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When you started off tattooing in India, it was barely a known subject. So, how difficult was it for you at that time?

They say that ignorance is a bliss. When you don’t know anything, everything seems okay. The excitement of getting into tattooing eliminates all the hurdles. You just stay positive, and keep your eyes and mind in the right place. I wasn’t just there to stare at difficulties, but was eager to see what was possible for me, and nothing stopped me.

I remember having this conversation with Dr. Kohiyar once, and he shared an instance of your diligence with me. He recalled how, at times, instead of getting the photocopy to prepare the stencil, you would instead just draw out the subject.
When did you realise this potential of yours to put so much attention to detail?

I think you are trying to compare me with myself… I am who I am, and this is my nature I guess. I wasn’t trying to contain myself, and create contrasts. It is who I am.

You spoke a beautiful statement in your first answer, ‘Ignorance is a bliss’. Putting that in context to today’s times, aspiring tattoo artists in India have way more avenues to learn the art form, compared to what you had.
But, do you think more and more younger artists, today, are choosing the profession out of love for the art form, or are they just taking up a lifestyle?

I think your question goes three different ways, here. You are asking about the past, present and future, right?

Yes…

Well, I do come from a time when there were no references you can seek out, and enhance your drawing skills. I come from a pre-internet era. We didn’t have Google. We literally had to buy books, so we had to save and spend the money from tattooing, and make sure that the money we were making through tattooing was enough so that we could justify our costs for studying references.

In the present situation, it is so easy to get references. You need to study an elephant, and there it is. Millions of people are clicking pictures on their smartphones everyday, and pumping in billions of gigabytes of data on the internet every minute. So, you have such a visually rich resource these days, and that should make your job easier, however, the competition is severe too.

Just because you have a bookstore every corner, or just because you have an art gallery nearby doesn’t mean you have a shortcut to the academics.

Severe in the sense that when a client wants to seek you out, they can pin point who the better artist is. Those days, we used to have magazines which were published once in a month. You need to send your pictures now, and then six months later, they would be published. The immediacy wasn’t there. Now, we live in an instant world where if you have something online, it is visible the whole world.

The future generation of artists from this country will have to compete internationally. It will be tougher for them to stand out in a scenario where beautiful work is coming out from all countries. Unlike the past, where you saw phenomenal work coming out of one country, now we see the same spreading to almost all countries.

In fact, I am amazed by the work that is coming out of India right now. I am inspired, actually. It’s one of my regrets that I wish I hadn’t gone, I had waited, but it is what it is. I have to live with it.

Image Credit: Raj Kadam

In this age of photoshop and digital connectivity, do you think artists are depending more on references, and drawing lesser?

Just because you have a bookstore every corner, or just because you have an art gallery nearby doesn’t mean you have a shortcut to the academics. The basics of any art form takes years to perfect. You have to go through the entire process of maturity; in terms of anatomy, in terms of understanding human skin… They are two completely different departments that come in place. One is dermatology – understanding the human skin, the type, race, colour and what not, and what would be the best possible way to go about it.

Everybody wants to look cool.

The other one is the art part of it. Of course, you need to be an artist in the first place to create something out of nowhere. The third is your craft – your tools and understanding how they function, understanding which tool to use for the desired result. So, the artist is constantly evolving keeping these three things in mind.

Now, if your work isn’t good, there’s no second chance. People will judge you right away. But maybe it’s better that way. It pushes my limits too, it keeps me on my toes. I see it as a welcoming change.

We have so many good artists from India, so many of them pulling off different styles of tattooing and genres of tattoos excellently, but very few have incorporated the Indian traditional folk art forms into tattooing. Why?

I think you need to ask that to the Indian psyche. There is this Western influence, umm… the word would be “COOL”. Everybody wants to look cool. If you have a Hanuman or a Ganesha tattoo, it’s hard to go and hit the club. There is this notion that if you are westernised, you will look cooler. That will saturate eventually. Indians will move towards traditional localised imagery, and we have a whole lot to offer. But, that will come later.

Ganesha tattoo by Anil Gupta. Image Credit: InkLine NYC

We do get to see a lot of Shiva tattoos, but most of them have a foreign interpretation to them…

They do not even have the word tattoo right now for India. It’s very Telling that we still haven’t found a central identity in this country yet. Tattooing, as art and fashion, is in its infancy in this country. We have barely discovered ourselves. Oh, we can do this now! There will be other points in future that will push this particular issue on the table, and we will deal with it when the time comes. I think we have to wait for this to come to full boil. We can’t force anything on the public. They will get what they want to get. And the local imagery, in terms of tattoos, is limiting in a way, and to be creative, you have to break a whole bunch of rules. And that notion of breaking rules is again very
Western. Cubism, Expressionism, Impressionism; people have broken the rules of classical art. We know it better as the renaissance. Then you had realism when you saw Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci try to create very realistic art. Then, you had Georges-Pierre Seurat and Picasso, and so on. You always had artists who broken trends and were contemporaries. It’s just a matter of time till Indian tattooing finds its contemporaries too.

For popularising an art form, it is imperative that the audience is also educated about the art form to involve them more. Where do you place that factor when it comes to growing the industry in India?

When it comes to art and creativity, it’s a natural process. People have to look at what’s going on, and good work will always get the first preference. When you dig for water, first the dirty comes through before you get the pure water. That is the purification process. The West has been through that. It used to be quite crude once upon a time. During the dark ages, art wasn’t realistic, it lacked perspective. Then the Romans came, and they started sculpting, which helped them understand proportions and perspectives, and then later came the Renaissance period. So, they have been through the process much earlier. For instance, realism takes years to perfect and master. Our local imagery has traditionally been two-dimensional, and there was no sense of perspective in them. If you look at the Indian miniature painting styles and mythological drawings, they simply drew with pen and ink.

But you also have a big exchange and mix of culture going on right now. Like, a Lord Krishna becomes reference for a movie like Avatar. See! That’s the beauty of it. We just have to wait and see.

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