As part of my impending quarter-life crisis, I decided to get a tattoo.
After announcing this to my family, I was hit with the classic “this is Western culture,” and “Indian girls don’t get tattoos,” and all that nonsense. Needless to say, I was amused, since my earliest memory of seeing tattoos was on older Desi women.
Growing up in India, I had strong memories of elders adorned with dark green ink and large, elaborate piercings. As a child, I was fascinated by their jewelry and the peculiar designs fading into their wrinkled skin. I longed to look like that someday.
So, I wondered, where was this dissonance coming from?
Too often, we see glimpses of Victorian morality in our community’s reaction to the arts, queer expression, sexual pleasure, and pretty much anyone or anything out of the ordinary.
The colonial erasure of our history has severed so many of us from ancestral practices and values, convincing us that they were never a part of our history to begin with.
The tradition of body art in South Asia is a complex, eclectic one, with little formal documentation.
Tattoos manifest uniquely in each region or community. Typically, Indigenous folk wore tattoos as a means of protection, or as a celebration of their identity. Many tribal women are tattooed in order to make them ‘unappealing’ to the male gaze, thereby protecting them from predators. Some carry spiritual significance, and are unique to each individual, helping them to recognize one another in the afterlife.
With the onset of the British Raj, fewer and fewer South Asians partook in the custom, working men in particular. Since British government services banned workers from sporting tattoos, this tradition was carried forward by rural women in particular, who continued to tattoo one another.
More recently, many artists that are unable to compete with the professional equipment found in urban studios due to a lack of resources, struggle to find customers.
Traditional body art, as a result of casteism, classism, and post-colonial values, has also been labelled as ‘backward,’ compelling young rural folk to abandon the custom altogether.
Caught in the tangled web of caste, class, gender and colonization, the respectability politics surrounding this tradition are complex.
Although the practice so closely intertwined with our culture is slowly fading from our cultural memory, one young South Asian creator is preserving her heritage by incorporating it in her craft and spreading the word on social media.
Heleena Mistry is a South Asian tattoo artist who is proof that not only do brown girls get tattoos, they design them, as well.
Her designs are inspired by Trajva, a Gujarati form of body art from the Rabari tribe, and ancient South Asian artwork.
She is a strong advocate for making body art more accessible to POC and marginalized folk in particular. As she stands out in the South Asian community by virtue of her profession, and in the U.K. tattoo industry by virtue of her identity, she is determined to dismantle the stigma.
“I’m a Gujarati woman that doesn’t belong to the Rabari tribe that typically had trajva tattoos. However I want to bring back traditional Indian tattoos! Regardless of the caste system, I think it should be every South Asian’s right to wear the markings that our ancestors wore. I have trajva tattoos because they are a beautiful way for me to reconnect with my tattooing heritage. I am proof that tribal tattoos are not uncivilised and primitive. My tattoos protect me from bad energy and nazar, just like a black spot, just like my ancestors before the western influence, they will be the only thing I take with me at the end of this life. Fuck the taboo!” Via @heleenatattoos on Instagram
After scrolling through a barrage of traditional art on white skin, discovering Heleena’s work online felt like a relief.
Watching a fellow Gujarati woman capture my childhood memories and bring them to life brought me immense joy. I felt seen.
Spices, sex positivity, tattoos, you name it, there are far too many wonderful things that have been taken or tainted by colonizers. Artists like Heleena help us to reconstruct our identities by reclaiming and documenting ancestral practices.
So, if you’re a brown girl (like me) fighting her mom to get a tattoo, maybe show her this article.
If she doesn’t like it, get it anyway. Because, fuck the taboo.
Anuja is an international student at the University of British Columbia, with a concentration in mental health and interpersonal development. When she isn’t having an existential crisis, you may find her dancing, taking pictures of her cat or yelling at unclejis. When she is having an existential crisis, you’ll probably find her in a window seat on the 99, listening to Mohammed Rafi and pretending she’s in a movie.