September 10, 2012
KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Thamel, the touristic hub of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, has its own quirky charm. On one side of the street, branded clothes are on display at a shopping center. On the other side, people are sipping cold beverages in the midafternoon sun.
This neighborhood, also referred to as the backpacker’s district, is home to Mohan’s Tattoo Inn. Up a small staircase to reach the first floor, the tattoo parlor welcomes tattoo enthusiasts with needles and accessories.
Inside one of the rooms of the tattoo parlor, Bijay Gurung is busy with his needle and ink. He is working carefully on a tattoo on one of his customer’s arms.
For the customer, Utsav Sapkota, the pain is apparent. But he says it’s worth it.
“I am fulfilling my much-awaited desire,” Sapkota says.
Sapkota, 26, wears a green vest and black pants. After four hours of needling, blood stains his arm. He says it hurts, but he is happy to have his first tattoo.
The elated Sapkota hands Gurung 4,000 rupees ($50) for his tattoo and thanks him.
“Thank you for getting what I wanted – tattooing my expression on my body,” he says to Gurung.
Sapkota’s tattoo depicts an old South American farmer walking with his head held high, despite needing the assistance of a cane. He drew inspiration from the man while watching a documentary about him on the National Geographic channel in 2004.
The farmer had toiled for much of his life. Though retired, he hadn’t given up his determination to forge ahead in life and accomplish more. The documentary seared that message into Sapkota’s mind and encouraged him to do something meaningful in his own life. To pay homage to the thought and impact it had on him, he wanted to get a tattoo of the old man.
But he had no money as a student then, so he waited. Six years later, he has attained his Master of Business Administration and now has a job at an Internet technology company in India.
“I got this tattoo with the money I earned,” he says. “I have fulfilled one of the biggest desires of my life. After my wounds heal, I’m going to show it to my mother first of all.”
Tattoos are an emerging trend in Nepal among urban youth, who cite various reasons for getting inked ranging from aesthetic to symbolic. Tattoo artists confirm that the number of tattoo parlors has soared in recent years, with local customers beginning to outnumber foreign customers. Tattoos are not new in Nepal but were once only considered acceptable among various communities and religions. But now, large and visible tattoos – formerly associated with lower castes – are accepted as fashion and a form of expression. Still, some warn of health dangers, employment risks and regrets.
Mohan Gurung, owner of Mohan’s Tattoo Inn, says that the tattoo industry has grown more than 15 percent during the past five years in Kathmandu alone. The second annual Nepal Tattoo Convention was held in the capital at the end of April, with more stalls than the inaugural year.
Gurung says that the number of tattoo parlors has also soared. There are more than 50 tattoo studios in Kathmandu, out of which 32 are in Thamel. Pokhara, Nepal’s second-largest city, has more than a dozen tattoo studios.
In recent years, the trends of getting tattoos and learning the art form have been rising in Nepal’s capital and other urban areas of the country. Previously, society tended to associate tattoos with lower castes and criminals. But now, they are fashionable among youth.
Not far from Mohan’s Tattoo Inn, 24-year-old Darshan Gurung, a common name in Nepal, is getting a tattoo of a guitar at the Needle Tattoo Studio.
Like Sapkota, he says his new tattoo has a story too. He likes playing the guitar, but it’s also an ode to his father. His father gave him a guitar as a present. A few days later, he died. Now he wants the image of the same guitar on his arm as a memory of his father.
“This is my favorite instrument, and my father had bought it, who is no longer with me,” he says. “That’s why I want an image of this guitar on my arm.”
The guitar is Gurung’s second tattoo. Eight months ago, he got an image of Buddha tattooed on his right arm.
He says that his house was haunted, so he couldn’t sleep at night. His family and friends, who, like him, are Buddhists, suggested he tattoo the image of Buddha on his body to protect him.
“Since the day I had that tattoo, there has been no haunting,” he says. “I can now sleep peacefully.”
Pramod Jimmy Malakar, a tattoo artist at Needle Tattoo Studio, says that people get tattoos for various reasons, from religious beliefs to aesthetic aspirations. Some want to look different or to express their feelings. Others say that tattoos add beauty to the body.
“Girls sit behind on a bike, and their tattoos show, making the art more attractive,” Malakar says.
Monika Shrestha, 19, a 12th-grade student, has a lily artistically tattooed on her well-formed legs. She says the tattoo adds to her beauty.
“There’s a different kind of fun when you are in shorts and show off your tattoo at college,” Shrestha says.
She is planning to get her chest tattooed soon as a surprise for her boyfriend.
“The young generation like us has new desires,” Shrestha says. “It should be taken lightly.”
Shrestha is also learning the art of tattooing so that she can work as a tattoo artist.
Tattoos have gained popularity among Nepali youth, Malakar says. In turn, he says many new tattoo parlors have opened in Kathmandu’s Thamel area and also in Pokhara, Nepal’s famous tourist town.
Malakar has an average of five customers per day, most of whom are young. Business is booming, he says. Foreigner customers used to outnumber Nepali customers, but this has changed.
“The number of Nepali customers are in same number as foreigners,” he says.
Many times, locals even outnumber foreigners. Malakar says 70 percent of his customers are Nepalis, out of which 10 percent are women. But Mohan Gurung says that the number of men and women visiting his studio is equal.
