Numbers: The Language of Ink in South Africa’s Prison Gangs
Groundglass’ latest production, ‘Numbers’, provides a visually striking and previously unseen insight into the unique and violent gang culture of South Africa’s prisons. Commissioned by Sailor Jerry’s for a two month residency at London’s Sanctum Soho Hotel, the secrets of the gangs known as the 26s, 27s and 28s are revealed through the hand-etched language of the inmates intricate tattoos.
The hypnotic film was co-directed by one of South Africa’s most respected and well-known Tattoo artists, Manuela Gray and is shot entirely in black and white, with commentary from one of South Africa’s most notorious ‘28s’ gang members, Turner Adams. In a rare appearance, Adams open up to the camera to explain the vital significances and codes intrinsic to the hand-etched tattoos which adorn the prisoners’ skin.
In an intriguing discussion, Wildfire Tattoo’s Manuela Gray and Groundglass’ Janette De Villiers reveal the fascinating origins of this incredible project and how they managed to convince the elusive Adams to speak out about his ink…
Film Trailer for Numbers:
Film Trailer for Numbers:
LBB > How did your involvement in ‘Numbers’ come about and what attracted you to the project?
Manuela Gray, Wildfire Tattoos > I was commissioned by Sailor Jerry’s to host a residency at London’s Sanctum Soho Hotel. I have always been fascinated in the history of my trade and intrigued by the style of tattoos in the Cape Prisons, so I desperately wanted to document the culture before it disappears. Then I got on to the topic with Janette one day in the studio…
Janette De Villiers, Groundglass > Just over six months ago, I’d gone in to get my own tattoo with Manuela. I was immediately drawn to her idea to document the prison tattoo culture and offered to help. The nature of the subject really hooked me –I’ve always found gang culture fascinating.
MG > It is an important issue to address. If there is any way to break the cycle of gang culture and provide effective rehabilitation, it is awareness.
LBB > Has being involved in this project altered your attitudes towards the subject of gang culture?
MG > Completely. I actually originally embarked on this project wanting only to document the tattoos, but after being involved I’m keen to do more to promote awareness within the prison community. I’d like to create awareness of sterilisation practices and focus on rehabilitation.
JV > The experience has altered my attitude enormously. It’s been a massive eye-opener on many levels, not least of all my own preconceived opinions of gang culture in South Africa. As I mentioned, I had very little knowledge of the history, values or protocols of the gangs and the system. I had no knowledge of how big a part the eviction of District 6 played in the coloured* community and its youth of the time. It’s not something I have ever really thought much about, besides that it was a terrible act of our Apartheid regime.
It was in fact a defining moment for the coloured* youth of South Africa, and the generation that had to watch their parents being stripped of all their pride and belongings, and see a tight knit and colourful community being torn apart and rehoused out on the Cape Flats. It was not surprising that so many young men and teenage boys in the eighties turned to gangs and crime
*In South Africa the term ‘coloured’ is used without offence and refers to people who have multiple heritages.
LBB > How did you connect with Turner Adams, and why do you think he decided to share his story with you?
JV > We really struggled to find gang members or ex- gang members who were prepared to be filmed – or have their tattoos filmed. Nobody ever really ‘leaves’ the gangs, despite being out of prison. The longer you’ve spent on the inside, the higher you are likely to be ranked in the gangs – and gangs don’t talk!
Eventually we found three guys who were seemingly willing. However on the shoot date our driver was late to pick them up. By the time he got to them, they had decided they were no longer interested in being involved – and we weren’t going to argue!
From there we didn’t have long to try and find people we could draw a real insight from. We had some footage of tattooing, some abstract imagery and high speed footage, but no real subject matter! At first Turner was not interested in talking to us at all. Eventually we went to his house in Lavender Hill in desperation and we were petrified to say the least. When you are about to come face to face with one of South Africa’s most notorious inmates, in one of the most dangerous suburbs on our continent, it was pretty daunting!
But within 10 minutes of meeting him we’d completely forgotten who we were speaking to, and were so taken with his intellect, intuition and insight into human behaviour its now hard for us to look at him as a convicted criminal.
MG > Once we’d started to get to know him we really connected on a deeper level over the craft of tattoos and their history and built the relationship from there.
