On the first day of Unlock 1.0, as the country emerged from roughly three months since the Coronavirus scare, Karthik Bengre was excited to get back to work in his Bengaluru-based Sculp Tattoo Studio. “The previous two or three days we’d spent sanitising the studio, so I went in with so much excitement about opening,” says the tattoo artist, who had spent the lockdown practising his art form and also taken up sculpture and painting, because of the free time he had.
His only client for the day was a young woman who asked for a man’s name to be tattooed on her hand.
“After the session, I asked her what significance the name had. She said it was her childhood friend, who’d died by COVID-19,” he says. It was with mixed emotions that he received the information, wondering whether she had been with him, but also understanding that it was a memorable moment — a commemoration of a life, and of a time when the whole world was united in a collective stillness.
Business has drastically dropped for tattoo artists, because people are suddenly hyper-aware about health and hygiene, and tattoo art is a close-contact profession. Artists themselves like to restrict clients, and Karthik only takes one appointment a day, opening and closing the studio just for that. Many do not accept walk-ins, and while artists struggle with the business aspect — paying rent, electricity bills, taxes on the property — there is also a sense of slowness, with people carefully considering designs and the reason the want a tattoo in the first place. “In fact, people are very considerate – they ask us if we are free now,” says Karthik. An older client even called to tell him that he was coming in to get a new tattoo and to repay a part of a bill he had not cleared earlier.
Says Sujatha Srihari, of Studio Jade, who practises in Chennai, “There is a kind of a desperation, people want to do something. They’ve been locked in for such a long time, and it’s the only adventure they’ll have for a while.” One person told her she had never had the guts nor the time, “but when the pandemic happened, she thought, ‘We don’t know what is going to happen. Let me tick this off my bucket list’.” Srihari was surprised when in a week, she had eight people come into the studio. Her medical tattooing segment has revived, with people with vitiligo opting for pigment work.
The day after he knew that Vikas Malani, who owns studios and practises across Delhi, Mumbai, and London, had opened his studio, Dinesh Ingle went over. He says, “When I saw what the three months had done to us, and what my Fortune 500 company was going through, I thought, ‘Let me just do what I have to do.’ This Coronavirus situation is not going to change.”
An automotive design engineer who lives and works between Mumbai and Pune, Dinesh got a tattoo across this shoulder, upper arm, and part of the neck and back. “It depicts the cosmic bang — it speaks about how the planet was formed and how it is spiralling through space and time, and the Earth is entering its last phase. Everything that has existed is slowly going to dissolve.”
This discussion of philosophy is something Vikas finds a great deal today, compared to pre-lockdown. “Before conversations were about work; now it’s about memories. So there are a lot of travel symbols like a compasses, maps, stars, Nature — flowers and wild animals,” he says. Their industry is also seeing cover-up tattoos, as relationships disintegrate over the lockdown. These take some skill, “or else you’ll end up with a black patch. “People have begun to reassess life – there’s no left, right, forward, or backwards.”
But first, sanitise
Most studios have the standard Coronavirus-related protocols, which people demand — temperature checks; masks, shoe covers, and gloves; periodic sanitisation, sometimes even during the process, as certain artworks can take many hours. “We’re seeing people ask for bigger tattoos now, because they have the time,” says Raghav Sethi, who runs The Tatoo Shop, in Delhi.
This is the best time to get a tattoo, he feels, because gyms are closed (you don’t want to stretch the muscles), and most people are indoors, so it is easy to protect the tattoo from heat and sunlight (it needs three weeks to heal). The spend per person has gone up, because people who have work are willing to spend as much as a lakh, from the amount they have saved from travel, entertainment, commuting and all the costs that come with work-related expenditure. “The difference is that I mainly see people who are salaried come in; not business people or entrepreneurs,” he says.
While artists are in agreement that people are asking more questions about the art and hygiene protocols, Vikas says that there will soon be awareness about the more technical aspects of tattooing. “Ask where the needles are coming from, what ink they’re using,” he says, adding that the best material comes from the EU, because laws are stringent; the worst are from China. A red flag is if top artists are charging ₹3,000 for a tattoo and someone else quotes a quarter of that rate. It is not just based on the originality of the design and the labour, but also on the materials used — he uses organic, vegan ink that contains thymol, a derivative of thyme that has antiseptic qualities. “Ensure that the ink is out of a fresh vial, because sometimes a studio may use already opened ink, to save money.”
It is this carefulness that makes tattoo art a considered decision, rather than an impulse today. “Earlier, we would get college students walk in together; today, a college kid comes with a parent, who wants to ensure cleanliness and safety,” says Raghav.
The way we are
One of Sethi’s most poignant clients was a Delhi doctor, who felt the strain of overwork with post-graduate exams and a practice in the ICU of a COVID-19 ward. Last month, she had the tree of life inked on, in its roots the initials of her parents, in its leaves the words: “She conquered her demons and wore her scars like wings”.
The doctor says this was her second tatto, symbolic of her life and struggles. It is about drawing on her strengths and power: her family and their support, no matter what. “I am at a point at which I have achieved all that I want. I have seen death close up and families lose two or three people at a time, and I am grateful for life.”
Her only ask: that she can go home to her parents who she has not seen for six months. “Please do take all the precautions, so the virus abates, and doctors can see their loved ones again,” she says.