CHENNAI: As the rain pitterpattered on the roof and windows, the steady hand of the tattoo artist moved in a rhythmic pace, the whirring of the machine in her hand writing over the melody of the AR Rahman playlist in the background — the mood was perfectly ambient as I watched my skin turn into a canvas. Two years ago, sitting in the cosy house of tattoo artist Keerthana, in Thirumangalam, I was a bundle of nerves. After days of brainstorming ideas, designs, symbols and their interpretations, the independent artist, who has been in the trade for over three years, wielded the sterilised tattoo machine to permanently etch a fragment of memory on my forearm.
“This profession gives me joy. I want to be a travelling tattoo artist. I want to meet new people every day and make a mark in their lives, quite literally. I’ll be moving soon!” she smiled, optimistic about the future, as she manoeuvred the needle, inch by inch. As a happy client, I promised that I’d visit her whenever I dared to get inked again. A few months later, she’d started living her dream. Life was all about travel, tattoos and making the lives of people a little more aesthetic and adventurous. This was until the coronavirus outbreak.
“Even before the lockdown was implemented, I stopped taking appointments. Since tattooing involves physical contact and being in proximity to the client, I didn’t want to risk the health and safety of my client, or me. I haven’t tattooed anyone since then,” shares the professional, whose business, like hundreds of tattoo artists in the country, has been interrupted by the pandemic. As soon as the lockdown was announced, Keerthana moved to Auroville, unaware that it would last more than the said 21-days. “Initially, it was good and felt like a vacation. But eventually, in the absence of work, I had episodes of depression where I felt worthless and useless fuelled by fear of the future of my industry, and my life itself. As an entrepreneur and a travelling tattoo artist, my life was disrupted altogether,” she opens up.
Impact on income
With business plummeting, most artists and tattoo parlours, have even dried up their reserves. “I have been living on my savings since the lockdown, some of which I had kept aside for the studio that I wanted to open in the future. With no inflow of cash, everything does seem scary, but I’m living a minimalistic life, and have a supportive partner who helps me cope with this situation,” she says. But not everyone has been able to tide through these rough seas.
The industry, which is estimated to generate Rs 20,000 crore every year, has perpetually lacked a regulatory body to monitor its hygiene practices. The pandemic has only kindled questions on safety and risk of contamination, pushing several small-time parlours to pull their shutters down. “I opened a tattoo parlour in 2017 because I was passionate about it. I used to earn anything betweenRs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 per month, enough to pay my house rent and take care of my family. But now, I don’t have the money even for my essentials.
How can I afford PPE kits or other safety equipment? I might soon join one of the food aggregators to support my family,” laments Rajeev*, a tattoo artist and resident of Virugambakkam, who had to shut shop earlier last month. The novel coronavirus has sent a shockwave across the tattoo industry, affecting even those who have had big business in the past.
“The current scenario has pressed pause on our trade. Earlier, we used to do three to four tattoos a day and around 14-15 on a weekend. Now, it’s gone down to a mere one or two per day, occasionally. I am very specific that not more than one artist works on the premises and only one/two customers are allowed at a time. Since the series of lockdowns and the eventual relaxations, we have been rethinking the way we run business. From ensuring 100 per cent safety, sanitisation, wearing face shields, gloves and masks, providing a kit to our client — we have been working on it. We are also considering procuring PPE kits. But with a mandate that air-conditioning is not permitted in closed spaces, wearing a PPE kit might make the artist feel extremely uncomfortable. For an artist, especially while working on someone’s body, it is necessary to feel relaxed. We have to think from all sides,” says Naveen Nandakumar of Irezumi, the city’s first professional tattoo parlour that opened its doors in 2006.
Kunal Solanki, a tattoo artist who runs a studio in Purasaiwalkam, has also been at the receiving end of the horrors of the coronavirus. “I have been running my business for eight years now and never have I seen such losses. Since I live in an area surrounded by containment zones, I also have to be mindful of my safety and that of my customers. So, even if I receive an enquiry, I ensure I get a background check done. If the client is from a containment zone, I advise them to stay put.
After all, lives are more important,” says the artist, who has been able to generate some income during the lockdown period by selling tattoo equipment, beginner kits and other tools to artists and studios, based on the requirement. “This has kept me going. Without opening my studio I can perhaps manage for another two-three months. After that, everything seems uncertain,” says the distributor. For Sekar of Yantra Tattoos, who recently moved his nine-year-old studio to a bigger and spruced-up space, paying an exorbitant rent during such a trying time has him worried.
But like Kunal, despite a slump in the tattooing business, being able to distribute tattoo equipment to artists in need, has become an alternative source of income. “In the past three months, I have been able to push through because of the lukewarm sales of kits and equipment. But going forward, it feels like it might get tough and I might have to move back to a smaller space,” he shares, adding that from receiving a footfall of 10-15 a week, the business has gone down to three per month.
Despite the scare and the threat that the virus has been posing, these artists have been receiving enquiries and tattoo requests, some even bizarre, from prospective clients. “I received a request from someone who didn’t really care about the COVID-19 situation and wanted to get a tattoo depicting sex because he loved sex. I also received a bunch of requests from people who mentioned that they have waited too long for a tattoo and realised during the lockdown that life is too short to live without any ink on their skin.
I agree. Getting a tattoo is something very exciting and spiritual, and it changes your life in more than one way. I believe people are craving for an adrenaline rush and a break from the bland quarantine life that the pandemic has brought upon us. But we have mutually agreed that we would only make an appointment once we are sure that the virus is contained or when a vaccine is found!” says Keerthana.
Krish of InkPulse, a popular tattoo studio with outlets in Coimbatore and Chennai, says he has closed his studio and moved to a place where he can both live and work. “This will enable me to provide better safety and also help cut down my cost. We have procured PPE suits, disposable aprons, gloves and masks. But we hardly have any footfall. Customers are interested, want to get tattoos done but are wary of their safety. They want to get it done after the situation stabilises,” he says, adding that he can only sustain himself for another three months without any business.
For artists like Keerthana, these testing times have given them an opportunity to rise to the occasion, find a purpose and do their bit to help those affected by the pandemic. “A month ago, a couple of my friends from school and I started a charity to help the migrant workers and people affected by the pandemic. We started a page called Artblurt on Instagram, where we print various artworks that have been donated to us by generous artists, and sell them,” she explains.
The profits, in its entirety, go to uandi.org.in, a not-for-profit. So far, Artblurt has raised and donated Rs 20,000 and aims to continue until the COVID-19 situation significantly fades. “I created a purpose for myself during these times, devoting my time to something that I care about; implementing the concept of ‘art for a cause’ and proving to myself that art can help and change lives. I’m very positive that things will go back to normal. I personally expect this to last for another six months, but no longer than that. If it does, well, it’s a question of the future, and right now I think the world needs positivity and wishful thinking that might have an effect,” she says. Amen to that!
Keerthana of *Dreaminc Tattoos.* (Insta handle @ dreaminc_tattoos)