Otzi the Iceman is a 5,300-year-old mummy discovered two decades ago in the Alps. What makes this mummy peculiar is the fact that it’s the earliest recorded specimen of a tattooed human being. That’s how long the urge to express using the body as the canvas has captured the human imagination. As much an attention-stealer as they are a conversation starter, tattoos have also been a way to document myth and culture.
It is this pedigree of visual-dermal art form that led Bengaluru-based tattoo artist Simranh Kakkar on her creative journey, titled Tattoos: A Medium for Oral Storytelling. Keeping the tiger as her leitmotif, she explores oral storytelling traditions through tattooing.
The project 24 tiger tattoos on 24 people is captured in a two-second gif. Adding cultural gravitas to it are recordings of the tiger folktales narrated by the wearers in their mother tongue. The project was completed earlier this year.
The artist, who uses foliage and woodblock prints to create stencils for her tattoos, first became fascinated with tiger as a medium for psycho-cultural expression after a visit to a museum in March 2022. “At Bhopal’s Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, I discovered various animal motifs depicting the rich folk history of India. Between the representations of tigers, scorpions and snakes, I found tigers to be more relevant to folklore—everyone, at some point, has heard a tale that has a tiger in it,” says the artist.
The project’s journey for the 22-year-old started with Instagram where she looked for potential collaborators. The shortlisted candidates were then invited to her studio over a period of 12 days to get inked. As Kakkar would tattoo each person, he or she would share the folktale around a tiger, which was recorded in their voice.
“I wanted each story to travel and reach as many people as possible. I hope that each time
a person I inked is asked about it, they would share the folktale. It is my small way of keeping the storytelling traditions alive,” says Kakkar, adding that the frames flowing across 24 bodies also act as
a metaphor for how stories are passed from person to person.
Kakkar says putting together an animation in which every single frame was to be tattooed was the hardest. “Even if an animation looks beautiful as it plays, the individual frames might not be so. Frames that are, say, in the middle of a movement can look awkward. The clip is only two seconds long, but it took many trials and errors to reach a place where every single frame was tattoo-worthy.”
At present, the artist is toying with more project ideas that would bring alive long-lost traditions. “I want to do something around personal anecdotes and recipes,” she says. For Kakkar, an image is worth a thousand words, indeed.
(The entire project can be accessed on the artist’s website: ratattooille.com)