Qala Aur Kaam: A Day In The Life Of A Street Tattoo Artist

by | Apr 17, 2023

Picture this : a four-way intersection connecting that connect the arteries of Cyberabad, the modern region of Hyderabad home to tech companies. Traffic zooms around the clock on the six- and eight-lane roads. Three flyovers snake through the sky. Another is under construction. Actually, something massive is always under construction here, which means that the air is always hazy from dustiness. A bus stop on this busy road. And next to this bus stop? Street tattoo artist Mukesh Kumar Baoriya’s studio. 

Sandwiched Between A Bus Stand And A Flyover

“The flyover was really the biggest reason for choosing this spot,” he says smiling cheekily. The sun is high in the cloudless sky; Hyderabad already feels like it is experiencing summer in early February. But Mukesh’s set-up rests perfectly in the permanent shadow cast by two flyovers. He sits on a broken stretch of pavement sandwiched between a busy bus stand and the beginning of a newly constructed flyover. 

Using the bus stop pole on his left and the corrugated metal sheet from the construction site behind him, he puts up a massive banner as tall as the bus stand. It says ‘Mukesh Tattoo Design Artist’ with rows of tattoo images below. To his right, he lays flat another big banner with even more tattoo designs–ranging from lettering to geometric shapes, and religious symbols to butterflies. The banners undeniably grab your attention. Passerbys become potential customers when they double-take, a particular design having caught their eye. 

The 37-year-old man has been tattooing from this spot for the last 3 months. “I chose it because it’s on the main road in a very busy area, and there is high visibility.” Before this, he tattooed in LB Nagar and Nagole, densely populated neighbourhoods at the boundaries of Hyderabad city. 

Roots In Rajasthan

And while he has been living in Hyderabad for the last 5 years, he is from Shiwar village in Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan. And it was in Shiwar that he learnt the craft of tattooing. “I had been working for private construction companies as a labourer for 15 years. But it was very hard physically, and the delayed payments were troublesome. One day, my relative suggested to me that I try my hand at this. He said this is work you can do sitting in one place. And whatever you earn is directly in your hands.”

Mukesh is no exception. He estimates that people have been learning to tattoo using machines and modern practices in his village for the last 30-odd years. “There must be 50-60 of us all over the country, tattooing like this,” he says. “Some more from my village are even in different parts of Hyderabad.” Caste and gender are no barriers he says: “Anyone who wants to learn, can.”

He learnt the craft from a relative, starting by practising on sheets of fake skin. “You can’t pick up a new skill perfectly on day one. You have to learn little by little every day,” he explains. Within a year, he moved to Hyderabad with his wife, who makes wooden bangles, to try to earn a living.

What I make, is mine

“There are some days when I don’t make anything and some days when I make a lot. There is no guarantee–but at least no matter what I make, it is mine,” he says. The tattoos start at Rs.50 for a simple black outline or initials and increases as the complexity or time required to do the design increases. On average, he makes Rs. 15,000-20,000 a month–the majority of which he sends home for his family. “Everything I do, I do for their future,” he says. His two sons study in a private hostel and his 17-year-old daughter lives with her grandparents in Shiwar. His sons’ school fees alone set him back Rs. 35,000 every year, but he values their education. “In today’s day and age, you need to be educated to get ahead,” he says, “I didn’t have a chance to study beyond Class 5 because I was the eldest son and my father needed help in earning. Maybe if I had, I would be somewhere else.” 

About Art And Work

When asked if he gravitated to tattooing because of any artistic inclination, he shrugs,

This is work. If not this then I’d do something else, but kaam toh sabh ko karna padta hai.Kisi bhi kaam ko qala ke bina nahi kar sakte hai. There is an art to all work, one that you have to learn by doing.

He refuses to see art and work as a binary.

So why this work and not something else? Because he values his freedom. “When you work for someone else, you have to work with professionalism. You have to go to work everyday, you have to go on time. But right now, I can take any day off that I want to. I can come and go as I please. Here, no matter what I earn, it’s mine.” And the best part? “If I miss home, I can go back whenever.” 

And he does–he usually leaves Hyderabad after Holi and comes back in June or July. He goes back in part to help harvest sarson and gehu on his family farmland and sow the peanuts, jowar or bajra before returning. His sons also come back home for their summer vacations in this time, so the family gets the opportunity to reunite. “And Hyderabad is too hot to sit outside and tattoo in in the summer,” he adds. 