JV > By the time we left his house, I think he really trusted us. Not only was he prepared to be filmed and to show his tattoos – but he was also prepared to be interviewed and talk about life on the inside.
LBB > What did you learn about Turner’s history that you didn’t expect?
JV > Turner started out in a Catholic school having piano lessons and singing in the choir. When he was 12-years-old his family was turfed out of their home and sent to live on the Cape Flats because of Apartheid.
He was a scrappy scrawny kid who got bullied the minute he moved to the rough outskirts of Cape Town. Within a year, he was in a reformatory for manslaughter. He told us the only way he could survive the brutal ganglands was to show everyone how tough he could be.
In the reformatories he gained an exceptional knowledge of English and Afrikaans, and a love of reading. However the system had him by that point. He then spent the next 24 years of his life in prison, moving from one institution to another, becoming known as one of the most dangerous gang leaders in the prison system. He has spent more time in solitary confinement than most prisoners ever will and was known to be one of the most dangerous people in the prison system for years
LBB > The gang culture in South Africa is still prevalent outside the prison. Why was Turner able to discuss his experiences in safety?
JV > He is one of very few people that can even get away with talking about prison and gang life the way he does in our film
Today he is completely reformed. Although he still holds great respect from all the gangs, he now spends all his time talking to kids about avoiding getting in to gangs. He is trying to invite positive change in the community around him which is not an easy task in an area riddled with gangs culture and alcoholism.
LBB > You described what happens within the prison system as ‘one of the most widely kept secrets within South African society’. How would you describe the general attitude in South Africa towards prison inmates and gang culture?
JV > South Africa - and the Western Cape particularly - pretends it doesn’t exist. Lavender Hill, in the Cape Flats, is less than 10kms from the most scenic tourist town in SA and is known to be the most dangerous square kilometre in the world!
There are no rehabilitation programmes for prisoners, and they are practically unemployable unless (according to Turner) they become bricklayers and tree-fellers. The minute someone sees prison tattoos they are deemed unfit for employment!
Turner often gets flown to various cities to talk to ex-inmates who are trying to fit back in to society. He told us that it’s a bleak picture out there.
There are no community halls or any kind of relief for children living in the Flats. Most of them either parents who are addicts and often not at home. It’s common for children to go to school with no food, and spend hours every day without adult supervision – hence the appeal to join the gangs at a very young age.
LBB > ‘Numbers’ is incredibly detailed, not only in capturing the visual texture of the incredible tattoos and the makeshift instruments used to create them, but also in terms of exploring the fascinating history and culture surrounding the tradition, including its complex relationship to racial injustice and masculinity. Where did the visual inspiration come from?
JV > The visual treatment was always there. Manuela was very specific as to what she wanted to capture and demonstrate in terms of the history of tattooing in South African prisons and the nature of the craft. Turner added all the rest. It was very unexpected. The fact that he trusted us enough to say what he did, has given this project an entirely different slant.
MG > I see the numbers tattoo culture as one of the most honest forms of tattoo history we have in our country and I wanted the visuals to mirror that.
LBB > Why did you think it was important to give Adams a platform to voice his own story and how do you think this is tackling the historical erasure of such voices?
MG> It never was my intention to have Turner as the spokesperson for this project but he was willing to share information. After meeting him and forming a relationship it became very clear to us that it’s a story to be told!
JV > On top of that, there is a misrepresentation of gang members and culture within the South African society. There is no denying that the gang life is incredibly brutal, but you also need to recognise the history and culture within the system. Giving Turner the platform to speak on what truly resonates with him, bridges that gap between the fantasied notions of gang life and the reality. This allows the viewer to learn and expand their understanding of what the gang represents.
Manuela and I hope that Numbers is the start of a bigger project that will create awareness around the subject, and challenge attitudes.
Editor: Benitha Vlok
Post Production / VFX
Colourist: Carol Groenewald
Production Company: Groundglass
Producer: Janette De Villiers
DOP: Johan Haupt
Directors: Benitha Vlok, Brendan McGinty, Antonia Steyn
Director: Manuela Gray, Janette De Villiers
Creative Director: Manuela Gray
Concept Artists: Manuela Gray
Category: Alcoholic drinks , Beers
Genre: Dialogue , Documentary , People , Photography , Storytelling