Tattoos are still considered by many as symbols of rebellion. There are clear counter-cultural overtones to getting your body inked. A quick survey of the demographics largely associated with tattoos should make this obvious — hippies, bikers, punk rockers and metalheads are only a handful of niche groups that come to mind whose members you can’t imagine without conjuring up glimpses of intricate, elaborate and often intimidating tattoo art. 

However, there’s a problem with such an analysis, having to do with the fact that it is awfully outdated — as outdated as hippies and punks, who belonged to a specific historical moment far removed from the contemporary world. The art of tattooing today is more or less shorn of its symbolic baggage, which was largely a product of the ’60s. No more an expression of non-conformity, tattoos now work as stand-ins for fashion accessories.

In cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, finding a tattoo parlour is an easy enough task. Even in smaller cities like Jaipur, the business of tattooing is making its mark. Renex Tattoos, owned by Arjun, is known as the first ever tattoo studio in Jaipur. “I don’t understand why some people relate tattoos to rebellion,” Arjun says. “Tattoos are something that we have had in our culture for centuries. Several people in India, for instance, will have grandparents that either had a religious tattoo or their own names inked on their hands.”

In rural Indian culture, getting tattooed was an important rite of passage for youngsters. This tradition goes back many centuries. But India is not unique in this respect. “Tattooing is one of our oldest art forms, and not just in India” Arjun adds. “If you speak to archaeologists, they will tell you that at several archaeological sites around the globe, clay instruments that were used to tattoo have been recovered. So in my opinion, a tattoo is nothing but a symbol of something that is very dear to a person. It’s a design or a statement that the person wearing the tattoo believes in.”

With the rise in the number of people wanting to get tattooed, there has been the parallel, expected rise in the number of tattoo artists now operating in Indian cities. While some have the luxury of working full time at reputed tattoo studios, most continue to practice their art as freelancers. Fiza Rehman is a freelance tattoo artist who trained in London while studying there for a master’s degree in history.

 “A tattoo artist is not just somebody who casts patterns on the skin, but someone who guides you through the whole process,” Fiza says. “They help you from the start to the end. They assist you in getting the right design, explain how it will be done and when it finally is done they tell you how to take care of it.”

One of the most difficult aspects of tattooing, from the viewpoint of a person getting the tattoo, is choosing what sort of tattoo to get (which is second only, in terms of difficulty, to choosing on which part of your body the tattoo should be). You don’t want to be taking such a decision in a hurry, because once you get inked you are more or less committed for life.

Yet there are trends in the tattoo industry. Certain signs, symbols and patterns – seen as having a universal appeal – are popular among the clientele. Vikas Malani, one of the two Malani brothers who started an international tattooing enterprise called Body Canvas, owns tattoo parlours in Delhi, Mumbai and London. He tells us about what his customers are demanding these days. “Astrology-based tattoos and tattoos that show geometric designs, symbolising a person’s spiritual inclination, are in high demand these days,” he says. “Many of the popular designs are based on yoga or meditation. People believe that having a tattoo is a great way of making their belief systems a part of their identity.”

Choosing the right professional is key here. Your tattoo artist can not only help you choose the right styles, designs and colours – a lot here also depends on the skin tone, for example – but a professional tattooist is also an indispensable health-and-safety requirement.

“Finding the right artist,” says Vikas, “is as important as finding the right design you want. You have to understand it’s your body we are talking about. Find someone who uses properly sterilised equipment and chemical-free ink. A professional artist who uses and performs his job with the utmost professionalism will prove to be a bit expensive but at least that way you can rest assured about matters concerning safety.”

No matter how careful people are when it comes to choosing the tattoo they want, there will always be instances of post-facto regret. What if you find the tattoo you got not to your liking, say five or ten years after you got it? Well, there are a number of options to help you rectify your error. One such, as we are all aware, is the more painstaking route of getting through multiple sittings of laser, tattoo-removal surgery – which, according to some estimates, can cost you three times more than getting a tattoo. 

But these days, there’s another, cheaper and trendier alternative on the market. These are called “blackout tattoos”. Put in simple terms, it allows you, quite literally, to gloss over your old mistakes. About blackout tattoos, Vikas says, “These tattoos basically started as cover-ups done to hide a pre-existing tattoo. So you superimpose one tattoo over the other, blacking the latter out. But over the years, blackout tattoos have become quite popular in their own right. People have developed some kind of a fixation towards this ‘dark art’.”

There are, however, some serious concerns about tattoos that continue to haunt the medical community. In March 2014, a group of dermatologists from Germany published a controversial study that linked tattoo ink to skin cancer. The paper caused a backlash from the community of tattoo artists, as well from some figures in the medical community who dismissed such concerns as scientifically unfounded.

“Getting tattoos does not lead to skin cancer unless you get a lot of skin inflammation from the tattoos,” says Dr Kiran Lohia, medical director, Lumiere Dermatology in Delhi. “Increased inflammation is associated with a higher risk of skin cancer. Also, tattoos can mask existing skin cancers, making them harder to diagnose. However, tattoos by themselves do not cause skin cancer.”

 Still, there are health risks to be taken into account. As per Dr Lohia, “Typically, getting a tattoo does not cause any permanent harm to the skin. However, there are risks associated with the procedure. For example, you can get an allergic reaction to the ink. You can get long-term inflammation due to the ink, resulting in bumps. The skin can stretch, making the tattoo appear strange. And as regards tattoo removal. Tattoos now are much faster to remove. We can remove a tattoo in one to three sessions, whereas before it would take anywhere from six to eight sessions spaced from one to three months apart.”

Some tattoo artists, like the freelancer Fiza Rehman, have gone to the extent of recommending a state monitoring body to ensure that health and safety standards are observed in tattoo parlours. “Tattooing to an extent can be considered as a minor skin surgery,” says Fiza, “for it technically involves a minor skin intrusion. So there should be a government body controlling the industry just like the Indian Medical Association. But since that is something which is missing as yet the search for a good artist is extremely important for people who want to get a tattoo.”

India is one of the biggest and fastest growing markets for tattooing. And In the coming years, the tattoo industry is likely to expand further. A few international festivals, likely to host celebrity tattoo artists, are already in the pipeline. So if you’re thinking of getting a tattoo, now would be the right time to do it. Just make sure you choose wisely. Because having a bad tattoo is like living with a hideous hairdo.

things you need to be aware of before, while and after getting inked

  • The prices range between Rs 650 to Rs 2,000 for the first square inch. And between Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 for the inches that follow.
  • Ensure you get an experienced tattoo artist, even if it comes at a price.
  • Be clear about the designs and colours you want in the tattoo.
  • Before the procedure, inform the tattoo artist about any skin allergies or other conditions you might have.
  • If you’re getting some text or a name tattooed, proofread. Twice.
  • Before a tattoo session, get a good night’s sleep, eat a full meal, and don’t by any means report for the session hungover or drunk.
  • You’re not allowed to enter swimming pools or any water body for at least two weeks after you get the tattoo.
  • You are also advised to stay out of the sun for a couple of weeks.
  • Those considering tattoo removal surgeries, should first consult their dermatologists.

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