The Return of the Tattoo

Features Issue 26 Jul, 2010
Text by Bhumika Bhutia

Shearie, a young woman who works in a restaurant in the hub of the city, longs to tattoo her body. She wants to look more beautiful, sexy and rebellious. “It will make me different from the others and give me added confidence,” informs Shearie.Indeed the tattoo has become an international fashion statement of the young generation.

Yet tattoos have an ancient history. Scientists unearthed an iceman in the Alps with tattoos that dated back over 5000 years. Similarly Egyptian mummies were believed to have tattoos. The art of tattooing was introduced to China around the year 2000 BC. Greek spies used tattoos to communicate among themselves, while the Romans tattooed their criminals.

Traditions of tattoos in Nepal
In Nepal traditional tattoos have been popular for many generations, especially among the Newari and Tharu communities. The Newar communities of the Kathmandu Valley, especially those of Tebhal and Thimi in Bhaktapur, may be the first to have used tattoos in this country. Among the Newari community tattoos are commonly known as ‘lha–chyogu’. ‘Lha’ means ‘flesh’ and ‘chyogu’ means ‘writing’, thus ‘writing on the flesh’. Tattoos are most commonly used by women and lower-caste Newaris. The tattoos on the feet of Newari women from the Bhaktapur-Thimi area symbolize strength and are supposed to be attractive to the men folk. Skill-oriented classes such as carpenters, potters, barbers and farmers are inclined towards this art. Newaris have a traditional belief that tattoos on one’s body drive away misfortunes. Another belief among the older generation is that when a man dies he takes nothing from this world with him except the tattoos on his body. On the way to heaven if this man comes up against hardships he can sell the tattoos and thus make his way to heaven more comfortable. Tattoos are also used for protection in this life; children are tattooed at an early age to protect them from illness and other scourges of evil spirits. Tattoos often have religious significance; Newari elders have tattoos with images and symbols of different gods and goddesses. The concept of reincarnation is also linked with tattoos. Various religious scripts say that a reincarnated individual will have a sign of their previous life or divinity, for which purpose a tattoo may serve well. This idea is reflected among Hindu Nepalis wearing tattoos on the hands, mostly symbolizing incarnations of the gods such as Shiva, Vishnu, Ram and Krishna, or an Om. (The term for tattoo in Nepali is khoot lagaunu.) These tattoos are common on individuals 40 years of age or older, but have not been used as much in recent decades.

The Tharus are another community well acquainted with the art of tattooing. In Tharu language the tattoo is known as ‘godhani’. Tattoos are predominant among women of the Tharu community and are applied before marriage all over the body, depicting mostly mythological stories and historical events. In this community a newborn child is tattooed either on his leg, hand or chest with designs mostly of birds. These tattoos are done following detailed rituals in the Tharu tradition. The religious value of tattooing a newborn child in the Tharu community is similar to that of bhartabandha, the sacred thread ceremony among Hindus. It is a belief among the Tharus that those with tattoos designed on their bodies will find a place in heaven. Though the tradition of tattooing has lost some of its importance in this generation, tattoos are still common among Tharu elders.

The people of the high mountainous regions also took to tattooing. Here in the absence of modern equipment tattooing is traditionally done with the help of a ‘nilkadha’ (the thorn from the nil tree). The nilkhada is dipped in goat’s milk and designs are made mostly on the hands, cheeks chin, legs and the forehead.

Contemporary Tattoo Art
As the traditional forms of tattooing have declined, a new generation of tattoo lovers have sprung up. Tattoo as an art in Nepal has been kept alive by the efforts of Babu Raja Pradhan a professional tattoo artist who resides in Thamel. Though there is a vast difference between the tattoos of ancient Nepal and most of those designed by Babu Raja Pradhan, still his efforts to preserve and give continuity to this form of art cannot be ignored.

When he started tattooing as a profession back in 1991, Babu Raja was not sure that tattoos would gain popularity in Nepali society. Tired of his job as a driver, he was attracted to the art of tattooing. A visitor from Austria helped Babu Raja turn his enthusiasm into a profession. Gradually he learned the art of designing tattoos, eventually becoming the most recognized tattoo artist in Nepal. Babu Raja feels that tattooing is a personal choice that is not in any way vulgar or unnatural. “Tat toos in Nepal are mostly confined to the younger generation of males, though young women also sometimes come for them,” says Babu Raja. Babu Raja uses a huge variety of designs from many sources, including a few traditional Nepali designs.

“Nepal has a big market for tattooing. Besides the tourists and the common folk who come to design tattoos, even members of the royal family in Nepal have had them. The late Dhirendra Shah and his brother in law Rajiv Shahi both had tattoos done by me,” says Babu Raja. Tattooing on the arms is common among young men while the young women like to get their hips tattooed. Young people I came across in Thamel with tattoos had different reasons for tattooing themselves. Renu, an eleventh standard sutdent said that the butterfly tattooed on her back gave her the feeling of being free and independent. Sameer had another tale to tell: “I had my girlfriend’s face tattooed on my back when we were head over heels for each other, but now she has left me and the tattoo is all I have with me.” Norden, a physically strong young chap from Sikkim, has his arms tattooed with pictures of dragons and knives, which he says make him feel strong and manly. And there were those who claimed that having tattoos on their body made them feel intelligent!

How it’s done

Tattooing is a painstaking art both for the artists and the customer. After shaving and disinfecting the skin the tattoo artist makes a stencil transfer of the design the customer has chosen. The tattoo gun is like a sewing machine and the flesh becomes the fabric. A bar of up to 18 needles bobs up and down injecting ink into the skin’s middle layer. For a three-inch design, the tattooing gun whirs for at least twenty minutes. It feels like a bee sting for the entire time. One should not leave a tattoo parlour immediately, to make sure there is no adverse reaction. Tattoos are wounds that take time to heal. Swelling of the skin and some crusting and peeling are common for the first few weeks. It is not wise to go for a swim or soak in hot water while the tattoo is healing. However, in terms of safety and health, tattoos are not considered harmful for the body (some even believe that tattoos are helpful for resisting certain illnesses, perhaps a holdover from traditional Nepali ideas). “Tattooing does not affect the skin in any way. Tattoos can be removed with the help of lasers or surgery,” informs Dr. Helina Badal, a skin specialist at the Nepal-Korea Donsangh Skin Diagnosis Centre in Kathmandu .

 Tattoo is indeed a challenging and daring art to adopt. In Nepal the cost of having a tattoo applied starts from Rs. 1000 and goes up from there. Getting rid of a tattoo is equally as painstaking as getting one done, and is often more expensive, requiring either laser or conventional surgery.

 There are now a couple of commercial tattoo centres in Thamel. Although tattooing has lost its cultural and traditional value in Nepal, perhaps Babu Raju and the other artists of Thamel will keep the art alive so the tradition carries on in new forms.