Indian Tattoos - The Indian Ink Tattoo Expo 2011

Girish Giridhara’s arms are tattooed with Hindu gods, goddesses and sacred mantras. The spiritual designs are intricate but also hardly surprising for a man who once trained to be a priest.

Shaven-headed, with gold earrings and a red tilak on his forehead, the 36-year-old tattoo artist looks relaxed in a sleeveless t-shirt, knee-length shorts and flip-flops at the Indian Ink tattoo convention.

The exhibition in Mumbai this weekend is billed as India’s first, with organisers hoping to tap into a growing interest in permanent body art among young Indians.

But Girish, an exhibitor at the event, knows that body art in India is not a new trend set by cricketers or movie stars.

Tattooing has been an integral part of Indian tribal culture for centuries and no Hindu wedding is complete without the mehndi ceremony, where the bride’s hands and feet are elaborately decorated in non-permanent henna.

“It (tattooing) is documented in the Vedas (scriptures) from the time of (the Hindu epic) “It’s been around for a long time, then it disappeared for some reason. Now it’s come back,” Girish, who runs the Bramha Tattoo Studio in Bangalore. told AFP.

Reality television shows like “LA Ink” – about tattoo artists and their clients in Los Angeles – have helped changed the modern mindset towards tattoos in India, he said.

“About five years back people didn’t want to go for tattoos. They used think it was only for junkies. People are more open-minded now. It’s now being seen in a very good light.”

That change has also influenced designs, with previously popular Western and Japanese art making way for styles reflecting India’s rich and varied artistic, religious and cultural heritage and as a form of identity and self-expression.

Girish’s route into tattooing was unconventional. He comes from a family of Hindu priests and studied in temples between the age of eight and 15 to become one himself. He first became interested in body art aged eight, around the time of his threading ceremony – an initiation rite among upper-caste Hindu males to signify adult religious responsibilities – and developed his skills.

“There was a lot of opposition in my family (to him becoming a tattoo artist),” he said.

“But we asked the scholars and they said tattooing can be taken as an occupation by a priest if it involves spiritual guidance and medicinal use. So, I started tattooing.” Even though he may not be a practising priest in saffron robes, Girish still sees a divine element to his work.

A tattoo, he says, is carried with the soul after death and is a connection to the body’s past in the journey of reincarnation. He has also set himself a target of tattooing 10,000 people with the sacred Hindu syllable “om”, which he pays for himself.

“Many people can’t afford professional tattoos,” he explained. “That’s why I’m doing it… I’ve already completed about 1,000.” The sideline also allows him to educate the public about the dangers of getting cheap tattoos with unclean materials from untrained artists.

“It’s very dangerous,” said Girish. “They can spread hepatitis, HIV and skin diseases. It (tattooing) needs to be safe and knowledge is very important.” The sentiments chime with those of the convention organisers, who want to raise public awareness about how to get tattoos safely as well as the profile of the country’s most talented artists.

Co-organiser Shibhanii Shah, a 25-year-old photographer and artist, said there were some 100,000 tattoo artists in India, demonstrating the potential for development.

But she added: “We don’t have any rules on hygiene and that’s quite disappointing. India needs to get that level where we can show our talent and be as good and as safe a place as anywhere in the world to get a tattoo.”

The Indian Ink Tattoo Expo 2011 - Mumbai

The city got ready to host a first ever tattoo convention which started this weekend. Tattoo art moved from its punky, rebellious image to respectability.

Some think it is a rebellious act, while others think it's cool and consider it as a fashion statement. For many, it is a way to express themselves. Tattoos are poised to become mainstream in urban India. In ancient times, tattoos were popular in India and generally carried religious or spiritual meanings.

In modern times, India's rapid economic prosperity has brought changes in lifestyle of urban youth, who are largely going for western tattoo culture. An increasing number of tattoo studios in Mumbai is an indication of its popularity.

In fact, the latest move to popularise this art form is being undertaken in a more organised manner. This weekend, the city will play host to India's first tattoo convention.

The Indian Ink Tattoo Expo 2011, which will be held at the World Trade Centre in Cuffe Parade, will see tattoo artists from all over the country, showcasing their work. "We have 40-45 tattoo artists participating in the convention.

We have put up 35 stalls out of which 25 stalls are for the tattoo artists where they can showcase their work and anybody can walk in to get a tattoo done," says Shibanii Shah, Proprietor, Eventos Promotions and More.

The convention will also have an adequate representation from Mumbai. Apart from that, the event will have performances by various rock bands and dance troupes. Pay Rs 200 and get a pass for the two-day event.

Ask Shah if the entry fee is steep and she replies, "The whole event is targeted towards a niche audience. So people who are really interested in tattooing, won't mind paying this much."

The cost of organising the convention is around Rs 25 lakh, says Manoj Thakur, co-organiser. Renowned tattoo artists, like, Nepal's Mohan Gurung and Johnny from Singapore will be part of the event. The convention will also have a seminar on black and grey techniques by well-known tattoo artist, Nick Sharma.

While many participants are full time tattooists, others juggle between work and hobby. Prakash Baing (32), an art director at a gaming company, works as a tattoo artist in his free time. Baing, who used to paint in his studio, Packo Baing at Khargar (Navi Mumbai) to take a break from gaming, soon got hooked to tattooing. He says, "Human body is God's best creation and we decorate the body."

