The Ink Link: Mark Grobbelaar – inspired by Japanese legends, customs and symbols

The Ink Link is an ongoing project at CN&CO that showcases the diversity of tattoos. One of the great things about a tattoo is that it goes against the commonly-held viewpoint that “what you see is what you get”. There’s a misguided belief in certain quarters that only “some” people get a tattoo. We are putting paid to that perception through the stories showcased in the Ink Link. If you or anyone you know would like to be featured, please get in contact with us.

Mark Grobbelaar is a Joburg-based self-defence coach with an impressive collection of ink, which wraps from his back, over his shoulder and onto his chest and left arm. He also has a few tats on his right arm. Each of them has a deep and meaningful significance.

“My background is karate,” he says. “I started karate when I was nine years old. I’ve got my sixth dan, and I’ve been doing karate pretty much my whole life.

“As a result, I’ve always been interested in the mythology of Japan and the Japanese ways.  I’ve also always loved tattoos. But in my early years I was strongly discouraged by my then mother-in-law from getting any. She said it was against the Bible. So, to keep the peace, I didn’t get any done.

“Once I got divorced, however, it was clearly something I wanted to do.”

The first thing Mark did was get his company logo tattooed on his arm. He founded his company, INPowered, to teach people of all ages, genders and faiths, how to protect themselves in physically threatening situations.

“The logo shows a woman in a defensive pose and is designed to look like a Japanese kanji symbol,” he explains. “These symbols make up of a system of Japanese writing, and I soon added some real kanji to my arm.”

These kanji spell out the word “choice”.

“I went to a lot of trouble to make sure they didn’t spell out chicken chop suey,” he says. “But seriously, what we teach at INPowered is all about making choices. When it comes to self-defence, there are only three things you can do in a hostile situation: fight, flight or freeze. If you don’t know all the options, how do you make a decision?

“And it’s important to remember it’s your decision, not somebody else’s. How you respond is your choice.”

By now, the tattoo bug had bitten.

Through a heavily tattooed friend in Cape Town, Mark was introduced to Derek Baker at the Metal Machine Tattoo Studio in Shortmarket Street. Derek did the “choice” kanji on Mark’s arm. Afterwards, Andre (the heavily tattooed Capetonian) encouraged Mark to do something more dramatic. Like a sleeve.

And so Mark got going on his Japanese-inspired sleeve, which soon spread over his shoulder and onto his back.

“Every time I went to Cape Town, I would visit Derek and get a bit more added,” he says.

The mega-tat now comprises a samurai, a sky dragon, koi fish, more kanji (the five maxims of karate: character, sincerity, effort, self-control and etiquette), water, clouds, and other Japanese symbols.

“The samurai tattoo signifies nobility, courage, bravery, honour, self-discipline, and respect,” he says. “A Samurai tattoo demonstrates your warrior spirit and how you overcome challenges in your own life.

“A koi fish tattoo typically symbolises strength, perseverance, and good fortune in Japanese culture. In traditional Japanese folklore, koi fish are known for their ability to swim upstream and overcome obstacles, representing resilience and determination.”

Mark says he’s not done yet.

“There are still bits that I want to get filled in or joined up,” he says. “It’s a work in progress. I love the stories that connect everything together. And I am glad I waited until later in life to get my tattoos done. I was able to plot a story behind them that links them to each other.”

The next leg of Mark’s tattoo journey is to get his children’s names tattooed down his sides in Japanese script.

“Plus, I have found the kanji for ‘reason’, which is also very profound,” he says.

It’s unlikely to end there, though.

“You know what they say about tattoos… it’s never your last one,” says Mark.


Check out some of the previous blogs we’ve posted on CN&CO about Mark and what he does through INPowered to help people feel confident to defend themselves:

I can do anything I put my mind to

Layers of safety… how is your knowledge and awareness?

Self-defence course… fact or myth?

Once-off measures and good daily habits

Colin is our resident wordsmith. He can write absolutely anything and loves to read, too. He even has his own book club.