Unraveling Cultural Threads through Archiving Traditional Tattoo Designs

An asterisk on wrinkled hands, dotted patterns on the forearms, scorpions crawling around the neck, and a lotus blooming on the forehead—India Ink Archive—is filled with images of indigenous tattoos nationwide.

Tattoo artist Shomil Shah created the Instagram page and began in 2021. It has over 8,000 followers.

In 2018, Shah, a graphic-designer-turned-tattoo-artist from Mumbai, got a Kolam design tattooed on his hand while living in London. He was intrigued by the tattooing process and began exploring it further. He bought a DIY Stick-and-Poke Kit and began tattooing within a few weeks.

Shah immersed himself gradually in the rich tradition of the art. Shah’s fascination with tattooing grew, and they eventually founded the India Ink Archive.

Shah explains that the project’s main goal is to create an online database of tattoo designs and provide a means for people to reconnect with their ancestors. SocialStory.

The Inspiration

Ink Archive
Shomil Shim

Shah’s mother informed him when he got his first tattoo that he wasn’t the first person in his family interested in tattooing. His great-grandmother also had vibrant and beautiful designs inked onto her neck and arms.

“I’ve never met my great-grandmother, so I didn’t know she had these tattoos. But my mother vividly remembered the tattoos. She is from Kutch and Gujarat. A couple of generations ago, tattoos were common, especially for women,” says he.

Shah recalled that he could not find much information on native tattoo designs. His tattooing interest and lack of documentation inspired him to create a comprehensive collection of old tattoos in India.

He decided to go on a sabbatical in 2019 and visited different parts of India, including Gujarat, Maharashtra Karnataka, and Madhya Pradesh, to learn more about the old tattoo designs.

Shah would converse with the older women he met on his travels about their tattoos. Shah would take photographs of the tattooed artworks with their permission and document the stories behind them.

“At first, older women were reluctant to talk to me because I was a boy. Shah says: “I found that showing them the tattoo I had on my body served as an icebreaker and bridged the gap between us.”

Blurring the lines

Babli Bai from Bandra Mumbai, 70, was the first woman to appear on the Ink Archive. She got her first tattoo at around the age of 10. She had a banana plant, a snake, and a lotus motif inked on the left side of her arm. On her right, she had Krishna’s Milkmaids and her and her husband’s names, as well as a motif with Krishna’s Milkmaids.

Bai had a crescent moon on the back of her right hand and some dots on her cheeks.

Shah notes that tattooing is a dying art. The previous generation was too busy raising children and taking care of responsibilities to devote much time to preserving ancient art.

He believes, however, that the current generation is eager to reconnect with their roots. They seek a better understanding of their culture and embrace the revival of tattooing as an expression of culture.

Ink Archive

“India’s rich tattooing history has been poorly documented. Tattooing is an art form that is beautiful and has a fluid meaning. He says tattoos allowed our ancestors to express their creativity, sense of identity, and status.

Shah noticed that, while documenting, many designs were the same from one country to another with minimal variation. He states that he has seen the scorpion motif in many places, including Gujarat, Karnataka, and MP.

“It’s so surreal that certain motifs can be found so far apart, but they are the same,” says he, adding, “I think this shows us somewhere that state boundaries are a fairly modern concept.”

He explains that the similarity of motifs is also because nomadic tattoo artists moved around India, bringing their art along.

A good example of this migration is the Gonds. They are a tribe that can be found throughout India, including in MP, Chhattisgarh, and Maharashtra. The spread of tattooing and its designs in India resulted from their migration.

Shah claims that women from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and other states often use similar floral symbolisms in their tattoos. Different names also know them.

Sindh is also home to the Trajva-style, commonly associated with Indian states like Rajasthan and Gujarat. “This shows how tattoos blur man-made boundaries and connect us to the neighboring country,” he says.


Ink Archive
Tattooing using the stick-and-poke method

Shah wants to document and collect what is left of this ancient art. But he doesn’t want to be known for preserving indigenous tattoos. “I began this project out of curiosity and haven’t delved into the topic in depth. “I am not an authority on this topic,” he said.

Shah says the tattoo archive is a way to honor the old traditions and bridge the generational gap.

He recalls many instances where people found their traditional tattoos via his page. One story, in particular, stands out. A man reached out and shared that his grandfather had a scorpion tattoo. Shah’s page helped him understand the meaning of his tattoo and connect with his family.

He says, “These heartwarming experiences do make me happy.”

In another case, a woman contacted Shah for assistance in finding the meaning of the tattoos on her grandmother’s hand so that she could get the same tattoos done.

Vena, an Indian woman, inked the Godna marks of her grandmother. These intricate markings were created in the village of Pasea, Trinidad. Ajee’s tattoos inspired Vena, her cousins, and Ajee. They chose to recreate some of them on their skin.

The speed of the needle penetration makes the difference between stick-and-poke tattoos and machine tattoos. Shah admits that a machine can produce the same design quickly, but he still prefers the slower technique.

“I enjoy the slowness of stick-and-poke.” He says he prefers the stick-and-poke technique because he works with simpler designs.

Shah feels that there are many tattoos but not enough documentation. Recognizing that a collaborative effort was needed, he featured crowdsourced images on the page. “It could have taken me many lifetimes to accomplish it alone,” he says.

Shah hopes to grow the page and delve deeper into this topic.

He says the archive will serve to revive traditional tattoo designs. It will also allow people to engage with this ancient art form and reconnect to their roots.

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