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India Ink: Meet the indie tattoo artists giving Indian folk and indigenous art a new canvas

From Dori embroidery to Patachitra art, Kolam designs to neo-Naga tribal tattoos, India’s growing tribe of alternative tattoo artists are spotlighting India’s rich heritage on the human body.

September 11, 2022 / 12:57 PM IST
Tattoos by Utsavi Jhaveri (BorderLine Tattoos) and Mo Naga (Headhunters Ink), respectively. Ever more artists and patrons now seek out self-expression in needle, ink and motifs.

Tattoos by Utsavi Jhaveri (BorderLine Tattoos) and Mo Naga (Headhunters Ink), respectively. Ever more artists and patrons now seek out self-expression in needle, ink and motifs.

The thing that Utsavi Jhaveri associates most strongly with her grandmother is her deep love for knitting and embroidery. When she passed away about two years ago, Jhaveri stumbled upon a treasure trove of her belongings – embroidered bags, saris, drapes and anything else that could be put under the needle. “My grandfather would come up with the designs, and she’d add the threadwork on top,” Jhaveri recalls. “It was their way of bonding.”

A lot of this featured Dori embroidery – involving a strong thread made of silk and cotton, and whose origins can be traced back to the Mughal era.

Jhaveri, who’d recently returned from Los Angeles and begun her (self-taught) journey with tattooing, was drawn to this. In LA, while she’d been working as a copywriter, she’d “gravitated towards the ‘ignorant’ trend of tattoos - the doodle style of tattoos that were somewhat flippant, ironic, unserious, silly - but at the same time, heavily influenced by linework. I saw a lot of this happening in LA and began with it myself.”

Processed with VSCO with c8 preset By Borderline Tattoos

Rediscovering her grandmother’s Dori compositions brought Jhaveri something of an epiphany. “I started looking into different styles of embroidering. Kantha from Bengal to Rabari from Kutch: Embroidery is a huge part of South Asian culture. I found it so interesting that both embroidery and tattooing required needles. I wondered: if I changed the medium, could I still be a needlework artist?”

Since then, with her work avatar as Borderline Tattoos (@border.line.tattoos), Jhaveri hasn’t only made Dori tattoos popular, she’s also deepened her engagement with other folk forms as well. A recent collaboration with the designer-illustrator Sudarshan Shaw saw her incorporate his designs – an exploration of folk art and India’s biodiversity – into her tattoo work. She has found inspiration in Kalighat paintings, the Maharashtrian folk art form of Chitrakathi, and Gond from Madhya Pradesh, for her popular “Jaanwar” collections.

Jhaveri isn’t the only one. India’s alternative tattooing culture has blown up in the past three years as the tattoo’s street cred has evolved way beyond a symbol of rebellion or a statement of style. Ever more artists and patrons now seek out self-expression in needle, ink and motifs that are individualistic, unique and more personal; as carriers of beauty, memory and stories.

Hand poke tattoos – actually the original form of tattooing by hand, before machines came through – are la mode. The ‘ignorant’ tattoo remains as trendy as constellations. While India’s rich history of tattoo art itself is being tapped into; a small but growing tribe of tattoo artists is diving deep into India’s cultural and natural heritage for inspiration.

Take Arjel Amit (@bluebloodtreetattoo), who claims to be “India’s first Gond tribal tattoo artist”, in his Instagram bio. Of Nepali descent, Amit has spent years in the company of tribal artists (also the Baigas from Madhya Pradesh) to learn the craft and the significance of their motifs. A hand poke tattoo artist, he has even fashioned his own hand-made wooden ‘godhana’ yantra, with which he carves dense and elaborate, nature-inspired metaphors for harmony, balance and all that is worth aspiring to in the world.

