Karthik Sundaram had just turned 20 when he was handed a photograph of the girl he was to wed. He had not met her; both families had arranged the match and the wedding date. Blushing with happiness and armed with the photograph, he walked down Chennai’s Marina Beach to where a group of gypsies sold beads. He gave them a paper with ‘Akila’ written on it. Half an hour later, he walked home with the letters tattooed on his chest. “I got her name inked in English as nobody in my family was familiar with the language. Even if I got caught, I could say it was a fashion symbol,” laughs Karthik, who works as a chauffeur. Now 34, he got his tattoo in 2002, and recollects that the gypsies had a battery-operated needle, which they used.
“If he had asked permission, his parents would not have allowed it. It cost only `51, but he came down with a fever for the next one month. His mother said it was due to the tattoo,” says Akila, 33, now his wife.
“Tattoos have evolved to become a personal form of expression,” explains Pramod Sagar of Black Art studio in Fort Kochi, Kerala. He says that parents are gifting children a ‘tattoo voucher’ for their birthdays. “Couple tattoos and group tattoos are also in vogue now. India has surpassed the phase of tattoos being a fashion statement. People want to represent who they are through their tattoos; so a lot of thought and discussion go into choosing the right design,” he adds.
Body art has received overwhelming support in the urban milieu. That’s probably why over 300 Indian and 30 international tattoo artists will participate in the 4th India International Tattoo Convention (IITC) in November in Faridabad in the National Capital Region to discuss, promote and encourage Indian tattoo art. Bharat Suneja, 43, founder of IITC, says that the convention is an opportunity to learn the best practices. “It is a way to promote Indian tattoo art and artists,” explains the tattoo artist, who runs a tattoo equipment supply business, which he started after seeing an ad of a convention abroad. “In India, there are no rules for tattooing, nor is there an association or governing body for the tattoo industry,” he says.
Akila, who is from Yembal village near Pudukkottai in, Tamil Nadu, admits that tattoos were common in her village. “Gyspies would visit the village during temple festivals, and people would get tattooed. My grandmother had a peacock inked on her back; names and kolams were more common,” she says. “I remember them singing while tattooing. Once complete, we had to give them a bag of grains, a sari and `15.” As she grew up in different parts of Tamil Nadu, Akila was not expected to get inked like other girls in her village; nor was she interested.
“Not only in the villages of Tamil Nadu, even in Gujarat and Rajasthan, men and women got inked to reveal the tribe they belonged to,” says Vikas Malani, 35, and Micky Malani, 33, founders of Body Canvas Tattoos, Mumbai, which specialises in body art canvas. “Men would generally carry a religious symbol or name. Some of the common ones included inverted Vs, earth symbols like the sun, moon and stars, dots and vines. These were tattooed especially on the hands,” says Micky. “Some women tattooed plant symbols, which signified fertility, productivity and strength. Many women had twin gazelles on their chin, which was in reference to their beauty and grace. Tattoos were mostly made from the lip to chin area so that sweetness came out of women every time they spoke. That’s rare to find today.”
Mo Naga, founder of Headhunters Ink in Delhi, started tattooing in 2004. “There were very few studios in India then, but today, there are more than 15,000 tattoo artists,” says the 30-year-old. Mo was one of the three Indians featured in the World Atlas of Tattoos published by the Yale University Press in 2015. He believes that studios in the Indian metros can compete with their international counterparts in terms of work and earnings.
“Our tattoo industry is at its nascent stage, but is rapidly catching up in skills. People still think of tattoos as a foreign culture, but India is known as the country with the most diverse tattoo traditions in the world,” explains Mo, who is researching, documenting and reviving traditional tattoo art of the Nagas and the neighbouring tribes in Northeast India.
“Every artist has their individual style. It doesn’t matter what that is, what matters is how good you’re at it,” says Manjeet Singh, 39, who also made it to the list of 100 in the World Atlas of Tattoos. Founder of Manjeet Tattooz in Delhi, he believes that there is a lot of talent and the tattoo industry is booming. According to Manjeet, events such as IITC provide experience and exposure to all the people connected with tattooing.
Arjun Singh, associate faculty at Fashion Design Department in Footwear Design and Development Institute, Noida, Uttar Pradesh, heard several stories about the Naga tribe and tattoo rituals from Mo, which inspired him to get a tribal tattoo on his back that represents a leader of warriors, inspired by stories from the Lotha tribe in Nagaland. “For me, a tattoo represents the soul of a person,” says Arjun, who has three other tattoos.
Sujata Ramanathan, retired professor of Sociology in Stella Maris College, Chennai, says, “Tattooing had several functions earlier. It certainly was not designed for any aesthetic value but more as an establishment of identity.” She explains that tattooists belonged to an ethnic community, and their trade secrets were well-guarded and passed down through their clan. “The choice of design was chosen by the community and not by individuals, based on the achievements and traits of the person,” she says.
