In 2015, the security troubles in Burundi saw Alpha Jerry flee to Kigali where he was welcomed by locals who helped him adapt to life in the city.
Born to a Burundian mother and Congolese father, the 28-year old multi-talented artist had to devise means to earn a living. With a little background and knowledge in tattoo art, tattooing quickly came to mind.
Alpha learnt the art while on a working mission in Dubai in 2014 after getting professional training from a Ghanaian tattooist he only identifies as Tony, who was based in Dubai. Luckily for him, given his talent in visual arts only made it easier for him to learn tattooing skills.
He however started tattooing professionally when he moved to Rwanda.
“Back from Dubai, I had the complete tool kit package for a professional artist. I was going to start it in my hometown Bujumbura but was disrupted a few months later and I had to flee. That is how I started the business here and I am happy it changed my life,” he says.
Although a refugee, Alpha who currently resides in Kimironko, prefers to call Kigali his home.
Our interview is occasionally interrupted by phone calls from notable clients like basketball players, models and musicians, booking appointments to have a piece of his tattoo art.
He later tells me what tattoos mean to him: “The meaning of a tattoo for me is simple: Creating memories. I think tattoos are a kind of remedy for the psychological mind to really show how determined you are on something.”
Alpha says his happiness and passion for tattooing is derived from his clients who appreciate his services and have since recommended more clients. He reveals that he makes between Rwf800 000 and Rwf1 million, a month out of his tattoo business.
His prices for a single tattoo vary between Rwf15,000 and Rwf120,000 depending on the size of the tattoo and the time spent on the client. The biggest amount that he has ever made since he started was $1200 (approximately Rwf 1 million) in a day last year in Rubavu.
Alpha uses professional materials like needles and ink among others, which he orders in Germany. His job relies on power as he uses a power supplier while making a tattoo for his clients.
As a professional tattooist, he however, takes into consideration his clients’ health safety while making tattoos. He uses alcohol spirits to disinfect the body before, during and after making a tattoo while also using massage oil to prevent fresh tattoos from being contaminated.
He also strictly, doesn’t tattoo anybody under 18 years of age, as is a standard requirement for all tattoo artists.
He says his tattoos are neither harmful nor painful given the standard tools he uses. It is just ticklish while doing the lining to shape a tattoo on the body.
“My tattoos are not harmful because the ink I use adapts to blood and does not have any consequences on the body. Many people have had the same perceptions that tattoos are painful but I cannot say that they are painless because it depends on the techniques that the artist uses, how fast he is going to do it and how deep you go with the machine on the body,” he adds.
“Actually the recommendation of a tattoo artiste is that once you are tattooing you only need to go at least two millimeters through the skin. If you go deep like four millimeters, it can easily damage somebody’s skin, which also explains the pain,” he added.
Alpha’s clients approach him with two choices, to either have permanent or temporary tattoos, although the duration of the tattoo depends on the kind of ink he uses.
He explains that the temporary tattoos are made with ink which vanishes after at least two years while immortal ink is used for the permanent tattoo to last a lifetime or can be removed with an erasing machine.
However, regardless of the kind of tattoo, Alpha charges the same price. His prices are only determined by the size and time spent on making the tattoo.
“People prefer the permanent tattoos because my kind of customers are those who want to memorize something they may have been facing and they want to symbolize it with something which will last forever,” he said.
He adds that some clients come with their own idea on how a tattoo should look like while he sometimes helps them design it using his tattoo catalogue to make it more meaningful.
Generally, most of his clients like to have tattoos on their arms, shoulders, legs, front or on their back although he has also made very few tattoos on secret body parts, which he never minds.
“I can put a tattoo wherever my client wants with no exception. I am always ready to do it because I am professional and I cannot fall into any seductive temptations because I am like a doctor,” he said.
What his clients say
One of his clients, Cynthia, who insisted on keeping her other name anonymous, hailed Alpha’s work saying he does not disappoint, when it comes to professionalism.
“The way Alpha made my tattoo showed how professional he goes about his job because I have never experienced any side effects caused by the tattoo on my body. His service is so perfect,” she said.
Her sentiments were echoed by Kevin Campuri, another of his client, who said he has not regretted having a tattoo although he believes that people’s negative perceptions against putting a tattoo on one’s body comes from their mindset.
“These are things people take differently. I can understand those who say they cannot tattoo their bodies because of the society they live in or some other reason. But for me I am proud to have it on my body just because of who I am,” he said.
Alpha says he doesn’t let people’s perceptions and judgment about his profession affect his work.
“People cannot always agree all the time. You will sometimes hear a Christian saying that it is a sin for one to tattoo their body. But you will also see another Christian coming to you looking for a tattoo of Jesus on his body. People have different beliefs.”
He adds that his job has changed his life despite being a refugee because it helps him meet his daily expenses which includes financing a music career as a dancehall singer and also pays for his education as an undergraduate in Information Technology at University of Kigali.
“I make a living without relying on others. That is why I would like to encourage my fellow refugees to think of bring innovative ideas that can help them earn an income”.