Inked Roots: Legacy of Indigenous Tattoos in India

Story by Takshi Mehta

Long before tattooing transformed into an act of rebellion and a fashion statement, India boasted rich indigenous tattoo traditions across its diverse landscapes. From the lush forests of Arunachal Pradesh to the arid deserts of Kutch, Gujarat, and the Gond tribe in Chhattisgarh, these regions were steeped in tattooing practices that reflected the cultural heritage and beliefs of their communities.

Mumbai-based tattoo artist Shomil Shah began his tattooing journey five and a half years ago, spurred by the discovery of unique tattoos adorning his great-grandmother’s arms and neck from Kutch, Gujarat. Intrigued by similar designs on older women in rural areas and bustling marketplaces, he would initiate conversations with individuals sporting these slightly faded and dispersed markings, attempting to understand their meanings, the timing and location of their acquisition, and the method of execution.


“If they were willing, I would also capture some photographs to document their tattoos,” Shah explains

It was through this process that he conceived the Indian Ink Archive – a result of the lack of documentation on tattooing in India that Shah himself grappled with during his research. This crowdsourced platform, launched two years ago, which digitally preserves and showcases indigenous tattoo designs from diverse regions across India.

“Tattooing skipped two or three generations in India due to colonization, because ironically, the western concept of tattooing was that it’s primitive,” says Shah.

“I believe it declined because as we moved to urban centers, people wanted to fit in rather than stand out, and a tattoo was a very clear mark of where you came from.”

In addition to owning a private studio in Versova, where he intricately works with traditional tattoo motifs, Shah is actively developing his own catalog of tattoo designs sourced from northwest, south India, and central India. Collaborating closely with artists like Mangla Bai, who hails from a lineage of Godna artists in Madhya Pradesh, Shah delves into ancient arts such as Godna practiced by the Gond tribes in Chhattisgarh, and Trajva, the Gujarati term for tattoos practiced by the Rabari and Maher tribes of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Besides these, numerous other tattoo traditions also thrive in mostly rural areas these days. 

While Shah practices hand poke tattoos, he opts for modern-day tattooing ink rather than traditional ink derived from burning specific seeds and oil. ‘I would like to do it that way, but it’s still in the works, because there aren’t many people like Mangla Bai who you can learn the art from,’ Shah explains. He emphasizes, ‘my setup is very modern and contemporary, but the tattooing designs are definitely traditional and an attempt to give the younger generations an opportunity to connect with their ancestors and heritage.”

In the future, Shah wants to  “travel the length and breadth of the country and document all of the tattooing traditions,” because the ambition for him is to go beyond preserving or reviving, and creating an actual archive where people can contribute to, to give others the joy that he got when he started the Indian Ink Archive, which was a means for him to connect to his roots.

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