Bengaluru’s Skin Deep Studio’s Madan Varadarajan, 31, and Raj Gopalan, 24, believe that there has been a surge in tattoo culture over the last five years. “Younger people are moving beyond tigers and other animals. Geometric designs are in fashion now. So we do a mix of geometrics and Indian manadals (geometric representations of spiritual beliefs). It started in Europe, and has caught up in India. It’s fashion-forward and borrows a little bit from our past,” says Madan.
Naveen Kumar was the first one to start a tattoo studio, Irezumi, in Chennai in 2006. “Nowadays, a lot of people get tattooed on their birthdays or New Year,” says the 35-year-old. “From names to religious symbols, the younger generation is opting for dots and mandala influenced designs.”
Naveen has clients whose parents encourage them to get tattooed. “Wives have also brought their husbands to get inked,” he says with a smile and agrees that though many body art studios are opening in India, an equal number are shutting down. “It is important to check if the tattoo studio is clean, starting from gloves to needles, ensure only new pieces are used and disposed of properly after use, otherwise there is a possibility of cross-contamination,” explains Naveen, who points out that there is no formal organisation to oversee the tattoo business in India.
Bharat adds, “It is very easy to set up a tattoo studio in India. No approvals nor certification are required, neither is any apprenticeship compulsory. If you have the knowledge of art, you can start a tattoo studio.”
Vikas believes that conventions are a great platform to engage with the community and learn different styles and genres. “The focus is on the growth of the tattoo industry, educating and encouraging new artists and fostering an environment of knowledge,” he says.
Vikram Mehndiratta, founder of Tattoos by Vikram studio in Hyderabad, also stresses the need of a governing body to monitor the Indian body art industry. “Cover-ups are more expensive than getting a new tattoo, often starting at `6,500 for one of approximately 3x2cm size.” He gets a lot of such requests, mostly involving covering a name. “When you are selecting an artist, look out for clean line, opaque fillings and consistent shading. You can easily differentiate a good tattoo from a bad tattoo if the lines are shaky, and it has breaks when it heals,” he says.
Although all over the world tattoo artists charge by hourly rates, most studios in India charge per size—anywhere from `1,500 to `2,500 for first square inch and `500 to `1,500 for every additional inch. Vikram says that for specialised work like portraits, 3D and realistic art, the price starts at `10,000. The price also depends on how many sessions it takes to do that art piece.
The most favoured spots for body art are hands, wrists and forearms, with women also preferring the upper back, abdomen, neck and ankles.
“People in the late 20s are more mature, and they know what they want. They are also willing to listen to suggestions. The art of tattoo is a collective work. You give me some ideas, and we will work around it,” he says.
With celebrities flaunting their body art, tattoos are seen as a “cool thing”. “Girls have asked me for a Priyanka Chopra tattoo,” he says, adding that celebrities have played a pivotal role in increasing the demand for tattoos.
All tattooists say that most customers come back to get a new tattoo or to correct an existing one. “Sometimes we get repeat customers at Irezumi to get inked with something that is symbolic of their experience in that year,” explains Naveen.
“There are two things that people think of when deciding to get inked, pain and price,” says Sukanya Roy, 24, founder of tattoo studio Ink’dom in Kolkata. Sukanya has been cautious in her pricing; her designs start from `500. She only uses imported inks such as Bloodline, Intenze and Eternal Colours , all from the US.
Mo Naga also says that some tattoos were believed to possess magical powers, and some were done for medicinal purposes. Research reveals that some dyes included a mix of cow or human milk, soot, betel leaf juice and turmeric, and some were made with local herbs. Every artist back then had their own recipe for ink; black and red were available many decades ago. Today there is a wide variety of ink choices, including organic inks. Apart from the usual indigo blue, red is a popular colour too. Purple, green, orange and blue are some other colours often chosen. White is used in some cases for highlighting purposes.
Visual artist Anil Gaikwad in Bhopal explains that tattoos have natural healing properties. Commissioned to help set up artifacts for the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum, Gaikwad and team travelled across 20 districts, visiting over 70 villages. They met the Baiga tribe, whose men and women had tattoos all over their bodies. “They have full body tattoos that were used as a means to cover their body; even today you can see a few of the tribal people with minimal clothing or none,” says the 46-year-old. “By tradition, they have the same pattern, and used several needles and rope to ink a person. Being an artist, I sit for long hours to paint and developed a back which needed surgery. I told a Baiga tribe member of this pain, and he said a tattoo would help. Using seven needles tied with a rope, he inked dots on certain points of my arm. The pain lessened after that.”
Regardless of where it is, a tattoo reflects a person’s life, personality and the things they deeply care for. Kolkata’s Neha Roy, 28, and Sourya Chakraborty, 23, took a conscious decision to get the same tattoo on either sides of their arms. The partners worked on a design and showed it to Sukanya, who inked them. A design that depicts their initials ‘N’ and ‘S’ overlapping was chosen to display their love for each other. “It’s a reflection of our togetherness and support for each other,” says Neha.
Similar to Karthik and Akila, this is another story of love tattooed in ink, forever.
With inputs from Saumesh Thimbath, Barkha Kumari & Ayesha Singh