Highlights

  • Looking at the history of tattoos in India
  • What's pushing artists towards traditional ink?
  • A look into the tribes and communities that have a rich history of tattoo-ing

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How and Why | Tattoos Episode 1: The History and culture of tattoos in India

Are tattoos just a sign of western rebellion or do they have Indian roots too? In this episode we take a look! 

The rhythmic whirring of a machine, constant needle jabs, the permanence of an indelible mark, and let’s not forget about pain. There’s a lot that makes the concept of tattoos daunting – perhaps even unappealing. But if there’s one thing that no one can deny is that the trend of getting tattoos has been spreading like wildfire in the world.

What is it about the phenomenon of using your skin as a canvas that excites people so much? Today we take a deep dive into the world of ink.

For the longest time tattoos in popular representation have found themselves associated with the MTV culture of hard rock. But what’s popular may not always be true.
The first few accounts of tattoos in India come from the colonial records of the castes and tribes of India and go as far as 1916. Like with most ancient traditions in the country, the research and information available on when this practice started is almost negligible. However, the tribes and communities of people who continue this tradition trace the roots of their tattoos to religion and group identity.

As varied as the tattoo designs are in India, perhaps just as varied are the meaning and significance of the motifs that people sport.

When a Baiga girl turns 9-10 years old, she gets these as her first tattoo. This motif means stove, this means grain, this is wood, and this again is grain.

Tattoos have served as markers of caste, to define a woman’s coming of age, as a warrior's decoration after battle. An interesting story as far as assertion of identity is concerned is also that of the Ramnamis of Chhatisgarh. A community of the lower castes who decided to rebel against bramhanical laws of worship through the use of ink.

It can be argued that the tattoo tradition in India has skipped a few generations. Colonisation and urbanisation for a while led to the belief that tattoos are primitive and have no place in the modern world. However, after a brief hiatus, people are slowly attempting to reconnect to their roots. This need to know more about the ancient tradition of tattoo-ing in India is also the inspiration behind the work of many artists, like Shomil Shah who documents this artform through his crowdsourced repository – India Ink archive.

Regardless of how much one may try to deny the existence and presence of tattoos in our country, the reality is that the practice of tattooing has been a part of our culture for a very long time. Not just for cosmetic purposes but also for a sense of community. Old records on the tattoo-ing tradition also detail songs and rituals specifically related to the practice.
It's muddy waters to talk about the practice of tattoos without touching upon cultural appropriation. Yes, tribal tattoos are coming back into fashion, but one must ask who gets to sport these designs, and who benefits from making them?
In fact, when talking about tattoos it’s also an interesting question to look at who actually owns tattoos as a piece of artwork? Is it the person who came up with the idea and design? The person who executed said design? Or the canvas – a living, breathing human being. We delve into that in our next episode!

Also Watch -

Episode 2: Who owns a tattoo? The question of copyright

Episode 3: How much money does the tattoo industry make?

Episode 4: Why do people get tattoos? A look at the psychology behind getting inked

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