Though once regarded as a lesser art, tattoo has increasingly come to be associated with the expression of one’s identity. And Kolkata has never been reticent in expressing its myriad identities, that too in no uncertain terms. Nearly a decade after Miami Ink, the US reality show which swept us off our feet while highlighting tattoo artists and their customers – each having a story to tell, the rage has caught on in Kolkata. This hub of art has thankfully not turned up its nose at this pop art and instead of merely replicating designs, has come up with a new batch of artists keen on custom designs and customers who are willing to experiment. Read on to discover the trends of tattooing in the city
Tattoo as an art form and expression has existed in the society from as early as 4th millennium BC. Initially, during the construction of the great pyramids, the Egyptians spread tattooing along with the expansion of their empire. Later, the Greeks got involved in the art of tattooing and they used it as a medium of communication. Romans used tattoos as a sign or mark for the criminals, a practice that was prevalent in Far East including Japan as well. Even in the 20th century, tattooing was denigrated by the elite and confined to only certain marginalised sections. At a time when expressionism was thriving, artists brought an avant-garde style and after the first Great War, Dada movement gained force and became rampant and destructive in their motto of ridiculing and loathing war ideology. Much later during the 1950s and 60s it was pop art that brought art to the masses with Andy Warhol being in the forefront of the movement. The turn of the century brought a renewed interest in tattoos from everyone with greater attention being put on the designs and the style of work. Mainstream media played a huge role in popularising tattoos with TV shows highlighting it.
Kolkata & tattoos
It was not until the mid 2000s that tattooing genuinely arrived in Kolkata with the trend picking up in subsequent years. Even then, there was no particular studio solely dedicated to tattooing. They were done in several beauty parlours across Kolkata but the first wave of exclusive tattoo studios hit the city between 2009 and 2010.
“The tattoo culture in Kolkata arrived around 2003 – 2004 when Raja Pyne took the lead but studios came up only around 2010 and the major boom in tattooing started a year later. Before that the trend was not visible enough,” said Niloy Das, the owner of Lizard’s Skin Tattoos. According to him, during the initial days, people were concerned about a lot of things barring the essentials, namely hygiene.
Hygiene plays a very important role in the process. “Money has always been an issue with people. Initially, people were hesitant in spending money and went for cheaper methods. But two years later, a lot of people got tired of cheap tattoos leading to complications and they understood first hand that quality should never be compromised and that a good design always comes at a price,” said Kaivalya Chakraborty who specialises in custom designs.
“Getting a tattoo was also a painful process, making people apprehensive. I think more than the hygiene part, this factor always played a part in the minds of the people,” said Niloy Das.
Artists always strive to tattoo their own designs instead of repeating or copying something, yet customisation took some time to catch on in Kolkata. “People were stuck with particular designs and wanted them to be replicated which was gross,” candidly confided Krishnendu Biswas, owner of Carapace, a tattoo and piercing studio. “Designs like butterfly tattoo, angel tattoo, tribal designs, infinity knot and some hilarious requests for cute and sweet tattoos were the only designs that drew customers initially. I always encourage new and expressive designs and that is what I advice my clients as well. After all cute is just an adjective and it is quite funny if you consider the requests that came in the past or during the initial days. But things are changing now as people have became much more informative about tattoos and a lot of credit goes to the artists for bringing about that change,” said Krishnendu Biswas.
Experimenting with tattoos
“Unless artists don’t point out the reality to customers, the situation is going to remain the same. The first concern is to create awareness and that is the artist’s job. I believe in making my clients comprehend the basics in a simple language because unless artists share their knowledge, people will continue choosing random designs like the infinity symbol or a star or their love interest’s name. Things have changed for the better because we try to tell people to try out new and custom designs and that is how the scene is actually transforming,” said Kaivalya Chakraborty.
In fact post 2012, Kolkata has witnessed a lot of variety in the tattoo work, both in terms of experimentation as well as inking a lot of bold designs. People are much more aware of the necessary precautions that should be taken before getting a tattoo and about the designs as well. “In the early days of tattooing in Kolkata the people who wanted tattoos were stubborn about which designs they would choose without consulting the artist first. The attitude was that they were paying and so all they wanted was a design that they had probably seen somewhere but nowadays this has changed due to the conscious effort of the artists. Now people talk a lot more before getting a tattoo, the mindset of entering a studio and getting a tattoo done instantly is fading and hence there is a lot of room for innovative and creative work. Out of hundred, I’d say we are able to convince 80 people in getting custom work done, the results are therefore pretty good and the response has been positive,” Krishnendu Biswas said.
“I think right now the ratio is 60:40. In sixty per cent of the cases people are willing to experiment and they like our designs and we are able to convince them to try something new or more fitting. The remaining forty percent are people who are less willing to experiment and even then somehow we try to incorporate our own touches to the designs which they appreciate later. We do not do every tattoo that comes our way and we turn down a lot of requests. We want to maintain a certain aesthetic appeal in our work,” Niloy Das explained.
Contrary to popular belief that certain workplaces do not accept tattoos, people from all walks of life get tattoos on their bodies and have not faced problems at their workplace. It is a sign that inked people are getting the same treatment as non-inked people and that is a real progressive trend, according to the artists. “A major section of my clients include advocates and IT professionals. It might seem unbelievable but yes, majority of the tattoo work we do are on working professionals and rational individuals rather than just college students,” Krishnendu Biswas confided. Kaivlya Chakraborty says that a lot of working professionals are experimenting with a lot of new designs and that he has had clients from almost every field of work. “I cannot reveal the major clients since I’ve done tattoos on people from various fields. Sportsperson, musicians, corporate employees, I handled the whole lot,” claimed Chakraborty.
“We treat every client equally. There are a lot of celebrities who come to our studio. We try not to differentiate between them and the regular customers because everyone is a celebrity to us. We have tattooed a lot of Indian Olympic stars as well,” Niloy Das explains.
There are two methods that artists follow while doing a tattoo; stencil method and free hand method. After an initial design and size has been selected, the artist modifies the design and paints it on a stencil paper which is then transferred onto the body of the client. This comes out as an outline on the skin which the artist uses to complete the whole tattoo. In the freehand method, after the design has been finalised, the artist directly paints it onto the skin of the client using a skin friendly marker to determine the perfect size for the design. After that, the final tattoo work is carried out.
The overall price of getting a tattoo depends on the design. It generally starts from Rs 1500 and can extend upto Rs 30,000 and more depending upon the detailing and size of the design.
Tattoo has a very specific aftercare regime as well. The skin pores open up while getting a tattoo therefore a bandage is applied after it is done and artists recommend opening the bandage after 4-5 hours and then cleaning it with a non-scented anti bacterial soap. After that, one has to apply ointment that the artist recommends on the tattoo. Visiting the beach or the swimming pool is a complete no and it is also advised to avoid direct sunlight onto the tattooed area as much as possible.
The tattoo culture in Kolkata is evolving and many think that Kolkata has a better approach to tattoo than a lot of other cities in the country. With artists from Kolkata attending national and international tattoo conventions, the trend is definitely here to stay and grow. In an era where people have become more aware of the self, tatoo art has become increasingly personalised and bent on creating and preaching original expressions rather than following a trend or a cult. It can be argued though that art was always about self expression above everything else but tattoo, shunning its shell of elitism has turned more towards egalitarianism. The concept of high art has slowly made way for pop art and Kolkatans, for a change, are grabbing the opportunity with both hands.