Baing says that his interest in tattooing developed after he visited Thailand nearly two years ago. "I went to Thailand on a holiday. I noticed that tattooing is big there. Since I was already into painting, I took a one-month course in tattooing and since then I have been hooked to it. I was already creative, the course helped me to learn the technical aspects of the art," says Baing.

After returning to Mumbai, Baing set up a studio. He now employs a full time tattoo artist in his studio. "I come to attend clients on weekends and after my work hours, usually in the evening," says Baing, who makes it clear that he does it outside his office hours.

Another part-time tattooist,Roshan Paul (23), started tattooing when he was just 17. Paul, who will be part of the convention, doesn't have a studio, and works as a visiting tattooist. Paul, who also works for an advertising firm, says, "A person is born with a tattoo. My job is just to get it on the skin."

Many believe that tattoo is much more than just a fashion statement. "A lot of youngsters tell me that they want to get a tattoo done, but I usually don't entertain them. My clients should have an idea about what they want to get tattooed.

The idea has to be there and then it can be worked upon," says Paul. Baing agrees, "Why get something that you will regret for the rest of your life? When college kids approach me, I ask them think why they want to get something tattooed on their body.

Only after they are sure, I work on them." Unlike Baing and Paul, Al Alva is a full time tattoo artist and runs a tattoo parlour in Bandra (W). So how does he react when somebody approaches him for a tattoo? "Rather than asking why you would want a tattoo, I ask them why would you not want to have one? It is perfectly fine to have tattoos on your body," says Alva.

Established artists can earn anything between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 3 lakh a month, when business is good. Also, artists say gleefully that they are flooded with demands. Some appear so busy they decline new clients.

"I'm booked for the next seven months," says Paul. Dipesh Shah(28), owner of InkTribe, manufacturers and suppliers of tattoo equipment claims that he even exports tattoo machines abroad. Tattoo artists can charge anything between Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 for a tattoo, which is 6-12 inches long.

In fact tattoos, which were until recently sneered at, are gradually being accepted by society. "It is the same old thing that our forefathers had, so why would you be ashamed of it?" asks Alva. And yet tattoo artists say a large section of the Indian society is reluctant to accept this art form.

Dipesh, who got his first tattoo on his arm says, "I did not show it to my family for two years until one day my mother accidentally discovered it. Initially, my family members were upset. Now they are fine with it. I even got a picture of my parents' tattooed on my arm," says Dipesh, a biomedical engineer by profession.

A tattoo enthusiast, Dipesh has 14 tattoos on his body. Niyoti Upadhye (29), who has three tattoos on her body which includes a dragon fly on her index finger says that, says. initially her parents were not happy when they got to know that she had got a tattoo. "But after they saw it, they were fine with it," she says.

Tattoos can also have a deep impact on one's life style. For example, Vinay Narkar, an art director who will be modelling his tattoos at the convention for Paul's stall, turned vegetarian after getting his tattoo.

"I went for deep sea diving and was so touched by the beauty of the fishes that I decided to get a Blue Marlin tattooed on my arm. Earlier I used to have fish, but soon I turned vegetarian and completely stopped eating fish," says Narkar.

Many believe that the tattoo on your body becomes part of your personality and an integral part of your life. "I have seen people who have skulls or demons tattooed on their body, getting angry very fast. Similarly, tattoos like those of Ganesha have a calming effect," explains Paul. Rahul Bhatt, who starred in Bigg Boss season 4, has recently got a tattoo of a tiger done on his back.

Bhatt believes that as far as tattoo artists are concerned there is no dearth of talent but there needs to be some kind of regulation on tattoo parlours. "If a rookie decides to open a tattoo parlour and he is not well versed with the technique or doesn't maintain hygiene in the parlour, then chances of infection are there," says Bhatt.

Not only infection, tattoo artists claim that most of the time, they end up doing cover-ups. "Many of my clients ask me to work on tattoos which are already on their body. Either they have been done badly or the client is not happy. So we work on the tattoo and make it look better," explains Paul.

The convention will be an opportunity for tattoo artists to take stock of where they stand and how they can popularise the art. In the West, tattoo parlours are required to obtain proper licenses from the authorities.

In India, it is unregulated and any fly-by-night operator can set up a tattoo parlour. If proper sterilisation method is not followed,then customers are susceptible to infection.

Says Ben Irani, an Indian American, who is going to launch his tattoo magazine, D-bloc, during the convention, "This convention will help us create a database of tattoo artists and the kind of work they are doing. It will also help us see and discuss protocol that is to be followed during tattooing."

Cosmetic Tattoos

With the expanding tattoo market, a new form of tattooing is fast emerging. Cosmetic tattooing is a technique where tattooing is done in a way to resemble make-up. For example, eyelining and permanent colours to the skin of the face, lips, and eyelids are applied.

"Usually women prefer pink colour on their lips; darker shade of brown as lip liner; greyish black colour as eye liner; the colour of eyebrows depend on their hair colour," says Dr G Rana, a general practitioner who also runs a tattoo parlour in Wadala.

"We charge anything between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 depending on their requirements," explains Rana. Dr Ishwari Bhirude, a dentist by profession and one of Rana's customers, got a permanent darker shade of red on her lips, recently at Rana's parlour.

"I used to lick my lipstick off inadvertently and consume a lot of wax indirectly. My husband was really concerned. Hence I wanted permanent solution," says Bhirude. Bhirude, who is not a tattoo aficionado, went for cosmetic option.

"Now I just have to apply gloss," she says. Bhirude, now wants to go for a permanent eyeliner as she wants to stay, "beautiful 24X7."

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