Once taboo, tattoos now the new fashion statement

May 7th, 2011 - 5:08 pm ICT by IANS  

Angelina Jolie Kathmandu, May 7 (IANS) When Lokesh Varma, the son of an affluent army family in New Delhi, announced he wanted to forswear his MBA degree and his job with a multinational company to become a tattoo artist, his parents were speechless with horror.

“Tattoos were then thought to be something only sported by low life - bikers, goons and drug addicts,” the 27-year-old, manning his tattoo stall at the Nepal Tattoo Convention, the first international tattoo convention held in Kathmandu last month, told IANS.

“My parents thought tattoos were not respectable and tattooing could not be a viable profession accepted by society. But that was before cable television came and changed people’s way of thinking.”

Varma today runs his tattoo studio, Devilztattooz, with his wife Sanobar. It is a thriving business that imports paints and equipment from abroad - the US and Thailand - with a basic design that could take half an hour, costing Rs.3,000.

“It’s more channels like Discovery that bring images of distant different cultures to your home that helped tattoos get social acceptance, more than Angelina Jolie or other tattooed film stars. If you see something every day, there comes a day when you want to try it out too.”

Bijay Gurung, a partner at Mohan’s Tattoo Inn, the pioneering tattoo studio in Kathmandu that hosted the convention, says tattoos have been an integral part of Asia’s indigenous culture. So are piercings.

“The Tharu community, who were the original residents of the Terai plains, tattoo their bodies as part of their ancient culture,” says the 37-year-old, who besides tattoos and piercings, also sports blue hair.

When Gurung, the son of a British Army soldier who grew up in Pokhara city, first coloured his hair blue while still in school, the result was traumatic.

“It was in 1992 and I was summoned by the police,” he says. “The police chief told me, you have a choice: either cut your hair or we will put you in prison. I thought it was my life and I had the right to dye my hair any colour I wanted. But what can a vulnerable teen do against the system!”

Though forced to do the cops’ bidding at that time, Gurung has returned to the same style.

“I am the way I express myself,” he says. “We decided to host the convention because we want the world to know that tattoos have been a part of our culture and remove the stigma on them. Also, in the year the Nepal Tourism Board is promoting Nepal as a prime tourist destination, we want to develop our country as a cultural, tattoo destination.”

Tattoo artistes from France, Italy, Germany, Thailand and India gathered in an upmarket hotel in Kathmandu for the convention, subtly marking the status change in an adornment once regarded as the hallmark of drug addicts and dreadlocked hippies.

For French tattoo artist Laurent Maina, tattooing is a form of spiritual expression. The 39-year-old from Marseilles does only “Buddhist tattoos”, an intricate mesh of divine figures and accompanying holy flora.

Unlike the nude girl tattoos pulp fiction attributed to sailors, clients seek tattoos of the Buddha, Shiva, and even Sai Baba. Holy Tibetan phrases are also in vogue along with lines from the Gita.

But though Bollywood has recently joined the vogue - with stars like Deepika Padukone, Saif Ali Khan and Hrithik Roshan sporting tattoos - the pros say India is still wary of experimenting deeply.

“Indians go for small tattoos - mostly names, tribal art or customised designs,” Chitra Kumar Chhetri, whose Yogiz Tattoo Inn opened in Siliguri in 2010, told IANS.

“There are no demands for full-sleeve tattoos and large tattoos on the face. However, we have managed to create a market in eastern India.”

The first Yogiz Tattoo Inn opened in Kalimpong in 2005 and gets clients from Kolkata, Assam, Orissa, Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh and even Bhutan. This year, a branch is planned in Assam.

Tattoo artists are unanimous that hygiene is essential for the profession.

“We insist on using disposable syringes or sterilised ones for each client to prevent blood-borne diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis,” says Varma. “It’s not only the client but also the artist who’s at risk.”

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at sudeshna.s@ians.in)

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