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by jenna romaine

photos by aja monet

“Hey, this is Vic Mensa.” Even though it’s barely 10 minutes after the scheduled start time for our interview, Mensa is sincerely apologetic for his tardiness. It’s a Friday afternoon in January and he’s in Chicago, his hometown where he still resides. “I just left the mosque,” he explains as a car door beeps. “I’ve been studying and learning about Islam for a while now.”

Much like his family, his culture and his music, Mensa’s beliefs and life philosophy, though ever-evolving, act as the cornerstone of who he is. Perhaps that’s why so much of it is bared for all to see, inked on his skin, starting with his very first tattoo. His inaugural ink is a black panther with the words “Free Huey” above it along his left shoulder, a reference to the revolutionary Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton.

“I was first being politicized, and my big sister Aja Monet—she’s a brilliant poet from New York City—gave me Malcom X’s autobiography, and she gave me Huey P. Newton’s autobiography named ‘Revolutionary Suicide,’” Mensa says. “And Huey P.’s entire movement philosophy really related to me as a slightly young Black man in America trying to understand the world and my place in it.”

The Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist got the tattoo when he was 16 in an apartment building “somewhere in the hood” on the West Side of Chicago. It isn’t anatomically correct in reference to the official Black Panther Party logo, but Mensa likes that, reasoning that’s why it has “so much character.”

He can even remember the moment, after months of successfully concealing it from his mother, when he finally got caught. “One day I was outside on the block with all the guys and saw a storm cloud overhead,” says Mensa. “So me and my man, we rode off, I jumped on the pegs of his bike and we sped back … toward 47th and Woodlawn, and right when we got two blocks from home it just started pouring. I’m sprinting, and when I got home I got to the porch and I just took my shirt off because it was soaked. I went inside and my mom was like, ‘What the fuck is that?!’ [laughs]”

His mom may have been a little pissed, but it didn’t stop him from continuing to get tattooed, though he began to do so with more professional artists and in proper shops for the most part.

When he was 17, Mensa followed up the panther tattoo by getting a bright red “Save Money” logo on his left arm, inked by Nick Colella, now at Great Lakes Tattoo in the city. “I learned about him from some of my big homies,” Mensa says. “He’s tatted all of them, like Vic Lloyd, in Chicago. He did this brilliant joint for Brian Merritt, owner of Sir & Madame, a Chicago clothing brand.”

Mensa still has a few “wayward” tattoos that he thinks he’ll eventually decide to cover up, going against the anti-cover-up mindset he’d had for much of his life. “My ideology was that this represents a point of time in my life,” he says of his thought process.

“But now I have a different philosophy of life, and so some of my tattoos that are more morbid and reference death and negativity—I’m covering them up, because I don’t believe in that anymore. It’s an ever-changing reality.”

Mensa acknowledged that some things, such as the skull and crossbones, are somewhat embedded in “our culture as tattoo enthusiasts,” but no longer align with his current worldview. “I feel like putting those messages, living with those messages on my skin, is attracting those things to me,” Mensa explains, “when now I’m focused on attracting peace, abundance and joy.”

However, there is one specific tattoo that blurs the lines of life and death that Mensa has no intentions of purging: it reads, “Danger: High Voltage.”

“I was shocked by 15,000 volts of electricity when I was 17, and I fell from a bridge about 30 feet,” Mensa says, almost as though he can’t believe it himself. “When I first got shocked, my entire arm was charred. There was an entrance wound on my forearm and an exit wound on my elbow where the current of electricity came in and left.”

It’s a brush with death that only gave him a better appreciation for life. “Had it traveled up my arm and to my heart, it would have stopped my heart,” he says. “That wasn’t Allah’s plan for me.”

Though grateful to be alive, in the aftermath Mensa was initially hesitant to embrace a new permanent fixture emblazoned on his skin. “At first I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m gonna need to cover this because it’s so ugly,’” Mensa says of the scarring he was left with. “But now I really like it.”

He didn’t end up tattooing over the scar, instead deciding to ink the voltage sign just above it, although he does have plans to eventually incorporate part of it into a future piece. 

“I have actually wanted to, on my elbow, build a tattoo around it by this Chicago artist named Ryan Flaherty,” Mensa says. “He is easily one of the most talented artists I’ve ever come across, and he does these amazing galaxy and outer space tattoos. And my scar kind of looks like a planet or a nebula or something, so I want him to build an outer space-scape around it.”

Mensa already has a few pieces by Flaherty, one being a fighter jet across his chest, because Mensa was born on D-Day. Another is an intricate Ghanaian flag on Mensa’s shoulder, representative of his Ghanaian culture. “It’s unlike [other] flag tattoos I’ve seen because he did it in brilliant detail,” Mensa says, “so the wind flowing through the flag, you can see the ripples and the depth of motion of the flag.”

Right above the flag is an original Vodun fetish doll. “The West African Vodun is the original voodoo that was transported through the Middle Passage to Louisiana and Haiti,” Mensa says. “In my culture—I come from Ewe, that’s a tribe that exists across West Africa—the Vodun is the traditional religion that my grandfather practiced.”

Mensa’s father is from Ghana, and he frequently visits the country to spend time with friends and family, its genesis palpably weaved into his music. He mentions the future possibility of dabbling with the art of scarification.

