In a recent book titled The Konyaks: Last of the Tattooed Headhunters, writer Phejin Konyak and photographer Peter Bos record the lives and traditions of the fierce Konyak tribe of Nagaland. The Konyaks’ tattoos had distinctive functions such as initiation, identification and purification, and they were inextricably linked to their culture. But as Christianity spread in the North Eastern parts of India, both these practices were deemed heathen. Headhunting was outlawed and tattooing, which was intimately connected to it, also came to a stop.

Elsewhere in India, women of the Baiga tribe of Madhya Pradesh are rejecting their traditional tattoos, which were customarily etched on their legs and faces between ages 10 and 12. This practice, known as godna, was a part of their cultural identity. The tattoos were supposed to prepare them for childbirth and were considered essential for a safe passage into the afterlife. For the younger generation, the pain of godna has no place in the new world that they are increasingly exposed.

Chingchak Wangsha, 78, Longwa Village. Image courtesy: The Konyaks: Last of the Tattooed Headhunters, Roli Books. Image credit: Peter Bos

New paradigms

With few connections to traditional practices, people in urban spaces now spend large sums, endure torturous amounts of pain and, sometimes, travel long distances to get inked by their preferred tattoo artist. A Pew Research report states that at least 38% of people in the US, aged between 18 and 29 years, have at least one tattoo. The rest of the world isn’t far behind, and tattoos are fairly common even in Indian cities.

Independent tattoo artist Zaheer Chhatriwala from the suburb of Bandra in Mumbai believes that a number of factors have made this happen – “The change in outlook of the public has been due to a lot of factors working simultaneously, such as tattoo artists pushing the boundaries of the art, exposure on social media platforms, tattoo conventions and festivals the world over, and media coverage of celebrities getting inked. All these variables can be credited with the acceptance of tattoos.”

Unlike in the West, where tattooing was once associated with criminality and gang members sporting them for self-identity, the art does not seem to be a general sign of deviancy or a coming-of-age ritual in India. In fact, according to tattoo artists, the average age of an Indian client is 25 – an age by when most have entered professional lives, are making their own money and have had time to make informed decisions about their lives and tattoos. People seem to have moved past butterflies and barbed wire designs and are getting experimental. Tattooing is being recognised as an art form, and trends such as realistic portraiture, nature-inspired designs, dotwork, blackwork and watercolour are being explored. But most notably, young Indians are increasingly wearing their faith on their sleeves.

Image courtesy: Olly Alva.

India ink

Sunny Bhanushali, of Aliens Tattoo, Mumbai, said that clients of the average age of 25 to 35 are, in his experience, mostly male and belong to the affluent section of the society. His studio is known for its religious tattoos, and 70% of the clients ask for designs of that genre. Olly Alva of Al’s Tattoo Studio, one of India’s oldest studios which is also located in Mumbai, confirmed a high rate of clients asking for religious tattoo designs – “Many ask for tattoos of yantras, mandalas and chakras, and the corresponding mantras for these designs.”

Image credit: Zaheer Chhatriwala

Bhanushali and his team are famous for their tattoos with Hindu mythology themes and get plenty of requests for hyper masculine renditions of Shiva, fierce mother goddesses and other deities. For Chhatriwala too, at least four out of 10 clients have a preference for religious or spiritual-themed tattoos. “They ask for [religious] symbols, verses from holy books or a quote from a spiritual guru,” Chhatriwala said. “Some of my clients go even deeper and want to represent religious concepts in their tattoos, mixed with themes like energies, positivity, meditation and inner peace.”

However, there is no religiosity attached to the act of tattooing itself in urban areas, at least not yet. Tattoos are acquired after fair research and consultation but in a secular manner – from an artist to a client. The tattoo artist, despite his intimate contact with the client, has little agency beyond his artistry and skill.