About The Customers

His customers are people walking by, willing to spare a few hundred rupees and 15 minutes of their time to get inked. “Mostly young working-class men get tattoos, sometimes women will want their husband or child’s name written,” he says. Satish, a 26-year-old construction blasting worker, has come with four friends to get tattoos. They’re all migrants, living in Hyderabad to work. “We took the day off today to enjoy,” he says, “we were on our way to eat biryani and say the banner so we thought we’d get tattoos.” Mukesh consults them on the size and placement of their chosen designs like a veteran tattoo artist and sets his rates. While his friend is getting tattooed, Satish teases him for squirming around so much. “It’s really not that painful,” he says. He has lost track of how many he has, but he started getting tattoos when he was 15 or 16: “I just choose whatever design I like and that I think will look good.”

Tattooing By Hand

“There is a kind of tattooing no matter where you go in the country,” he says. Indigenous tribes across India have practised traditional forms of tattooing by hand, popularly called godna, for centuries. Whether it was a marker of your belonging to a community, your status, your strength or your beauty, tattoos served different purposes for different groups of people. These styles often used simple and repeating lines and shapes as symbolic of nature, celestial beings, and more. The artists, often women, used tools accessible in their contexts: needles, sharp bones, and even thorns to poke; ink from a mixture of soot and water or milk; haldi or cow dung as a disinfectant. 

Mechanised tattooing is only a few decades old in the subcontinent. First perceived as rebellious and unprofessional, a Western import, a new kind of subculture of tattooing has grown to exponential popularity. It is estimated that tattooing generates Rs. 20,000 crores every year. It is fairly common for one to pay anywhere between thousands to ten of thousands of rupees for one tattoo. Conversations in the industry highlight the importance of tattooing as a highly technical art form–where artistic originality meets minor surgery.

Safety And Sanitation

Artists emphasise the importance of sanitary and safe tattooing experiences. The thumb rule is that if anything has come in contact with the customer during the tattoo process, it needs to be disposed of. Tattoo artists regularly look down upon plagiarism, some going so far as to refuse to do tattoos that are pulled from the internet. 

When more and more, tattoos have become an exclusive marker of class, street tattooing exists in a unique position. Mukesh uses a tattoo gun, imported tattoo inks, and the same equipment you’d see in a tattoo studio, down to the kind of soap tattoo artists use to wipe off excess ink after they’re done tattooing. He busts the myth that street artists are bumbling and uninformed about the importance of hygiene–he uses fresh needles, shaves (with a new razor blade) and sanitises the customer’s skin, and sanitises his machine every time.

Keeping Up With The Designs

He tattoos “modern” designs (think butterflies, geometric abstract work and roses) or local motifs with a modern aesthetic like stylised Ganeshjis, trishuls and Oms: “If it is on Google, I can do it,” he says. By far though, the most popular tattoo designs are words. 

“People want to write ‘mom’, ‘dad’ or their girlfriends’ names,” he says. “When I first started, people would want simple letters in Hindi. Then it became English. But ab English ka zamaana hai. And now they want creative typography, not just plain handwriting.” He shows me the different tricks he uses to make it possible for him to quickly and precisely tattoo something like cursive text.

He uses two apps and a jugaadu transfer method: first, on the app ‘Stylish Fonts’, he lets the customer pick a font and type in their word. Once they are happy with it, he uses ‘Traces Light’ to mirror the image and lock his screen; using a gel pen, he traces the design on his phone screen itself. Then, he stamps his phone on the customer, creating a precise design guide without needing to run to a printer, create a stencil and transfer it only skin.

Thanks to his network of tattoo artists from his village (and WhatsApp), he constantly learns new tips and tricks that help him make his job easier. Six years in, he isn’t intimated by any kind of design: “you just have to do it to figure it out.” Street artists like him make tattooing a popular and accessible medium instead of exclusive art.

When business is slow, Mukesh smokes an occasional beedi and watches a Hindi movie or cricket match on his phone: “I have no real shauk, but at least it passes the time.” He chats with a neighbouring banana cart’s owner over chai. By 7 pm, all his materials–banners included–go back into his hard case briefcase. He folds up his stools and catches the bus to go back to his rented room. “In a couple of weeks, I’ll leave for Rajasthan. I’m looking forward to it.”

Featured image from Google Images – Creative Commons Licenses

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