Chennai’s growing tattoo culture

Kumaraswamy’s forearms are a canvas of black and white: his left arm, for instance, has a wolf with unusually arresting eyes, while his right features wings. The 23-year-old IT professional is already three-tattoos old, despite getting his first just last year. Tattoos, he says, help him express what he is most passionate about — he normally picks a design that symbolises something to him.

At the Tarazwa Ink Your Story festival at Amethyst, among 600 other excited millenials, he is looking for a fourth. “I’ve come here to check out the artists and might get a tribal design on my arm”, he says, eyeing the stalls.

Nirupama Thomas, owner of the tribal culture and lifestyle firm Neo Tribe, which organised the event, says that tattoos have always been a part of Chennai. She recalls her childhood days, when she saw her elders sporting green patterns on their hands. But it was the success of the first edition in Kochi this year — which saw a footfall 1,500 — that encouraged her to bring Tarazwa to Chennai.

“This is not a medium to compete. It’s for enthusiasts to get inked, discuss and customise their design with the artists, and for younger artists to pick up tips from experts,” she says.

Like Naveen Kumar, whose tattoo studio Irezumi has been in the city for the past 15 years. According to Naveen, Chennai’s tattoo culture only began stepping out of the shadows in recent years. “This city is not as conservative as people think it to be. We have had a very steady crowd for the past 15 years. It’s just that people were not open to bigger, more creative designs. Now they are, they don’t care about the tattoo being small and inconspicuous. They used to get small names and symbols earlier, now they get all kinds of designs,” he says.

Then and now

And when he says all kinds, he means all kinds. Chennaiites can now choose their school of design: realism, biomechanic, geometric patterns and even watercolours. It is a far cry from the scene a decade ago, when names were a common idea for most peoples’ tattoos — surrounded by a complex design to cover it up.

Now, women who have had caesareans like to cover the scar with a tattoo. “In this case, more brush strokes are needed,” says tattoo artist Latha Evanglin, of Killer Paw studio in Velachery.

The numbers have gone up, too. “I was told today that 20 new studios just came up on Marina Beach alone,” points out Naveen, “So there is change, but there is still a long way to go. People still see it as taboo, and awareness of basic hygiene and safety measures is low.”

Which is probably one of the reasons behind organisers bringing in a senior tattooist from Mumbai to talk to the artists here. Sunny Banishali, who owns Aliens Tattoo studio in Mumbai, advises each one to take their own time with the art form: “Just because someone else took nine years to learn the basics doesn’t mean you can’t learn it in a month.” Banishali, who has spoken to thousands of artists across India, also gave tips on business models, expansion and customer relations.“Don’t think only about yourselves in this business, you must always think of the customers. It is because of them that you are successful”

Customer connect is key to many artists: Naveen says some of his clients spend hours doing a creative back-and-forth before zeroing in on a design, while others do it for days. It often turns into a session of introspection and philosophising, and can get personal sometimes. “But some come with a printout ready. They know exactly what they want,” he smiles.

Latha says customers should learn to trust the artists, “because we know how thin/thick the strokes have to be, to prevent merging. “Dark-skinned people might opt for colour tattoos because they think it will show up better, but I recommend the normal black tattoos.”

Naveen echoes this, adding, “People need to realise that a tattoo is not colour on your skin, it is colour under the first layer of your skin. So it’s not a matter of contrast: the colour pigment has to be darker than your own skin tone, if it has to show.”

There are other common misconceptions as well: such as the pain factor. Veena Rajendra (name changed) has been inked five times, and says that it hurts a little less than threading. A tattoo near the bone hurts more than a regular tattoo.

With at least a dozen artists or studios under one roof, opportunities to learn are everywhere. It is candyland for Joseph Emmanuel (name changed on request), who has been studying tattooing in the city for the past eight months: “In the beginning, I would only see Christians getting tattoos; they would get a rose or the cross. But now everyone wants a tattoo to show that they can afford it. We have parents coming in with their children these days.”

Joseph, in contrast, says he had always wanted one, but was worried about what his parents would say, given their conservative background. So he got his first tattoo only after marriage, together with his wife. He smiles and says, “I got the courage because she wanted one too.”

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Aug 13, 2022 3:30:34 pm |