Image credit: Zaheer Chhatriwala

Before tattoos were cool

Abrahamic religions are mostly against tattoos because their core belief is that all of God’s creations – including human bodies – are perfect and must not be altered. However, tattoos rooted in religion, faith and mythology have been a part of other indigenous cultures the world over, including in India. Ancient Native Americans, the Mayans and the Polynesians had traditional tattoo practices and the word tattoo comes from the Polynesian word tatau.

In Thailand, getting religious Sak Yant (meaning, sacred yantra) tattoos in Buddhist monasteries is not uncommon. In Cambodia, the Khmer people strongly believe in the power of these tattoos as talismans. Made by spiritual masters, the Sak Yant tattoos are believed to bless the wearer and protect her against everything from bullets to vengeful ghosts. There is even an annual festival in Cambodia where believers gather to “spiritually recharge” their tattoos at Wat Bang Phra. Huge crowds, chants, rituals and dramatic trances mark this event.

Closer home, the list of tribes practising ritual or religious tattooing is endless – the Apatani of Arunachal Pradesh, the Singhpo of Assam, the Korathi of Tamil Nadu, the Dhanuks of Bihar, the Mundas of Jharkhand, the Gonds of Central India, the Santhals of Bengal, and the Rabaris of Gujarat.

Mahettar Ram Tandon, 76, a follower of Ramnami Samaj, has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on his full body. Image credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

The Santhals prefer the sun symbol as a tattoo on their bodies, as it represents their supreme god, Sin Bonga (Sun God). The Ramnamis of Chhattisgarh deserve special mention in this regard. A scheduled caste tribe, they were long victims of the vile practice of untouchability. Among the many things denied to them was entry into temples and practising any Hindu rituals. But about a century ago, this small populace fought back and claimed their right over gods, especially Rama – one of India’s most prominent mythological heroes – by painting the name Rama on their walls, printing their cloth with it, chanting his name, and most importantly, tattooing their bodies and faces with it. It was a loud proclamation of both their protest and faith.

Tattoos for the soul

In recent times, a movement of spiritual tattooing seems to be making something of a reappearance, flowing from the Western interest in Eastern mystical traditions. The urban tattoo artist, in some places, is beginning to don the mantle of the shaman and playing out the act of tattooing as a ritual.

Andrejs Saveljevs from Latvia is one such example. His Instagram account, with the self-explanatory name ritualtattooing, showcases his work. “Ritual tattooing is the conscious decision to get a spiritual and physical tattoo with an energy message – that is my definition of ritual tattooing,” he said. “Everything matters in such a setting – the materials used (I choose only vegan-friendly stuff), the technique – machine or stick-and-poke – and most importantly, the intent. The vital thing is to choose a tattooer with pure mind, so that he doesn’t fill up the tattoo with negative energy. The main ritual here is the connection between the tattooer and the customer.”

Image credit: Andrejs Saveljevs

Saveljevs further “spiritually enriches” the tattoo experience with accompanying chants, prayers meditation, and the strategic placement of gemstone crystals. He chooses the suitable gemstone after speaking to the person, and “diagnosing his aura”. These, he claimed, support and heal his tattoo customers during and after the session – “Some people are shy and not open to rituals, but that doesn’t matter. As long as my customers trust me, I can ritually tattoo them in one way or another.”

This return to the ritual manner of tattooing is also reflected in the rising popularity of the manual stick-and-poke method. It is the traditional way of getting tattooed, and although more painful than a machine, is seen as a purer version of the art.

US-based Ashley Glynn of Wadulisi Woman studio combines this technique with tarot readings, aura scans, Reiki, and prescribes healing designs for her clients. She gives them, what she calls, “soul tattoos” and, according to her website, sessions begin with tea, meditation and intention-setting, while the design of the tattoo is channelled by her.

Back in Mumbai, Chhatriwala, who calls himself a man of science, does not believe in the methodology used by Glynn or Saveljevs. “I will never do that [ritual tattooing], as I see tattoos as an art form and don’t believe in them having magical healing abilities or as tools for spiritual enlightenment.”

Ashley Glynn.