Another hand-poke tattoo artist of note is Shomil Shah (@shlo_poke). Based in Mumbai, but originally from London, Shah’s own practice focuses on trajva, the ‘jewellery tattoos’ of the Mer and Rabari tribes of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Ornamental in essence, and minimalistic in design, Shah’s trajva are dot-and-line motifs inspired by all things cosmological and earth-bound. Earlier this May, Shah brought out a godhna artist from the Badni tribe of Madhya Pradesh to join him in Bangalore on tour. On the side, he collects stories of traditional and indigenous tattoos from around the Subcontinent on the Instagram page India Ink Archive.

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Simranh Kakkar of Ratattooille (@ratattooille_) also prioritises archiving, but with a twist. An artist, animator and storyteller from Delhi, she stumbled upon tattooing in 2020 and hasn’t looked back ever since. She considers tattoos to be vehicles of oral history, as evidenced in a recent project featuring “an animated loop of a tiger,” she writes, “the frames of which I have tattooed across different bodies. In exchange for the tattoo, the wearers told me a folktale related to a tiger that they grew up with, in their own mother tongue.”

All of these are documented on her website, audio tracks complimented by translations of the stories, and a stunning tiger animation, prowling across the upper arms of several humans. For her next project, Kakkar is looking at the mudras and facial expressions found in Bharatanatyam.

While Delhi-based stick-and-poke artist Aaradhya (@PokesByRebel) has found inspiration in the Pattachitra wall art she crosses on her way to work every day for a flash sheet of fish tattoos; Kullu-based Krishna (@dreaminc_tattoos) has drafted a kolam or two on her clients – a south Indian mandala motif that stands of protection. A lot of these artists are self-taught in the craft of wielding needles, and driven by a desire to uncover, protect and build upon the bounty of the art around us.

This impulse is particularly strong for Mo Naga (@headhuntersink), among India’s most respected tattoo artists today. Over a decade ago, the Manipur-based artist trained at NIFT and felt drawn to the weaves of India. But also, while still in college, to tattooing as an art form, where he could incorporate the design sensibilities that most influenced him. After a few years of exploring tattoo culture, almost as a hobby, he returned home to have his eyes opened to the rich tattooing traditions of the Naga tribes of his homeland.

Documenting vanishing tattoo tradition at Laruri Village, Phek district, Nagaland. Documenting vanishing tattoo tradition at Laruri Village, Phek district, Nagaland.

Mo Naga spent the better part of last decade touring the north-eastern states, living in villages, understanding the meanings of tattoos, methods of drafting tools from bamboo thorns and pigments from the flora of the region, techniques such as the Konyak style of tattooing, as well as the historical reasons why Naga tattoos are a cultural artefact on the verge of extinction.

Whatever Mo Naga has learned has been evolved into what he calls neo-Naga tattoos: Where the styles are borrowed in part, not exported as a whole, as their meanings remain sacrosanct to the tribes that developed them. He remains wary of cultural co-option especially, because tattooing in Naga culture is a marker of identity.

“I don’t talk too much about what I have discovered in my studies and travels over the past decade, we need to be careful and sensitive with the way we put out this information into the world,” he says. To encourage the art form and its practitioners, Mo Naga has kickstarted an ambitious project for a physical space, the Godhna Gram in Manipur; eventually, perhaps, he’ll put out a coffee table book documenting this culture.

This is tricky terrain, but Jhaveri also underlines the need to do what she and tattoo artists like her are doing – but ethically. “Tattooing is a key income generator for a lot of these people who, let’s face it, often do not come from places of privilege.” She insists that the endeavour has to be to protect these art forms and help the artists behind them; not repackage and sell it to an urban, Western audience who might think of it as ‘cool’ and ‘exotic’. “For each of these folk art forms, I’ve tried to explore in depth. I’ve also created literature around it, and when people ask about them, I try to introduce them to the original art forms that have inspired them.”

Lately, Jhaveri has been working with Warli artists from Maharashtra to come up with a sheet or two of flash tattoos “where the artist studies the human anatomy and composes designs based on different placements. This way, the artist is aware of the process and I’m not picking things off the Internet blindly.”

Should you go to her for a tattoo, rest assured, it’ll be an original.
Nidhi Gupta is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and editor.
first published: Sep 11, 2022 12:18 pm