When Shomil Shah first started developing a fascination for the art of tattooing, his mother told him how he wasn’t the first in his family to be intrigued by ink.
“My family is from the Kutch region of Gujarat, India, and my mom remembers that her grandmother, my great grandmother, had these unique tattoos on her arms and neck,” the 39-year-old tattoo artist from Mumbai told VICE over the phone.
Though most of us today tend to see tattoos as a form of self-expression, maybe even an indicator of rebellion and a desire to align with the Western world’s ideas of freedom and identity, tattooing has in fact been practised by almost every human culture around the world since prehistoric times.
India, too, has had a rich tradition of getting inked, with people using these permanent markings to signify their status, flash their family name, as a sign of belonging to a particular community, a marker for the afterlife, or just because it looked pretty.
“The problem was that there was very little information available about these tattoos and what they meant, since it was more of a spoken tradition passed down from generation to generation, rather than a historically documented one,” said Shah, who went looking for tattooing traditions across the country, only to realise how they were not well-documented or archived.
And that’s how he came up with the India Ink Archive, a crowdsourced collection of stories that digitally archives and details indigenous tattoo designs from across India.
“I noticed that many old women you would see at the market or train stations also sported tattoos similar to my great grandma's,” he said. “So, I began stopping and asking them about it, if they were comfortable talking to me, to understand the meaning behind the tattoos and symbols on their bodies.”
Shah gathered information through such conversations with various communities as well as by scouring through historical archives and documentary footage. The idea is to create an online archive to preserve traditions as well as to inspire younger generations who might want to adopt the traditions of their ancestors.
The project is also heavily inspired by other artists who’ve come before Shah, such as Mo Naga, a Manipur-based artist on a mission to create a “tattoo village” that helps preserve traditional tattoos from tribes from Northeast India, and Emmanuel Guddu, a photographer documenting similar traditions across Pakistan. The project has also been an important tool in combating misinformation around traditional tattoos.
“A Britisher documented the tattoos of the Apatani tribe in the Northeast as a way to make women less desirable, which was incorrect,” he explained. “I want to use this platform to accurately represent the diverse communities of India.”
From the Kuthia Kondh tribe of Odisha to the Mer tribe of Gujarat or the Todhas of South India, the project has helped Shah discover how each inked symbol carries meaning that sometimes also portrays one’s role in society.
“Many of these tattoos were made using a thorn or even a sharp bone as a needle,” he said. “The ink is often made by collecting soot from burning vegetable oil, and mixed with breast milk, cow urine or milk for their anti-inflammatory properties.”
Shah emphasized that these traditional tattoos relied on indigenous herbs and healing methods, especially for aftercare, in the absence of modern medicine. The tattoos were largely of the stick-and-poke variety and done during the winter months to prevent infections.
“Another common theme we noticed is that women are traditionally more involved in the tattooing community,” he added. “They were in charge of tattooing, and it was even seen as a rite of passage. These traditional tattoos were perceived as permanent jewellery that nobody could take from them, even in the afterlife.”
In the course of his travels for the project, Shah also discovered how tattoos are often revered in Indigenous communities. One such fascinating group was the Baiga tribe of Madhya Pradesh.
“The forehead tattoos of the Baiga women are the first tattoos that they get at a very young age, and they are a unique mark of being a Baiga,” he explained. “They vary slightly from region to region, but the essence of the tattoo always stays the same—a ‘V’ or crescent shape in the middle with parallel geometric lines running across the forehead on either side. These are typically done when a girl is close to puberty, around 6-10 years of age, and is a mark of entry into adulthood.”
During his time with the Baiga tribe, Shah was able to get a tattoo from Mangalabai, a 31-year-old artist from the Badni tribe who has been inking tribal women since she was 13. In turn, his girlfriend, Utsavi Jhaveri, also gave Mangalabai’s sister her first machine tattoo.
Shah noticed, however, that tattooing was on the decline within the tribe, with some of the younger women choosing to get the tattoos on their foreheads but opting out of getting their hands and legs inked, breaking away from tradition. “When asked if their daughters would get tattooed when they come of age, they said they are not sure.”
Shah attributes this decline largely to urbanisation and socio-economic development in these regions, which has in turn led to the stereotype that these markings are primitive or outdated.
In his crowdsourced campaign to document these traditions, Shah also encountered the story of an 89-year-old man named Vithalbhai Joshi, who was originally from Gosa, a small village in Kathiawad, Gujarat. “Vithalbhai has a flower motif on the back of his hand, as well as two bands running around his wrist,” he said. “He got these tattoos when he was as young as 5 or 6 years of age. The band around his wrist is supposed to be a ghadiyal (watch). Only the rich or powerful people could afford a real watch back then. So, everyone else got this tattoo, called a Trajva.”
Through the India Ink Archive, Shah has also noticed a shift in the country’s migration patterns, noting that women from Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh often shared the same floral symbology, but referred to it with different names. “We also noticed that the Trajva style that is usually seen in northern Indian states like Rajasthan and Gujarat can also be found in the Sindh province of Pakistan, which is yet another example of how closely linked we are to our neighbouring country.”
These Trajva designs use similar motifs and patterns, usually inspired by nature and everyday objects, favouring simplistic line or dot patterns.
Shah discovered that one of the many reasons people chose to get tattoos was also because of its connotation as a status symbol, one that is forbidden to some.
One such instance documented by Shah’s crowdsourced project talks about the story of Geeta, a woman from a tribal community who dotted her body with Godna markings, a tribal tattoo characterised by its similarity to ornaments and ritualistic significance. Geeta stood for hours as a young child to get inked, paying for her tattoo with stolen grain. However, her mother felt she was far too young to get a tattoo back then, and had punished her for doing so. Today, Geeta proudly shows off her Godna tattoos, which many in the community believe also bring good health.
But it’s not like all tattoos have to have a purpose or mean something deep.
Shah told VICE about Bhagirathi, a woman from Aurangabad, who was part of a community that imprinted the lotus motif on women. Bhagirathi got inked with the lotus symbol, but she was also inspired to come up with her own tattoo: a symbol of a tortoise, which didn’t mean much to her tribe, but was just something that she liked.
For Shah, this showed that the idea of every tattoo having some deep meaning is overrated.
“We think of traditional tattoos as these sacred symbols, when the reason for many is that they simply looked pretty,” he pointed out. “They, too, wanted to get a tattoo to feel the joy of modifying their body. It’s an important reminder that we shouldn’t take our tattoos too seriously.”