“Many African cultures do scarification, so I’ve been thinking about a space that I have open on my shoulder to be a space to do some traditional scarification,” Mensa says. Though he’s unsure of the exact style he’d want to pursue, he’s adamant he’ll most likely travel to Africa to have it done when the timing is right.

Having just returned from spending Christmas and New Years in Ghana, it remains fresh on his mind as he points out an additional tattoo. He also got this one done in Chicago, another piece with Ghanaian roots.

Just as Mensa continues to reference his cultural roots, his home in Chicago, or the people who have helped and influenced him along the way, he takes special care to highlight the artist behind every tattoo mentioned, offering a litany of names down to their spellings, social media handles and last known shops they worked at. “I appreciate you taking the time to speak to me and let me shout out my friends. I’m excited for them to see this, too,” Mensa says. He doesn’t feel that they, or tattoo artists in general, “always get [enough] credit for their art. And it’s a service.”

And that’s how he highlights tattoo artist Kyle Butler next.

“He’s one of my favorite artists,” says Mensa. “I like him as a person, and the things stylistically that he’s into align with the things I’m into. I love that he’s a student of the game.”

Mensa was drawn to Butler upon entering his then-shop, described at the time as a private studio where the walls were adorned with “tattoo history, flash from Japan, and old Americana stuff.” Walls of beginnings, growth, collaboration and evolution. “He did this dope-ass tattoo for me that I have on my ribs,” says Mensa. “It’s a poster of a Jamaican movie called ‘Rockers.’”

It isn’t a portrait portrayal of the movie’s poster. Instead, it’s part of a replication done by Ghanaian artists through a Chicago-based gallery called Deadly Prey Gallery that Butler introduced him to. “These Ghanaian artists reimagine movie posters, a lot of American stuff,” Mensa says, “but they reimagined these movie posters and, like, it’s weird, it’s like this rock ’n’ roll and it’s really gory, this gory West African style.”

A cursory search of the gallery’s website verifies this, featuring a reimagined poster for “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” if it were a horror film, boasting an explosion, Bueller’s sister Jeanie holding a knife to his throat, and multiple firearms in impeccable detail.

The piece Butler created for Mensa of the reimagined “Rockers” poster bears the movie’s name beneath a bold outline of Jamaican drummer Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace on his vintage Honda motorcycle among pops of blue, green, red and yellow.

The combination of artistic styles is something that resonates with Mensa. This can be seen most clearly in the tattoo spanning his entire back. The tattoo takes elements of traditional Japanese tattooing and mixes them with Chicano black-and-grey elements.

He has the outline done, and has for about four years, but he still needs to get it filled. “The back hurts so much! When I first got the outline in, like, 2018, I couldn’t get tattoos for, like, two years,” he says laughing. “Just the feeling of that needle on my spine… I just wasn’t ready for it!”

He’s having it done by Craig Jackman, an artist and person he reveres. “He’s an OG, has been tattooing for almost 40 years,” Mensa says, “so he’s seen the evolution of tattoo culture.”

What he engrains in his skin differs in style and subject matter, reflecting his dynamism. “I’ll have a Malcolm X or a Huey P. Newton or Assata Shakur, but I’ll also have The Clash and The Rolling Stones,” he says.

Mensa mirrors this blending of styles and evolution in his music influences. Even as a hip-hop artist, his inspiration emanates from a variety of artists and genres.

“I’m obviously a hip-hop artist but I’m very inspired by rock ‘n’ roll music, I’m inspired by punk music, I’m inspired by African music, Afrobeat music, highlife music (which began in Ghana in the late 19th century), I like alternative, I’m inspired by soul,” Mensa says.

He bears Nirvana’s infamous smiley face logo, one of his favorite bands growing up and a vocalized influence, inked on the inside of his right forearm. “I listen to everything,” Mensa says. “I’m a student of music, and I’m a student of art.”

His latest release, March 2021’s EP “I Tape,” was lauded for its stylistic versatility, enhanced by raw, honest and, at times, politically vitalized lyrics. Mensa covered a spectrum of heavy-hitting subject matter from self-reflection on his own life and mental health to examining prison reform and Black Lives Matter.

“I’m making music 24/7, always making music,” Mensa says of his process. “I have a lot of music in the chamber right now, so I’m just putting it together, finishing it.”

It will be ready this year, but not just yet. Music is sacred to Mensa, and he wants it to be just right in order to give an accurate portrayal of what he’s trying to convey. “I like to take the time to make sure everything I’m putting out feels representative of what I would say,” he says, “what I want to sound like and how good I want it to be.”

If his last EP was darker, one of introspection and an examination of society at large, Mensa has a slightly different approach to the music he’s working on. “Sonically, there’s a lot of soul, there’s rock ‘n’ roll, there’s highlife, but under the umbrella of hip hop,” he says. “I think the vibe, the energy, the theme is one of redemption.”

It is coming full circle, an all-encompassing representation of his “ever-changing reality” and evolution. Like the tattoos he may cover up to rework into something bigger, a more accurate representation that mirrors his own philosophies, Vic Mensa is putting into the world everything he hopes will radiate back.