For Bengaluru-based tattoo artist Priyanka MP, or Prizillaaah as she is known to her clients, the average day includes a lot more than ink and needles, though of course, there is a lot of that. She spends hours sketching and designing client requests and personal pieces, researching international trends, and most importantly, making sure that her tattoo parlour meets worldwide hygiene standards.
Priyanka’s practice typifies tattoo culture in urban India. While tattoos in the metros, like in the hinterland, still often have religious significance, they are rarely used to distinguish between tribes or to denote hierarchies in a social group. In cities, well-informed clients spend as much time picking their tattoo artists as their designs, making tattooing a viable career option, particularly for young women.
For a small but growing set of young female tattoo artists like Priyanka, the job offers the potential to lead a creatively fulfilling life that pays the bills, make memorable art and work in a respectful environment – a combination that is often hard to come by.
“It’s not all roses, a whole lot of work goes into it,” Priyanka said. “But getting an apprenticeship at a good studio helps you learn to be patient and deal with clients of all sorts. There are no shortcuts when you’re dealing with someone else’s body and skin.”
Skin is in
For Delhi-based Shreya Josh, who goes by the moniker Tender Pokes, her love for tattooing came from YouTube. During an internship in New York, she was watching stick-and-poke videos (a style of making tattoos by hand, using needles dipped in ink, instead of a machine) and made the first one on herself.
“I was lucky to have a boss and other interns that supported my interest and lent their bodies to an inexperienced friend,” said Josh. Soon, she started sharing Instagram stories of her work with friends back home. “When I returned to India a few months ago and started doing tattoos for friends, my life’s direction changed. Now, bringing the stick-and-poke trend to India is my main priority.”
Television, specifically LA Ink, a show about a tattoo parlour in Los Angeles with glamorous tattoo artists and a varied selection of client requests and stories, drove Archana Nakhua Bhanushali of Mumbai’s Ace Studio to tattooing. “I had completed a course in applied arts and was keen on experimenting with different mediums,” she said. “When I saw Kat Von D making tattoos and her team coming up with amazing customisations for every client’s tattoo story, I was inspired to try my hand at working with skin as a medium.” Bhanushali set up her first tattoo studio with her husband in 2011.
A background in art and design is frequently the gateway to falling in love with tattoos. This was how both Gurgaon-based Shyamli Panda of Devilz Tattooz and Debanjali Das of Kolkata’s The Guiding Monk Tattoos came to the art. Both had worked as graphic designers, but found that they didn’t have enough creative freedom to experiment.
Goa-based Kruti Andrade’s love for tattoos began with a love for her tattoo artist – it was how she met her future husband Kevin Andrade at his Mumbai studio Shoryuken nearly a decade ago. “I was learning to tattoo and manage the counter and soon after, started tattooing walk-ins [people who come to studios without a pre-chosen design in mind],” she said. “It was Kevin and his studio, his work and amazing personality that led me choose to be an artist. Today, we are married with a beautiful daughter and have two studios called The Flying Lotus tattoo in Mumbai and Goa.”
While the tattoo industry is dominated by male artists, Panda said she finds it is welcoming of women, and she is surrounded by supportive male friends, colleagues and mentors. “My works have been judged as standalone pieces of art and not as ‘art by a woman’,” she said.
Priyanka, Andrade and Bhanushali had support from family and friends, making for a conflict-free transition into the profession. This wasn’t the case for Das, who struggled to convince her parents. They wanted her to continue as a full-time graphic designer instead of choosing an even more non-traditional profession, and it took some explaining and a whole lot of trust for her to work in a studio. They finally gave in, she said, when they saw how happy it made her.
The gender question does come into play when it comes to individual aesthetic styles. Josh’s designs, for instance, have on occasion been described as “too feminine” by clients.
“I’ve never had anyone hesitate in getting a tattoo from me because of my gender,” she said. “But I’ve made around 40 tattoos so far and out of that, only two have been for men. So maybe there’s some reluctance because of my dainty style.”
Across the tattoo spectrum, the most common designs clients request are birds, dream catchers infinity knots, feathers, names of loved ones, stars and butterflies. This lack of creativity, artists agreed, was because in India, clients usually opted for designs they had seen on the internet. With sites like Pinterest and Tumblr dominating mass consumption, plagiarism is rife.
However, the trend is slowly changing. “The clients’ access to knowledge about tattoos and design is growing, making it easier to help them understand the value of custom designs and unique tattoos,” said Bhanushali. Priyanka added, “These days, people seem to be doing more homework and research into what they really want.”
Apart from clients who steal designs from the internet guilt-free and sans imagination, there are those with downright inappropriate demands. “A guy once wanted a tattoo on his pelvis, which I wasn’t comfortable with, so I passed it on to my fellow artist,” Das recalled. “But the client changed the tattoo area once he got to know that a male artist was doing it.”
Bhanushali’s most surprising request also came from a client on the phone who wanted a sensual design on a private body part. “It could have been a normal case till he told me to explain on the phone how I would interpret the sensuality in the image,” she said. “I blocked him immediately after that.”
Real life skills
Apart from an excellent design sense, tattoo artists must have patience, passion, skill, dedication and empathy. “The client’s welfare, hygiene and your welfare and health should be a priority,” said Priyanka.
To Bhanushali, being non-judgemental is the most important quality. Beyond that, she said, “steady hands and patience are the core of your learning”. “It’s impossible to achieve a good tattoo without both these qualities as some tattoo sessions can last for more than 15 to 16 hours, and the artist needs to be consistent with the energy and work quality.”
According to Panda, the essentials are “the ability to create unique pieces of art and define a style that keeps evolving over time, the eagerness and humility to keep learning, to collaborate with, and support fellow artists”.
Panda said unfortunately more artists today are catering to pleasing every customer who walk through the door than to creating great art, which is hurting the industry. “It’s resulting in mass produced generic tattoos and a very naive client base,” she said. “It’s our responsibility as artists to preserve the authenticity of the art and to educate people about the ethics of lifting designs off the internet, to make them aware of the value of a unique, personalised tattoo. It’s good to have principles that you stick by.”