Following a series of lectures on the body and the self, I wrote a paper in Goldsmiths about body art, body marking and the history of tattooing. If you have a genuine academic interest in body art I suggest you read Jane Caplan’s Written on the Body:The Tattoo in European and American History. She tries to distance tattooing from its more common association with sensationalisation in the modern culture and criminality in ancient cultures. I admit that at the time I never researched the history of tattooing in South Asian or Indian culture. In most Masters essays you are not meant to come down heavily on one side but rather to present both sides of the argument and then perhaps argue for your opinion. I however, came down heavily against the marking of the body, in both ancient and modern society. For me it was not just the permanence of the physical marking of the body but the implication it had for the marking of the self on to the physical body and the inability to change that marking. Tattooing I argued, somehow confined ones identity to that one (or multiple) marking(s) and labeled people as those with and without tattoos. There are countless stereotypes about what type of person would get a tattoo and it is precisely that type of boxing in that I resented.
Eleven years later and guess what I did last week in Delhi:
I got this portrait of our Abroozi tattooed at Devillz Tattooz in GK1 M-Block Market, Delhi, done by the very talented and lovely Alex. So knowing my views on tattoos why did I get it done. I think my hesitation with regard to tattoos was, “Why that? Why that, forever, on you?” I guess when you know exactly what you want, there’s no doubt in your mind. I would never want to remove my Abroozi’s face from my shoulder. I have found exactly what I want and it does define me in that I love my little boy and that’s final. It has taken many years for me to know what I would want to get tattooed and I think the unconscious process has made me value my tattoo more. It amazed me how so many people walked in to this tattoo shop without a clue as to what they wanted and chose an image off Google Images or asked the tattooist for their choice of image! I’m sure you can sense my heavy disdain and I sensed that the tattooists were keen that an image or font be the customer’s own selection, this is after all permanent.
Once you get the first tattoo, you are already thinking of what the second one is going to be. I am not even ten days in to my first one and I’m already dreaming up the second one – it is addictive. Now I get it. The pain is not as bad as they say. My tattoo took 3 and a half hours. The first three hours were less painful than when I got bitten by two wasps, two weeks apart. It was only the last 20 minutes that was total agony. So does that mean that unless you experience something for yourself, you have no right to judge its value. I met an old lady today who, seeing me buried deep in to my book, told me that you can learn nothing in life from reading, only by doing. But I don’t think she would have advocated trying say, heroin just to see how addicted you can get – a measure of good sense applies.
I would love to study why tattooing has caught on the way it has in India. What motivates people to get tattooed and what do they think it says about them if anything at all. We’ve always had a culture of body marking – I remember when I was little asking my maid what she had written on her wrist. She had branded on to her, her name and the name of her father and then husband, just like the slave owners did. She said it was a custom. Probably not a bad thing to have college kids get their name and address tattooed on an arm so a drunken evening won’t have them roaming the streets in search of their dorm room. I wonder how far the TV shows LA Ink and Miami Ink (on TLC) have had an effect on young Indians. Judging by the volume of traffic and the variety of people (college and school kids, mums with babies) coming to the tattoo shop in the 3.5hrs I was there I’d say it is a booming industry.
Gone are the days when cleanliness and hygiene were the main concern – as long as you don’t get tattooed by some guy on a beach in Goa with a rusty needle. Tattoo shops have nothing to gain by infecting their customers. At Devillz Tattooz they were extremely professional and showed you the needle in a sealed packet and the expiry date before using them. The work stations and surrounding areas were very clean. And from my tattoo you can hopefully tell how good they are at portraits and bringing to life a concept in your mind that you are unable to visually express.
If you know what you want to get, if you feel it will add rather than detract from who you are, get a tattoo. I now believe that everyone will get tattooed – the ones that haven’t just don’t know what they want yet. If you’re lucky, you’ll figure it out.