The stairs leading up to RIP Tattoos (as I find out later, the acronym stands for 'Rage Ink Plague') are decked up with the kind of spidery, Technicolor patterns which you might plausibly want to adorn your back or biceps with. Tucked away at a cosy corner of Lajpat Nagar, RIP Tattoos is a large, roomy parlour, which might look like a top-notch recording studio or a lounge at first glance. There's music playing when I arrive, and an LCD screen signals the fag end of the room, which also houses a neat office where I'm led presently. "There are around 350 places in Delhi where you can get a tattoo," explains Abhijeet Dhaila in an unhurried drawl. The founder-proprietor of RIP, he's in his late twenties or early thirties at the most. His 'r's and 's's roll lightly off the tongue. "It's very clear that not all of them care about the art. There are places in Palika Bazaar where there's barely room for the artist to stand. You need to have a proper atmosphere for the customer. After all, getting a tattoo is painful at the end of the day." The pain which Dhaila speaks of can be quite acute, that is, if the artist gets it wrong or is lax about health issues. Even if everything goes right, a full-sleeve tattoo on your arm (starting from the top, reaching down to your elbow) can take up to four sittings with an artist, with a gap of at least a fortnight between consecutive sittings. The gap ensures that the pain is down to manageable levels. "There are tattoo artists, and then there are tattoo-wallahs," says Dhaila.
Dhaila explains the genesis of RIP proudly, describing how he handled his first customers out of his house, and how he now has two additional branches at Shahdara and Kamla Nagar. It is a success story built from the ground up, and he has every right to be proud. But something about his 'tattoo-wallah' remark has struck a chord. I had indeed thought of visiting tattoo parlours of varying munificence, but Dhaila's brutal summary has made me doubly curious. The next day, I find myself in front of one of the Palika Bazaar tattoo shacks which he spoke of.
“About forty percent of our business comes from cover-ups,” Kumar says. ‘Cover-up’ means improving upon or hiding bad or painful tattoos courtesy amateur work.
If posters could speak, the one advertising Micky Ink would shriek its lungs out. Impossible faux-Gothic patterns emblazon equally impossible-looking biceps. There are two guys and a girl sitting inside the small (I'd put it at perhaps eight by six feet) room. I'm looking for the tattoo artist, I say. "Yahaan toh sabhi artist hain," the girl says, laughing nervously. ("Everybody's an artist around here") One of the guys, whose name is Sunil Kumar, begins to talk about the business eventually. "About forty percent of our business comes from cover-ups," Kumar says. 'Cover-up' means improving upon or hiding bad or painful tattoos courtesy amateur work. This is similar to what Dhaila told me; ironically enough, my current location is the kind of place which he thinks is to blame. Kumar shows me an array of photographs which chronicle his 'cover-ups'; these are pairs of photos with 'Before' and 'After' tags attached. As he flips through the album at a leisurely pace, I feel like I'm trapped in a perpetual infomercial. "Kisi ki sehat kharaab ho, koi zakhmi ho jaaye, ye kaun chahta hai?" (No one wants to anybody falling ill or getting wounded)
There is very little to go by, as far as the price of a tattoo's concerned. A full-sleeve tattoo costs INR 80,000- 1, 25,000 at RIP, while the same is priced at INR 20,000-40,000 at Micky Ink. Depending upon how shady the establishment is, (and I found one which was actually called Shady Tattoos at Munirka) this figure can fluctuate further. What started as a firmly niche thing has now become, well, a Rage Ink Plague. But before you rush to get a special somebody's name etched onto your skin, Dhaila's advice is worth mulling over. "The only names you should get tattooed onto you belong to the ones who've given birth to you, and the ones you've given birth to. Every other relationship changes." From the mouth of a 'cover-up' artist extraordinaire, I take these words very seriously indeed.