Forget names, angels and butterflies. Chennai is moving towards personal, grown-up, whacky and even scandalous tattoos

Underneath your clothes

There’s an endless story

Shakira, Laundry Service

Secrets can be delicious. Glimpses of them can be alluring. Revelations can completely change perceptions. All to explain why tattoos are so addictive.

Chennai’s tattoo culture is gradually coming of age. It began roughly ten years ago when the young, swish set began flaunting body art acquired abroad, in American colleges or during European holidays. Then there was the stage when these graphics were necessarily acquired on wild, drunken, college binges. (A Goan shack, for instance, from an appropriately dreadlocked druggie.) Today, the city has tattoo studios, freelance artists and even beauty parlours that offer these services.

It’s also finally now moving into the age of secret, personal, grown-up tattoos. While the old favourites — angels on shoulders, tribal art on the lower back and Yin-Yang across biceps — are still popular, people also design their own art now. Tattoo artists are constantly asked to come up with unusual concepts. Most people rarely stop at one tattoo – the city average is, in fact, is about five per person. And, ‘conservative’ Chennai is reportedly studded with seemingly regular people with unprintable tattoos across unprintable parts of their bodies.

“If you come out partying with me, in one evening I can show you ten people that have tattoos near their genitals, says tattoo artist Tarun of ‘Ink,’ adding with a laugh, “And you’ll go, ‘What! Really? But he/she seems so normal!” In his cluttered-clean studio, plastered with pictures ranging from tribal art to Tanjore paintings, Tarun rustles through stacks of needles, set beside bottles of bright dyes, spray cans with inky thumb prints and a notice that declares ‘Art will save the world right after rock and roll.’ Holding up an intimidating magnum 13, consisting of about a dozen tiny needles and used for shading, he talks about how a range of needles are used to create a complete tattoo. Especially when it’s a large piece of work. Not that anyone seems to be getting intimidated by all the sharp objects and pain. “It’s addictive,” says Tarun, adding he has had nine so far and plans more. “Once you get a tattoo, you will almost certainly want another.”

At swank Irzumi, Chennai’s first big professional tattoo studio, it’s the same story. Naveen, who – with his partners – learnt the art in Thailand says that although people in Chennai certainly do have a long way to go as far as experimental tattoos are concerned, there’s certainly a growing interest. “I always knew there was a market. I created the market,” he says, adding that interestingly, it’s the city’s women who are the most adventurous.

Naveen recommends planning your body art in advance, if you plan to get your tattoos in stages. “It should all combine to tell one story.” That story does not necessarily have to be public. Naveen, in fact, comes across as a quiet and low-key kind of guy, till he – well – takes his shirt off. His back is covered with one large spectacular tattoo, done by his teacher in Thailand.

This kind of grown up tattoo art — original, individual and personal — is gaining popularity, though admittedly slowly. For a long time it’s been just “star signs, yin yang, names,” says Naveen, adding wearily, “And butterflies, butterflies, butterflies.” While he says price seems to be the main deterrent (a tattoo can cost between Rs 1200 to a couple of lakhs in Chennai depending on its size), people also tend to worry about social acceptability. Pain seems a non-issue for most people. Though Tarun does have stories of people chickening out. One girl even jumped off his, ran outside and yelled she changed her mind — from a safe distance.

However, a good sign is how people are beginning to pick symbols that are important to them, represent something cherished or illustrate an aspect of their personalities. These are tattoos designed for emotional reasons, not just to flaunt, so they’re usually in places that can be covered up. Like the man who asked Tarun to tattoo two Jack Daniels bottles with wings across his chest, in memory of his father. Or the boy who took his mother to the studio, so she could watch him getting her names tattooed on. Or the elderly man who got an Om on his back.

Then there are the naughty tattoos. Apparently, people get tattoos all over their body. And we mean all over.

They also get some really whacky art done. Take Tarun’s story about the 80 year old woman who asked for a scandalous tattoo on her back. Or the girl who wanted a question mark on her forehead. Or the lady with a vampire bite (two dots of blood, with a drop and shadow) on her chest.

At Irezumi, the artists say that despite requests they refuse to work on people’s faces. They also try and talk them out of getting work done on their hands and fingers. Besides being next to impossible to hide – they could also pose problems at airport security. Both studios have, however, given a number of women moles on their faces – most popularly just above the upper lip.

Once seen as the domain of renegades, rebels and rock stars, tattoos are gradually easing their way into mainstream society and everyday life. Don’t believe us? Look around carefully at the next traditional wedding you attend. You’ll be surprised to see how many edgy tattoos are paired with kanjeevarams.

WHAT'S IN A NAME

Getting someone’s name tattooed on? It’s very likely to regret the decision very soon. “When people come in and want their boyfriend’s/ girlfriend’s name tattooed on them, I give a long lecture. Tell them it’s permanent. Often they’re 19 year olds who say, “She’s my fiancée… and all that crap,” Navin says, rolling his eyes. “Then, one month later, they’re back, asking us to change the initials, or cover them up.” Tarun says that he does 30 names in a month, and 15 cover-ups. Although a tattoo can be removed with a laser, the service is not available in Chennai yet. It’s also much more painful, expensive and complicated.

GETTING A TATTOO?

Remember, it’s permanent. Think about it for months. Years if necessary.

A tattoo should be meaningful. Make sure you pick a symbol that you identify with.

Avoid trends. Ask the artist for help, and create an individual, original, attractive design.

Do your research. Ensure that the tattoo studio/ artist is clean, hygienic and professional.

Pick an artist you vibe well with. You should have good memories of the process.

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