Meet India’s Indigenous Tattoo Artists Fiercely Protecting Traditional Designs

The tattoo art of tribal Indians is rapidly fading. A few artists from Nagaland and Madhya Pradesh document the process and design of tribal tattoos to keep them alive.

Around a dozen Narikuravars tattoo tourists on Marina Beach, their buzzing machines creating an unremarkable symphony. D Rajini, 44, has a tattooed eagle on his back.

Rajini says the last time he saw people seeking traditional designs — flowers, Kolams, and bundles of crops — was when his mother’s generation got tattooed. “Youngsters prefer the latest designs. The old ones had a lot of lovely shading that we no longer see,” he says, tattooing cartoon hearts on a customer’s forearm.

Narikuravars have been a part of Tamil Nadu for a long time. Pachai kuthal. This form of art uses the skin to create its canvas and has a greenish tint due to the ink made with herbs and soot. The nomadic tribe began by using thorns and then needles. It was only three years ago that they switched to tattoo machines.

A tattoo marker at South Chithirai Street in Madurai in Tamil Nadu on June 01, 2018. Photo: R. Ashok
On June 1, 2018, a tattoo marker was seen at South Chithirai Street, Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Photo: R. Ashok| Photo Credit: ASHOK R

The ink no longer fades green. Rajini’s colleagues have begun to buy synthetic tattoo ink in Bengaluru and Goa. It is a clear shift from their previous tradition when asked whether he believed that  Pachai kuthal Rajini gets offended when he sees that the object is disappearing. “As long as I am alive, why would it disappear?”

This same paradox is the art of tattooing to mark lineage and culture in India. There is very little documentation on the tattooing techniques and designs of Indian tribal groups. However, a few artists have shared their creations with others to preserve them.

There are now tattoo archives, discussions about appropriation, and the dream of a Tattoo Village.

Finding Meaning

Mangla Bai, a renowned Gond tattooist, began tattooing Baiga and Gond designs when she was seven. This artist from Lalpur village in Madhya Pradesh’s Dindori district travels across the country, patterning thick black lines on those who seek her out. She claims that almost all young women in her community are tattooed by age eight or nine. Baiga tattoos were spread across the body — from head to toe. Some tattoos symbolize the passing of time, while others represent Nature. Women used to have tattoos on the foreheads of their skulls.

Mo Naga’s work
Mo Naga’s work

Tattoos have been used to demonstrate social identity, particularly one’s clan, and age, says Sahana Rao, an independent culture curator, adding that it was also a form of adornment on people’s bodies.

Shomil, the owner of India Ink Archive, a hand-poke artist, says that scorpions are the most popular design across all cultures. Other methods include animals, plants, flowers, gods, and chariots.

The process

Moranngam Khaling, also known as Mo Naga, who has been striving to unearth the meaning and relevance of tattoos of tribes from Nagaland, says, “They are poetic, a form of telling a story.” Different Naga tribes have documented most tattoos with vastly different styles, though all their inspiration is from Nature.

Baiga tattoos

Mo’s work showcases flowing lines rooted in symmetry — all drawn without stencils. He says tattooing is liberating, and his clients are confident in his work.

She says, “However, I quickly switched because I was most comfortable with the needle. My house is where I make the ink. It’s similar to a local kajal, made from black sesame seeds and other herbs. I finish the tattoo by applying turmeric, an antiseptic.”

Mo Naga aiding hand tapped tattoos.
Mo Naga assisted with hand-tapped tattoos.

Tattoo artists in the Kutch area and tribal groups from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka follow similar traditions.

Mo says hand-tapping is a common tattooing technique among the Naga tribes.

N Ramki of the Narikuravar Community, who resides at Ambur, says they only changed from thorns into needles 30 years ago. “We used bicycle spokes as needles. We, however, moved to use tattoo guns and machines as they were less painful,” he states.

The discourse is changing.

Mo is upset when he learns that tattoo and street artists are accused of using unhygienic methods.

“In the past, most tattoo artists used antiseptic herbs, breast milk, and sterilized thorns to ensure safe tattooing. To soothe the new tattoo, turmeric and oil would be used as aftercare. Recent discussions have focused on hygiene in tattoo parlors. Many new tattoo artists in the community are eager to adopt safer practices. They need to be taught,” he says.

Mo Naga’s work

Mo says that interested clients should ideally not pick designs off social media and expect artists to tattoo ‘tribal’ designs. “There needs to be a conversation about indigenous people being empowered enough to tattoo their designs to prevent appropriation,” he says.

He adds that documentation and workshops by the Indian Government’s Ministry of Culture would go a long way in safeguarding a long tradition in the country.

Standard designs include flowers, animals, names, and traditional kolams. The majority of plans are usually tattooed onto the arms and chest.

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