Is it Still ‘Bad’ for South Asian Women to get Tattoos?

Explore the rebellion and empowerment of South Asian women as they break judgement and negativity around tattoos.

Is it Still 'Bad' for South Asian Women to get Tattoos?

"My tattoos protect me from bad energy and nazar"

‘Tattoos’ – almost a frightening word for some South Asian families. 

Within this world of body art, a lot of portraits, pictures, and sketches are predominantly seen on white and black individuals. 

On social media, South Asians are rarely seen in tattoo showcases. 

However, beneath this surface lies a profound shift, with South Asian women challenging stereotypes and etching their mark in the tattooing landscape. 

Whether receiving a tattoo or choosing it as a career, a lot more South Asian women are shattering this taboo. 

This is especially seen in the UK where more women are getting tattoos and their families are growing to accept it as part of the culture.

But, there’s no denying the judgement and prejudice that comes with this form of art.

We look at the complex relationship between South Asian girls and tattoos, exploring the historical context, societal attitudes, and evolving narratives. 

History meets Stigma

Is it Still 'Bad' for South Asian Women to get Tattoos?

Body art has a rich and historic tradition in the South Asian subcontinent, a fact often obscured by contemporary stigmas.

Around the 1900s, perhaps even before, lower-caste individuals began tattooing their bodies and faces as an act of defiance and devotion.

This was in response to routine denials of access to temples.

Whilst this trend slowly died out across part of South Asia, certain areas continued this tradition. 

For example, the Munda tribe still tattoos historical events on their bodies, preserving a cultural legacy.

Despite this rich history, negative attitudes persist, largely influenced by Western interpretations that deemed tattooing as “savage” and “barbaric”. 

Aish Mann, a writer and economist dived more into this on Medium, penning: 

“The tradition of tribal tattooing and body art in Asian and African countries was denigrated and deemed “savage” because the practice was unfamiliar to European colonists.

“Settlers and missionaries imposed their beliefs of modesty and Christianity on the areas where they ruled, and tattoo culture slowly died away.

“They called this process of killing off cultures and practices ‘modernisation.'”

It’s this persistence of negative attitudes towards tattoos that has remained in South Asian communities, especially among older generations.

Tattoos are still synonymous with criminality in the eyes of some elders, perpetuating a stigma that echoes colonial-era biases.

This generational divide poses challenges for South Asian women seeking to express themselves through body art.

A lot of South Asians, even still in the UK, are banned from getting tattoos from their elders.

They believe that if a person gets a tattoo, it will lead to a lack of career opportunities, and will tarnish one’s reputation amongst the community.

For example, London-based tattoo artist Nikki Kotecha reveals: 

“I know they’ll judge, my grandparents and my mum.”

“My mum’s a single parent and I wouldn’t want them thinking that she’s failed in bringing me up because I have tattoos, which is obviously not the case.

“[Otherwise] usually, I’d have no shame walking down the road with my tattoos on show.”

Additionally, tattoos are often viewed as a marker of femininity and marriageability. Heleena Mistry, a tattoo artist from Leicester stated to Bustle: 

“My mum was worried that no one would marry me because of my tattoos and she thought my potential mother-in-law wouldn’t accept me.

“I often wear long sleeves in places or around people that I fear might not be accepting.”

The fear of being labelled “unmarriageable” deters many South Asian women from getting tattoos, perpetuating a cycle of conformity and stifled self-expression.

It’s quite a journey that once a historic and meaningful form of expression has now been deemed “dirty” or “disrespectful”. 

A Rebellion

Is it Still 'Bad' for South Asian Women to get Tattoos?

In the face of societal judgment, South Asian women often engage in a silent rebellion through tattoos.

However, this rebellion is not without its challenges.

Women carefully navigate their clothing choices to avoid unwanted attention and judgment.

For some, tattoos become a symbol of resistance against the conventional expectations placed upon them.

This is quite ironic as it can be compared to the initial reasons some people got tattoos in South Asia all those years ago. 

These barriers are quite detrimental to the community as a whole, as Aish Mann says: 

“Being a member of the South and Southeast Asian community, I find the taboo around tattoos in my culture rather sad.

“Not only is it disappointing to see people forget their own history, but it is even sadder to see them fight over ideas that were forced upon them only a few centuries ago.”

However, with growing equality, South Asian women decided to challenge these notions head-on. 

For some individuals, tattoos serve as a powerful form of rebellion – an assertion of independence after a lifetime of conforming to expectations.

Body art provides empowerment and instil the confidence to move forward with pride.

This is particularly evident for those who have unquestioningly adhered to societal norms, akin to the expectations placed on an “ideal” South Asian girl.

As written in a piece for The Common Sense Network, a tattoo is:

“A coming of age. A graduation ceremony. A reclamation of identity.”

