For tattoo artists in Pakistan, the process of making tattoos does not begin with a needle, it begins with an argument. The often heated discussion usually involves the tattoo artist offering multiple religious, philosophical and psychological rationalisations for getting a tattoo.
Zohaib Amjad Butt, who runs a tattoo studio in Lahore DHA’s Y Block, recounts one such encounter: A girl accompanying a client once forced him into an argument about tattoo art being forbidden. “I offered her simple logic: How could an art form, which can help people deal with scars or remind them of a motto they want to live by, be sinful?” The discussion went on for about two hours and ended with the girl being convinced in Zohaib’s argument. Ironically, the tattoo she had come in for was no more than two words on her little finger. “More time is spent explaining and convincing than really working,” complains Zohaib, who spent three months in Bangkok training in tattoo art.
“Ninety per cent of people come with the concept that tattooing is forbidden,” says Zohaib. “They are sceptical and usually ask me about tattoos and religion.”
“My argument is that, how can something that has no social, psychological or physical disadvantages be unlawful?” He explains further, “It’s just an imprint, a result of ink penetrating under the first multiple layers of your skin. It isn’t covering your skin. Mehndi (henna) usually gets absorbed in the same part of one’s skin as a tattoo. The only difference is that a tattoo stays on longer than mehndi. I tell my clients that the purity of your prayers is based on your conscience and intent, and not the tattoo on your body.”
It does not end there either. The clients never come prepared and Zohaib usually has to help them decide on tattoo ideas. “Most people who come in aren’t really that creative. They want tattoos of either their name or their spouse’s name. As many as 50 per cent do not know what they want to get,” says Zohaib. “I usually interview the clients and then suggest something suitable for their personality.”
“I tell them not to hide anything from their tattoo artist or their doctor as the repercussions will last forever,” Zohaib remarks jokingly. “I also advise them not get something they would regret later.”
“Teenage boys usually come in asking to get the name of their girlfriends tattooed into their skin. In most cases, I see them again in a few months when they show up and ask me to remove it,” says Zohaib. “I tell them to get a tattoo they will always appreciate or something that would spark a positive sense of self, and to avoid getting skulls or bones or negative words.”
“While most of them initially don’t know what to get, you can usually predict what they would finally settle on,” says Karachi-based tattoo artist Asif Raza. “Girls in their early 20s are fond of butterflies, floral designs and zodiac signs,” says Raza. “The guys are more interested in dragons or the names of their spouses written in kanji — a system of Japanese writing using Chinese characters.”
Alizeh, who got a butterfly tattoo her wrist, says she didn’t want to opt for something flamboyant. “Too much can draw too much judgment, particularly in Pakistan. This is just for me and my friends and family to see.”
Raza, who runs a tattoo parlour in Karachi, says that he gets a fair share of clients who want to get tattoos of their favourite celebrities, music bands and even African and Indian tribal symbols. “The tattoo trend grows with a developed culture. Tattoo art is a recent phenomenon in Pakistan and it will be sometime before people are completely comfortable with the idea of getting a tattoo,” says Raza.
Zohaib, who has a tattoo of a coffin and a clock with the word ‘ashes’ written in Japanese letters, says that the hardest part is getting your first tattoo. “Many people consider it a painful process but tattoo enthusiasts liken it to a buzz,” he says. “Most people get hooked on tattoos after getting their first and usually keep coming back for more.”
Nabeel, another tattoo enthusiast, has had a Polynesian symbol, Japanese lettering and a chain-themed arm band done by Zohaib. He’s also had three tattoos done in the US, and says that while local tattoo artists aren’t up to Western standards, they are definitely making progress. “One thing I’ll credit Zohaib with is for actually sitting with clients and discussing the pros and cons of the tattoo they want to get. Personally, I feel that people should avoid getting tats with negative or religious connotations.”
Tattoos have also become very popular among those suffering from skin discoloration, injuries or surgical scars. Zohaib has had some clients who have had visible scars on their faces or Vitiligo (a disease which causes discoloration). “Finding a colour matching ones’ skin colour is hard and can add to the cost,” he says. “A lot of women now also prefer getting tattoos to hide their stretch marks instead of undergoing tedious surgical procedures.”
Zohaib, who has inked the skins of famous people like stage artist Nargis, Pakistani drummer Kenny and Roxen’s lead guitarist, actually quit the army to become a tattoo artist. He began his training with Lahori tattoo artist Naveed. “This was two years ago. Naveed had been doing it for 15 years at the time, but a week into the training, Naveed had an accident and then I had to leave. I went to Bangkok, trained there for about three months and came back and worked at Naveed’s place, known as Xtra, for about three months before starting my own parlour.” Zohaib has been running Pitch Black Ink (a tattoos and piercing studio) for about 18 months now.
Raza is relatively new to the business, “I studied fine art from Iqra University, so making tattoos was not so hard for me. I practiced for about four to six months before starting out professionally,” he explains. Raza recently opened his own parlour, Devil Art’s studio, in Karachi about four months ago.
Tattoos are priced according to size. In Pakistan, it costs Rs1,800 to Rs2,000 an inch. Tattoo artists import ink from a US based company, while needles and other disposables are purchased from China.
Once a rare sight in Pakistan, this ink on the skin, in all its desi variety, is steadily growing in its demand and soon, it may just give henna a run for its money.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 17th, 2013.
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