Of Defiance & Liberation: How My Tattoos Shape My Identity

Of Defiance & Liberation: How My Tattoos Shape My Identity
Image Courtesy: Rupsha Bose

The concept of tattoos or ‘Gudna’ in some regional languages, has been an Indian concept for ages, especially among women and Tribal communities. But today, if a woman, like me for example, is seen with tattoos, she is looked down upon, called names, labelled with different tags, and character assassinated for sure. The history of tattoos in India often goes skin deep.

From the dense and rain-soaked mountains to the deserts of Rajasthan, tattoos have existed way beyond anyone’s imagination or understanding. From prehistoric carvings to ancient runes, tattoos have different meanings for everyone; even in modern times. For example, among the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, young girls were tattooed to ensure they appear unattractive to the rival tribes of neighbouring districts, who could otherwise abduct their prettiest women. But on the other hand, women of the Kutia Kondh tribe of Odisha, also known as ‘the people of the spirit world,’ ink themselves with beautiful geometric facial tattoos. It is said that these marks would ensure they recognize each other once they enter the spirit world.

Such is the history of tattoos in India, but for me, it was a bumpy ride and still is. I got my first tattoo in 2014 when my graduation was coming to an end. Like a teenage girl embarking on another journey from her cocoon, I got a butterfly on my right hand. I didn’t inform anyone and came home. Surprisingly, my parents were cool with it. Then the number of tattoos on my body started increasing. With every incident or memory, good or bad, I etched each story with an image or words on my body.

I never wanted to hide my tattoos in places where people couldn’t see them. Somehow, I wanted people to see my tattoos and wonder what they are. I wanted them to ask me the stories behind them and what the designs meant. But instead, people gawked at me with a negative sentiment, used foul words behind my back or sometimes even in front of me; shamelessly. I used to be bothered earlier but now, nothing impacts me. I embrace my tattoos because they are my story, every ink is etched with an untold and unwritten story that nobody would know if they didn’t know how to read between the lines or in my case, read through my tattoos.

I have been labelled endlessly by my own people, let alone acquaintances or strangers, but I never stopped creating art on myself. Being an artist myself, I not only see papers, boards, or walls as canvases but my own body too. My body belongs to me and I choose to tell stories with it. During the onset of 2022, I started practising stick and poke tattoos on myself. It required me to be patient and to be very honest, it hurts a bit more than a normal tattoo because you are the one applying the process on yourself, which means you have to not only stay patient and endure the pain but also concentrate at the same time.

I cannot say I have mastered the art of stick and poke tattooing but I am practising with each story I want to etch on my body. Till now, I have made almost 10 stick and poke tattoos on myself and I am proud of how far I have come. Yes, now I can write my own stories about myself and honestly, I don’t care now if anybody is able to read it or not or appreciate it; at the end of the day, it’s me who will be looking at them and then looking back and smiling at the journey I have gone through. I don’t care if people say I am not homely enough or feminine enough or look bad; I have moved on from that phase. My tattoos define me and not my character and it’s high time people start appreciating them and not demeaning them with their hypocrisy.

I still remember a relative of mine said, “She is wheatish in colour and not fair and also has tattoos. How will she get married?” Honestly, who cares? I really don’t!

With 31 tattoos on myself now, I am a piece of art and a book of stories at the same time. I am proud of all of them and how I am able to express my emotions through them.

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