The urgent need for self-expression among South Asian women signifies not only liberation but also a rejection of oppressive and restrictive societal norms.

While not everyone may choose to express themselves through tattoos, it is crucial to embrace those who opt for this.

It can be a therapeutic form of self-expression, and in some cases, tattoos can be a lifeline.

Perhaps the major way that South Asian women have redefined the narratives around tattoos is by entering the industry itself. 

Breaking into the Industry

Is it Still 'Bad' for South Asian Women to get Tattoos?

Breaking into the tattoo industry as a woman of South Asian heritage presents unique challenges.

Heleena vividly recalls the scepticism she faced when expressing her desire to become a tattoo artist.

The pervasive stereotype of what a tattoo artist should look like acted as an initial deterrent.

Apprenticeships were elusive, and even when secured, they often relegated her to menial tasks while stifling her artistic expression.

Heleena Mistry’s experience resonates with the broader challenges faced by South Asian women navigating an industry historically dominated by a different narrative.

In mostly caucasian-filled shops, Mistry claims:

“I drew a lot of Westernised, neo-traditional tattoos because I wanted to fit in with the very white-dominated industry.”

However, after dismantling the stigma for herself and realising what tattoos personified, she took to Instagram to say: 

“I have trajva tattoos because they are a beautiful way for me to reconnect with my tattooing heritage.

“I am proof that tribal tattoos are not uncivilised and primitive.”

“My tattoos protect me from bad energy and nazar, just like a black spot.

“Just like my ancestors before the Western influence, they will be the only thing I take with me at the end of this life.

“F*ck the taboo!”

So, it explains that tattoos are a way of bridging South Asian women to their past.

Regardless if they are based in South Asia or across the world, remembering their heritage and roots can live through their body art. 

However, it goes even deeper than just connecting with one’s heritage as amplified by Mumbai-based artist Utsavi Jhaveri.

She started Border-Line Tattoos, a collective focused on celebrating South Asian history. Talking to Homegrown, Utsavi explained: 

“I was also going through a difficult time mentally due to loss of relationships, friends, and the life I had built in the US.

“My therapist asked me to pick up a hobby to add moments of joy in my every day.

“Border-Line Tattoos was founded at the intersection of a way to deal with my mental health, and having this extra time and money to learn something new…

“…Through my work, I have learned and understood so much about my roots, not just as a Gujarati but as an Indian, something that I was a stranger to a few years ago.”

Through these South Asian women, the industry seems to be heading in the right direction.

And, just like any other industry, with more representation comes more acceptance. 

The Lingering Stigma & Hope for Change

Is it Still 'Bad' for South Asian Women to get Tattoos?

While South Asian women are gradually asserting themselves in the tattoo industry, challenges persist. Nikki Kotecha recalls:

“[A client travelled from Manchester] just to get tattooed by me because I’m a South Asian female tattoo artist.

“I can’t see [change] happening in the next two-three years.

“I’m tattooing a few South Asian girls that get tattoos in places they can hide from their parents.

“If that’s still happening, I don’t think there’s going to be a sudden influx of us coming out of the woodwork.”

Utsavi adds her thoughts to this, emphasising the need for more of a spotlight on South Asian art: 

“As a tattoo artist, I work very intimately with skin.

“It baffles me that there is so little representation of South Asian bodies in mainstream media.”

“My work requires me to digitally place my designs on photographs of human bodies, to help clients imagine various placement ideas, and help understand how a digital motif would translate onto skin.

“When I would search for photos on the internet, I never found even one photo that represented our diverse range of bodies and skin colour across the Indian subcontinent.”

Regardless of these hurdles, there is still hope that the next generation will feel inspired to continue this renaissance around tattooing.

It’s evident for these women and plenty of South Asians globally that tattoos represent more than ink on the skin. It’s self-expression and celebration of heritage. 

The slow shift in narratives is evident both globally and locally.

South Asian artists like the ones mentioned provide much-needed representation, challenging preconceived notions of who belongs in the tattoo world.

The Heartwork Tattoo festival in India and movements like “Brown girls get inked too” in the US signal a growing acknowledgement of diverse voices within the tattoo community.

As the inked community grows, it carries with it the potential to reshape perceptions and encourage a new generation of South Asian women to embrace their individuality and artistic expressions.

The intricate journey of tattoos on South Asian skin is, indeed, a canvas reflecting defiance, resilience, and a celebration of cultural heritage.

Whilst the stigma of tattoos being ‘bad’ is still seen, there is evidence that this could change in the future

Balraj is a spirited Creative Writing MA graduate. He loves open discussions and his passions are fitness, music, fashion, and poetry. One of his favourite quotes is “One day or day one. You decide.”

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