When I started to get interested in tattooing in India, about 12 years ago, street tattoo artists were mostly seen at big religious festivals, melas, but also sometimes on the ground in dusty and chaotic cities.
Today it is pretty much the same although some melas have begun to outlaw these street inkers. I observed it myself in 2013 during the world’s largest pilgrimage, the Maha Kumbh mela, which took place in Allahabad. About 60 million pilgrims from all over India who had come all the way from home to immerse themselves for a few moments in the waters of the Ganges. 60 million pilgrims and not a single street tattoo artist. Unbelievable ! The authorities of this event, for the first time in history, had just banned the practice of tattooing within the boundaries of the mela.
These “street artists” migrate from event to event or sometimes work in a radius of home. Everything must fit in the bag: machines, batteries, ink, oils, turmeric, cloth and all their flashes. For years the designs of these flashes were very basic aesthetically speaking and of mediocre production. It was a set of approximate drawings done on a simple white A4 sheet, sheet then reproduced in the dozens and laminated. Throughout India, street flashes were as simple and basic as that. They were sold or exchanged mainly during melas.
12 years ago I did not think this particular form of folk (popular) art was about to disappear.
The story of these flashes in India began in the middle of the 20th century while India was still part of the British Raj. In Mumbai (then called Bombay), a short distance from the docks, some Indians guys were tattooing in makeshift cabins set up in the street. During a meeting with the father of Indian tattooing, Dr. Kohiyar aka Jangoo, he told me: “This is how tattoos were done in the war days. They kept small sheets like these of this size and mainly they were sailor designs: anchors, ships, mermaids and naked girls…and a few Indian gods…These were the designs during the war days that soldiers wore here, the British. They were the main customers for the tattoo shop, and the few tattoo artists were very busy at that time. But it was still not like a proper shop. Actually there were 1 or 2 shops and it is after the British left that it became completely down on the roadside.”
After the departure of the British, some of these street tattooers from Mumbai turned to the Indian clientele they met en masse at the big fair in Bandra (nowadays a very upscale neighborhood in Mumbai). It was then necessary to change the catalogue…and prices. Dr. Kohiyar told the story of this tattoo artist who had amassed a fortune tattooing the Englishman, then had to fall back on the local clientele: “He said that during the War he had earned 4 lakhs (400,000) Rupees. Not impossible, because Sailors and Soldiers…with nothing else to do, would go to the tattoo shops with bottles of beer, and sit till late at night getting tattooed. Even if 4 lakhs was an exaggeration, even if it was just 2 lakhs, that today would be worth 20 Crores (10 million is 1 crore). But these poor people never put their money in banks, and one day there was an explosion in the docks, a Polish Oil tanker exploded, and tremors were felt all over the city. This man’s home was near to this dock, and got set on fire. All his money burnt up. He said he went off his head, and I can believe it, and now he was reduced to making a Cross or a Ganapatti for Rs. 2 -5”»
The new catalogue definitely offered more “Indian” designs, but not only: Hindu symbols and gods, Christian crosses, some hearts and dragons, and first and last names (usually of father and/or brothers and/or husband on the forearms of girls and women). The designs changed, as did the quality of the drawings and flashes. The realization of the flashes was generally of the same level as the technical abilities of the guys: rather mediocre. What you see is what you will get. Don’t expect anything better. And this gave birth to what can be considered today as a popular art, a remarkable naive art.
The flashes are sometimes the work of the tattoo artist himself (some messy designs quickly sketched on a piece of paper or cardboard), more often the work of other street tattoo artists who have specialized a little in that activity, that trade. They “conceptualize” them, draw them, realize them (duplication by simple photocopying, then plasticization) then sell them, usually during melas. Afterwards some of these buyers sometimes photocopy these plastified flashes, then laminate them, and so on. The result: flashes sometimes super rotten, but that these street tattooers think good enough for their peasant clientele in remote India.
But times are changing. Computers & internet. For about 8 years I have been a watchful witness of these changes, the end of an era. For decades, street tattooists displayed basic flashes on the floor at their feet, as in these photos… and you could expect to get what you were going to pay for: something raw.
Then, about 8 years ago, some of these street tattooists started to incorporate some new elements into their Old School flashes: beautiful flashes in colour, each showing a set of photos of tattoos tattooed on the body of Westerners. These photos are found on the internet, from around the world and sometimes done by excellent tattoo artists. In any case, artists much more specialised and better equipped than these street tattooists. From now on, do not expect to get the design from the colour picture under your dermise. The photo below shows a street tattoo artist at the Tirthgarh mela (Bastar region – State of Chhattisgarh). This one is halfway to the big change. On the right, only old traditional flashes. On the left, only new generation flashes.
For 3 to 4 years now, more and more street tattoo artists have been displaying only the new style colour flashes. The one in the picture below has kept some “Old School” that he has placed along the wall, and in a heap. Obviously he does not put them forward. But today, about 4 years later, he has probably thrown these old flashes in the trash, as so many other tattoo artists have already done.
It was not until my last trip that I tried to get and buy some, mostly to preserve that “heritage”. I was barely able to get twenty or so of them. Fortunately, during the previous eight trips to India, which I mostly dedicated to Indian tattoo culture, I had had the bright idea of photographing a lot of flashes. This way I could save a small part of this form of cultural heritage from the trash and oblivion, a very raw and peculiar form of a rather unique folk (popular) art.
To preserve a legacy is good. Making it accessible to those who are interested in it is better. So I made a catalogue, Street tattoo flash from India, a compilation of the best “Old School” flash pictures. We find ourselves browsing amond a large number of drawings and motifs of a bygone era. The book contains an introductory text of one page in English and French. It also contains sixty black & white A4 plates like the ones you’ll see below, as well as half a dozen colour plates.
Everything is recycled and all these designs and basic drawings can be the embryo of more neat and/or sophisticated patterns. Some have already begun the work, such as Abhinandan Basu (aka Obi), a tattoo artists from Kolkata who practices his skills in his new tattoo parlor in Mannheim (Germany), the Mantra Tattoo Atelier.
I also write at length about street tattooists in my book.