Wearing his art on his sleeve
Amid the low vibration of tattoo guns, Malcolm “Mully” Hilton crouches over a teenager who is having a portrait of his brother etched on his back.
In his Umhlanga Rocks studio, a barefoot and shirtless Hilton skilfully guides the pulsating needle over carefully traced lines with a gloved hand while his dog Flame sleeps on the couch nearby.
With more than 20 years of experience, this self-taught tattoo master has become one of South Africa’s foremost body artists, with celebrity clientele.
Hilton’s rise is a colourful journey, much like the tapestry that covers his skin.
“I went to Kearsney College, and check what a Kearsney boy ends up looking like now,” he says showing off his ink-covered arms.
He laughs as he admits to also attending Our Lady of Fatima Convent School for girls, when it still accepted boys in its early years.
“I did my army service for two years and after I was finished I came back to Durban and was just messing around doing odd jobs. I still wasn’t keen on tattooing. I thought that anyone who had one was a bit of scumbag,” Hilton admits.
Chasing the surf around the world and doing menial jobs to stay afloat, Hilton said that because he could draw, his friends strong-armed him into tattooing them. “My friends forced me into it because I could draw. They would want tattoos and I would design them for the guys. Eventually I ordered a tattoo gun from America and that is how I got into it. The first one I did was a small piece on a guy’s leg and it was terrible. The second one worked out well and that’s when I thought that I was on to something,” he said.
Doing a range of jobs, including time as an orderly at a hospital and a commercial fisherman, Hilton ended up in Hawaii. “I started tattooing the locals. I cornered the market. All the locals loved me because I could tattoo them and they hated all the other white guys. In our little camp they would come in at night and slice up everyone’s tents except mine,” he said.
“In 1995 I came back to South Africa and tried to open up a couple of little tattoo shops around Durban. That didn’t pan out and I was working from home. About 12 years ago I opened my current shop and now things are pumping,” Hilton added.
The father of three said rendering designs on people’s skin was a huge responsibility.
“I love what I’m doing. Sometimes it gets a bit tiring because I have been doing it for 20 years, but it still makes me happy. For a guy to come to you with all his ideas and knowing that he’s been waiting years to do this… it is quite a responsibility to take that on and properly represent what he wants permanently on his body. It is something I take seriously,” he said.
“Tattoos always had a negative connotation and in those days it was never art, it was just a mark on your skin you would see on sailors and drunkards.
“Now it’s more a medium for artists to express themselves; the whole scene has changed a lot. Some artists use water colours and I use a tattoo gun. Wearing your art is cool.
“It is not like a painting that you hang on a wall and glimpse every now and then. Tattoos are carried with you, always on display,” he added.
Hilton believes tattoos have become more socially acceptable, but will never be completely separated from social stigma.
“Tattoos are not for everyone and not everyone is going to love them, but it has lost a lot of its stigma. Every day I get asked what I’m going to do when I’m old. It’s not like you’re going to start a modelling career at 75.”
In another impressive first, Hilton has launched a tattoo-inspired clothing line, Bloodline, which has been picked up by major retail outlets across the country and abroad.
When quizzed on whether he could do a normal office job, Hilton responds with a confident, “Hell no!”