoo I did for someone deeply in love with his girlfriend, depicting her clawing at his back during intimate moments.” He had to use red ink to recreate the scratches, giving the appearance of fresh wounds. “It was fascinating and fun to do,” he recalled. Another client’s tattoos are representative of different stages in his life. At the time as he entered a phase of financial stability and the need for discernment in his relationships, he opted for a snake symbolizing intelligence and cunning, combined with flowers representing abundance. Consider Clement Mugisha, a 24-year-old engineer who experienced the loss of his beloved dog last year. Seeking a poignant reminder of his furry companion, he had a Japanese character inked onto his arm, symbolizing his dog’s name “Kanji.” “The artist’s choice of music was intriguing, reminiscent of Roman Catholic melodies and soundtracks.” The harmonious tunes played a significant role in creating a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere during the tattooing process. “I plan to get more tattoos. Maybe a phoenix?” he contemplated. As for his family’s perspective, he shares that they perceive tattoos as a trend embraced by the younger generation, and their acceptance makes it a non-issue for him. Attitudes towards tattoos continue to be diverse on a global scale. Kim Kardashian, when questioned about her viewpoint on tattoos, is forthright in expressing her lack of enthusiasm for inked art. Her famous quote, “You don’t put a bumper sticker on a Bentley,” conveys the notion that she considers her body too precious to be adorned with any permanent “tacky” embellishments. But of course, there are people like Bertrand Akaraza, who proudly displays 13 tattoos. For him, tattoos serve as personal expressions of love, passion, painful memories, favorite song lyrics, or daily mantras. “My favorite tattoo is written in Chinese font, and it bears my own name,” he divulged proudly. While many of his tattoos serve as decorative adornments without deep symbolism, he plans to expand his collection. Akaraza envisions filling the entire left side of his body with large faces (like his mother’s), words and numbers. While the perception surrounding tattoos in Rwanda may be evolving, critics might argue that the increasing popularity of tattoos is merely a superficial trend driven by aesthetic appeal. Some still associate tattooing with aggression and rebellion. From this perspective, tattoos may be seen as impulsive choices to conform to fleeting trends, leading to years of regret, rather than expressions of profound meaning. However, Yvonne Uwamahoro, a psychologist at Mental Health Hub, challenges such presumptions, emphasizing the need to understand the story behind a tattoo before forming judgments. She believes that body art alone cannot provide insights into a person’s personality; true understanding comes from engaging in conversation with individuals. Uwamahoro asserts, “I believe that learning the narrative behind the body art is as important as knowing the story behind an artist’s portrait.” She contends that people choose tattoos for various reasons, ranging from artistic expression to personal reminders of their identity, origins, and aspirations in life, as well as to honor someone or something meaningful to them. Tattoos, the psychologist believes, can hold different meanings for different individuals. “Nonetheless, tattooing is an expression of oneself. Therefore, if the expression behind the tattoo changes, regrets may arise.” For instance, someone who tattoos the name of their first love on their chest may later regret it if the relationship ends. Another source of regret could be dissatisfaction with the appearance of the tattoo upon completion. These viewpoints align with the experiences shared by both Teta and Sacha. Teta explains that every tattoo begins with an in-depth conversation during which the client’s ideas and desired representations are discussed. “Your body is the most sacred thing you possess,” she went on, “so I seek inspiration for the tattoo from an ‘authentic place,’ ensuring that it holds genuine meaning for the person.” Sacha, on the other hand, refuses to tattoo individuals below the age of 18 as he believes they may not have the maturity to make a well-informed decision. “They are more likely to tattoo their boyfriend or girlfriend’s initials anyway.” Having the name of a former partner, who is no longer part of one’s life, permanently etched on the body can create complications in future relationships. When a permanent tattoo is created, the ink is applied using a needle technique that penetrates the dermis, which is the deeper layer of the skin. Once the ink is deposited, it triggers an inflammatory response that forms a protective matrix around the ink particles, preventing migration or natural fading. The presence of inflammatory cells surrounding the ink is what enables it to remain in place. Therefore, when you opt for a tattoo made with permanent ink, the majority of the ink stays precisely where it was initially placed. The duration of returning to normal activities after getting a tattoo can vary depending on factors such as the speed of pigment metabolism in your skin, your lifestyle, and the products you use. It typically ranges from three days to a week. According to Sacha, numbing creams could be utilised to minimize pain but he advises against their use, as he believes that pain is an essential part of the tattooing journey. “Besides, once you embrace the pain mentally, it becomes more manageable,” he added. While extremely rare, Sacha acknowledges that unscrupulous tattoo artists can contribute to the spread of infections. To ensure the utmost safety, his studio follows rigorous sterilization practices. They sterilize their needles using pressurized steam and use separate capsules of non-toxic ink for each customer. Sacha emphasizes the importance of maintaining high standards comparable to those of a dental clinic. With new and packaged needles, thorough sanitization of the area, and attention to various details, they strive to minimize the risk of infections. Perhaps I should get one myself.