Ivy Gowen brings tattoo craze to Kigali

Her body is a moving tattoo display, literally. For Ivy Gowen, it is tattoos all the way; on her back, on her neck, arms, hands, thighs, legs …
Ivy Gowen says that her tattoos mean something in her life. (Moses Opobo)
Ivy Gowen says that her tattoos mean something in her life. (Moses Opobo)

Her body is a moving tattoo display, literally. For Ivy Gowen, it is tattoos all the way; on her back, on her neck, arms, hands, thighs, legs … 

Each of the tattoos stands for something in her life.

Gowen’s love for this art form extends beyond just being a fan and spotting multiple tattoos on her body. She is a professional tattoo artiste, a job she has done for the last nine years, mostly in her native Canada. Her career has seen her move places and work on clients from across the globe.

A tattoo of a house wren on her left fore arm.

In Africa alone, she has criss-crossed countries as diverse as Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, Botswana and Uganda, doing her thing.

Since 2012, she has been in and out of Rwanda with a friend, working with an orphanage in Kimisagara. Whenever the pair visited, they stayed at the Ivuka Arts Studio in Kacyiru.

“Last year, I said to Charles, (founder of Ivuka) that this place would make a good tattoo studio. When he warmed up to the idea, I was like sure, why not?”

The result; the opening of Living Canvass Kigali, arguably the first professional tattoo studio in Kigali.

Gowen’s mission is to provide safe, professional tattoos for Rwandans, tourists, expats, and “to educate the public on the responsibility of me providing it safe, and the responsibility of the client making the right choices.”

“You must be able to get a tattoo that is not going to affect your future, to get the tattoo on a part of the body that is appropriate, and a subject matter that is appropriate.”

She contends that most tattoos are therapeutic and go beyond just beauty. For instance a woman that has undergone a Cesarean section, we cover it up and make them beautiful again. I would say that tattoos are 95% therapeutic –healing either to the mind or body.”

She adds that a tattoo should “never be a quick-quick rush. It should be thoughtful because it’s there forever. When I draw tattoos on people, I’m doing a very intimate thing with someone, so it needs to be responsible, comfortable and fun. It should be a good experience for both.”

Gowen shows off a tattoo on her neck. (All photos by Moses Opobo)

Another key feature to be considered is skin complexion;

“For dark skin tattoos, you can’t use color, because the tattoo actually sits three layers under the skin. We have seven layers of skin, and it’s the third layer of skin that it sits under. So you have the color of pigment covering whatever colors are going in. If you have dark skin and tattoo it using white, the white turns to muddy brown, and you won’t see the tattoo. So for really dark skin, it’s black and grey only.”

Tattoos all over her body:

Gowen’s entire body is all tattooed. Most of the tattoos are about nature, and how important our relationship to nature is.

One is that of a barn owl, located smack on her back. She holds this tattoo particularly dear:


“My father was a naturalist so he taught me about birds, so to me birds are very special. That was the first tattoo I got, in honor of my father.”

Her left forearm bears a tattoo of a woman holding a camera, and in the lens of the camera is an eye. She explains that it’s an important reminder to her to not have pre-conceived ideas wherever she goes, “but to keep my eyes and mind open always.”

Her entire right leg is covered in tattoos, to represent all her travels and interactions with people in South America, while the tattoos on her left leg represent all her travels in Africa, relationships and friendships, and birds and other things important to her.

There is also a bee, to remind her of the importance of, and need to look into nature, “because nature tells us if something is wrong in the environment. Bees are an important part of the environment. Without bees, you don’t have trees, you don’t have flowers, fruit, you don’t have a lot of things.”

Ultimately, her intention is to train a couple of artistes at Ivuka to become tattoo artistes as well, “for sustainability, but also to create a new art form for the artistes here. It takes a long time to learn it and do professional work, but then they will be able to go anywhere in the world and tattoo.”