Both Malakar and Mohan Gurung say they have inked thousands of people.
“From a teenager to a 65-year-old, rich, poor – they all come to my studio,” says Malakar, who has been in business for seven years.
Mohan Gurung registered his tattoo parlor six years ago and now employs five artists. Three of them are busy almost every day, he says.
There are no formal education programs to be trained in tattoo art, so Mohan Gurung says people skilled in art are taking up this profession.
And tattoo studios aren’t limited to inking. People in the tattoo business say young people also come in for piercings. The eyebrows, lips and naval are the most popular requests, but some even get their genitals pierced.
“The society has changed,” Mohan Gurung says.
Sonu Subba, a native of Dharan in eastern Nepal who now lives in New Zealand, says that she isn’t interested in tattoos but plans to pierce her nipples during her visit to Kathmandu.
“I’m thinking of which studio to go to that’ll give me the least pain,” she says.
Mohan Gurung says that tattoos cost a minimum of 1,500 rupees ($18), and piercings range from 500 rupees ($6) to 1,500 rupees ($18) at his studio.
Although young people now associate tattoos with beauty and fashion, Malakar says Nepal has its own history and tradition of tattoos.
Started in Egypt in 2,000 B.C., the art of tattooing entered Nepal via China, Malakar says. A Nepali man named Baburaja Pradhan, who died recently, opened the first commercial tattoo parlor for foreign tourists 18 years ago in the Thamel neighborhood of Kathmandu. Tattoos were not yet commercialized among locals.
“Tattoos are also a tradition in different cultures and castes,” Malakar says.
Various Nepali groups, such as the Newar, Tharu, Rajbanshi and Limbu, have tattoo and piercing traditions. From babies to the elderly, many members of these communities have small tattoos on their body that they do themselves at home.
K.K. Karmacharya, member-secretary of the Nepal Academy of Fine Arts, says that in the early ages, people used metal or cactus as needles and kohl mixed with goat milk as ink to make tattoos.
But there have since been many developments in tattoo technology, which has enabled the growing trend.
People believed that tattoos helped them to remain healthy and also drove away evil spirits, Karmacharya says.
Some youth still believe this, such as Darshan Gurung with his Buddha tattoo. Various tattoo artists still believe in some of the myths associated with inking. One myth is that people with tattoos can sell them in heaven to buy food.
But Karmacharya says tattoos have become mostly superficial.
“The entire tradition has been commercialized and turned into a fashion,” Karmacharya says.
Tattoo artist Bijay Gurung says that the perception of tattoos and people who have them has changed in order to allow this fashion to flourish. Although tiny, nonvisible, homemade tattoos have long been a part of various cultural traditions and religious beliefs, now different sizes, placements and meanings are acceptable as well.
In the past, large and visible tattoos were associated with lower castes and criminals, Bijay Gurung says. But these days, they are considered a form of expression, and people tattoo whatever they feel like.
“We understand the customer’s inner feelings and make art out of it,” Malakar says.
Malakar says that some young couples tattoo each other’s names on their body. When they break up, they come back to change or remove these tattoos.
For this and other reasons, not everyone approves of this trend.
People need to think twice before inking, says dermatologist Dr. Dipendra Gurung from DI Skin Hospital. He says that many people who get tattoos for fashion reasons later regret the decision and come to him to get them removed.
Laser technology to remove tattoos is an expensive and time-consuming process, he says. The removal of smaller tattoos could cost 5,000 rupees ($60), but larger ones could cost four times as much.
For people with less money and time, the doctor says that he performs a surgery in which he cuts a part of the skin. This procedure costs more than 3,000 rupees ($35).
The dermatologist also points out health risks.
Some people might be allergic to the colors used in the ink, causing them to have a reaction, he says. Using the same needle for different customers also creates the risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis B and C.
“People need to be very cautious,” he says. “A mistake can lead into a very big consequence.”
But Malakar says that he only uses disposable and branded needles.
Laxmi Gautam, deputy administrator of the Nepal Academy, a governmental institution for the promotion of Nepali literature, says the emerging trend of tattoos is bad. She says that hours of pain yield nothing but a nonerasable scar on the body.
“Tradition or fashion – the process of needling the body is painstaking,” she says.
Others warn of the professional consequences that tattoos could create. For example, the Nepali army and police do not recruit people with tattoos.
Prabin Sharma, a postgraduate student from Biratnagar, a city in southeastern Nepal, inked his body four years ago under his friends’ influence. A year ago, he wanted to apply to join the police when there were openings.
But when he learned that his tattoo would affect his job prospect, he immediately went to get it removed. He paid 5,000 rupees ($60) to remove a tattoo that cost him 2,000 rupees ($23) to get done.
Gurung Mohan says that young people who come to his studio know what they want, and he discusses it with them beforehand. He also informs them of the pros and cons before they get inked.
Sapkota says he came to get inked after thinking about it for a long time. He considers his tattoo more like a work of art on his body than a scar.
“Every day in my life, this tattoo will help me stay motivated and will give me courage to do something,” he says.
He will also count on it in the afterlife.
“Even if you have millions in the bank, you can’t take them with you,” Sapkota says. “This [tattoo] will be with me until I live, and I’ll take it along when I die. So why not have the courage [to get a tattoo] once in a lifetime?”