Artist Letitia Mendes Is Defying The Binary Across Homegrown Tattoo And Design Spaces

Fiercely private and individualistic, Letitia Mendes is in the business of embossing memories.
Fiercely private and individualistic, Letitia Mendes is in the business of embossing memories.Letitia Mendes

Unlike the ritualistic stick-and-poke art of godna practised by indigenous women across Central India, the electric tattoo machine patented by North American artists in the 1890s still remains a predominantly masculine contraption. Getting inked was once associated with bikers, seafaring men, and ex-convicts. In a world where taboos around body modifications are slowly dissolving, the skewed gender ratio afflicting studios refuses to budge. "There's a lot of male domination in the tattooing industry, very few females and like a handful of non-binary people," concurs Letitia Mendes who is in the process of launching their own venture PulsatInk in Mumbai.

For the longest time, I felt like an alien.
Letitia Mendes

While the mainstream representation of androgyny and transgender people has been around actively since the 60s, the term 'non-binary' only materialised sometime at the turn of the century. "People are still coming to an understanding of what it actually means," says Letty. Needless to say, while growing up in the suburban sprawl of Bandra West, they did not have access to a meaningful vocabulary that could encapsulate the 'in-betweenness' they inhabited. The language of visual tonality took precedence instead and from painting shoes and customising school posters, Letty segued into graphic designing for commercial brands.

"At a young age, I had to make a life decision on how to gain financial stability not just for me but also my family," they recall. Tasting independence and a reliable income at the threshold of college, Letty decided to get their first tattoo at Body Canvas to commemorate how far they had come. "Sitting on that chair for 10 hours, I fell in love with how the story that meant so much to me had become so permanent on my skin." Within two days they were back but this time as an apprentice to the ink masters Vikas Malani, Shyam Waghmare, Sudhir Rao and Daksh Bhanushali. During the pandemic, they would get down for a smoke with their friends Ali and Kaushik, all the while strategising what having their own studio might entail. In November 2021, the trio founded Needles and Monkey at Malad West, a body art crucible that put them on the map of youth-driven, LGBTQIA+ friendly businesses in Mumbai.

Navigating the day-to-day operations at Needles and Monkey such as placing orders, consulting with walk-ins and sussing out the vibes of their clientele has primed Letty with basic housekeeping for an enterprise of this scale. Barely 25 years old, they are already fluent in the skill of managing funds during the slow season, brainstorming on how to spin social media marketing to their advantage — and now with PulsatInk, Letty is holding space to promote what they personally stand for. Meticulously corralling a women-led, inclusive team where "artists can grow in a very beautiful way, without any discrimination," they are one step closer to gatecrashing the stronghold that cis-men have held within the tattooing sphere for ages.

Having been approached for magazine shoots, advertisements and modelling gigs, they are weary of being put into a box and flagged for the sake of tokenistic representation. But in the same breath, they also "feel honoured and grateful to be part of these projects" because it is all for the larger purpose of redistributing power and reclaiming agency as non-binary people. Letty also expresses the importance of allowing those from outside the community to ask questions and raise concerns because a more authentic allyship springs from such difficult interactions.

I feel like there will be more progress if we make it okay for people to not understand and understand at the same time.
Letitia Mendes

Lying spread eagle upon the foldable tattoo bed is an act of wilful surrender. You are not just placing your body but sometimes even your waking nightmares in the latex-bound hands of the artist, who is not too dissimilar to a shaman initiating you into the cult of adulthood. "Vibes are so important when it comes to collaboration in tattooing," Letty reminds us, "because if you can't vibe with your client then you won't be able to stay invested in their story." With all the seriousness of a surgical operation, the sedulous pointillism of a barred needle gliding 1/16th of an inch under the skin is how stories trespass into the realm of eternity.

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