In a chat with Gautam Mahajan, tattoo artist Moranngam Khaling discusses the significance of his art and how he uses it to promote Naga culture.

He is a fashion designer-turned-tattoo artist. Twenty-seven-year-old Moranngam Khaling (affectionately known as Mo Naga) has been using the human body as his canvas for over eight years. Tattooing was something he learnt on his own, despite being a professionally trained fashion designer. His first tattoo studio was at Hauz Khas, Delhi, and now his second in Guwahati, Headhunters’ Ink, has the distinction of being the North East’s first professional tattoo-training school. Apart from being a training school, the institute also endeavours to spread Naga culture through tattoo designs.

As Mo puts it, “The tattoo industry is booming in India. The North East should also be a part of this. People here are gifted and have the skills and the right attitude. We wish to help them transform into professionals with our experience in design and art and understanding of the industry.”

Though tattoo has emerged as a craze, for most people it is something deeper, more personal and meaningful unlike clothes or makeup. “Getting a tattoo is an overwhelming experience. Art, Fashion and Design come together in the most meaningful way for an individual.”

In a candid chat, Mo discusses his interests, goals and plans for future.

How did you shift from fashion design to tattooing?

I have always had a knack for art. So I can say that art came naturally to me. In 2002, I participated in the North East Fashion Design competition in Guwahati. Right after the show, I was flooded with requests for my creations. I had to personally stitch copies of the designs to meet the demand. Out of those designs, two were later used in the most expensive Assamese movie of that year Tyaag. That’s when I decided that may be Fashion Design was my calling.

In my first year at NIFT-Hyderabad, I met a tattoo artist through a friend and got the idea of creating such wonderful permanent art on living skin. I went home and started researching. That was when I started tattooing as a hobby and became quite good at it. In September 2008, I was invited by Lee Jeans to run a tattoo studio in New Delhi. And I decided to pursue tattooing professionally.

How do tattoos help in promoting culture?

India, with its mind-boggling cultural diversity, is yet to exploit this medium to promote its rich culture and heritage. For decades, this form of art has been completely ignored here. Tattoos have cultural significance in many cultures such as the Chinese, Tibetan and Maori cultures. So in a way the world is learning more about foreign cultures through tattoo designs. The West and other developed countries have been very successful in selling their cultures through tattoo.

Indian traditional tattoo arts have always expressed the culture and beliefs of the people. Tattoo designs mark the announcement of adulthood, social status, achievements; they are also to ward off evils, usher in fertility andprosperity, etc. We have traditional symbols and designs representing all these. We have all the design elements in India. We just need to present it in a more universally acceptable package. If we can promote it well, tattoo could easily become a very strong medium for cultural expression.

What is the goal of Headhunters’ Ink?

Our main goal is to revive and create awareness about the beautiful traditional tattoo art of India. We focus not only on tattooing skills but also on the meaning and significance of Indian designs. A tattoo artist must understand design concepts, body aesthetic, must have knowledge of art, and be able to appreciate different art forms as well. What we need are more responsible tattoo artists.

I am determined to produce thorough professionals through my school. I will continue my research more vigorously and create tribal designs and teach my students all that I have learnt.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

Five years is a long time. I choose to take it one year at a time. I have dedicated 2013 for research and design development of the tattoo art of the headhunting cultures from Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and other Northeastern States. So a lot of travelling is on the cards. Meanwhile, the tattoo school will continue to run. That’s my baby. I will try to nurture it and get it known internationally.