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Instead of a pin-up girl, he'd suggest a Khajuraho motif, a peacock instead of a dragon. Moranngam Khaling, better known as Mo Naga, is a man on a mission - to create a distinct 'Indian' brand of tattoos.
"If Americans, Japanese or Chinese boast of an ancient culture in tattooing, so do we, " says the 27-year-old who is eight years into tattoo art and works out of his studio in Delhi's Hauz Khas village. "Gujarat, Rajasthan, Orissa, Kerala and of course the North-East - all have an amazing history of this art form that unfortunately, our youngsters are not too familiar with. "
Having painstakingly worked towards establishing himself amongst the foremost practitioners of the form, Naga, who is also part of the Rock 'n' Roll band, Matchstyx, is working to drive home the beauty of indigenous designs to keen enthusiasts. "I've been at it for a while and maybe, it's already creating a ripple effect (although I must confess, a rather slow ripple effect), " he laughs talking about the 'Om' motif a young lady wants on her arm. "She already had a butterfly on her back, and this time, wanted something that would be perfectly aligned with what she is passionate about - yoga. It feels good that people are asking for traditional designs instead of the Celtic stuff and other repetitive motifs like pirates, eagles and scorpions, " says Naga who has just launched his tattoo art school, Headhunters' Ink, in Guwahati. "I want to revive the ancient art practiced by headhunters in the North-East. These designs shouldn't be lost just because that culture has become extinct. I would like to give them a new look and interpretation, " he says.
A student of fashion design at the Hyderabad NIFT, a chance visit to a friend's house in 2004 showed Naga another track altogether. "This guy, a half-Thai, was a tattoo artiste. Watching him make tattoos (although on a very amateurish level) was fascinating and I was soon picking up the ropes, " he recalls. In no time, his NIFT classmates were sporting his tattoos. "My friends became my practice canvas, " he quips. "The fact that tattoos were coming into vogue helped. " It was around this time that Lee Jeans, in a bid to attract the young crowd with "something hot and happening" brought him on board as their brand ambassador in Delhi.
"Working on such a professional scale, I soon started doing extensive research on the subject. And that's when the beautiful world of tribal/ traditional tattoos opened up for me, " says Naga. When youngsters come to the artist he talks to them about designs, counsels them on what would work and also subtly introduces them to the idea of indigenous designs. Naga remembers how an English couple, visiting Kohima for the Hornbill festival last year, sought him out in Guwahati for a tribal pattern. "They wanted a design of the Khoi Bu community, a combination of arrowheads and a bee called khoi-ngaan, " he says. "A number of my clients from the West ask for the face of Shiva (one that actor Sanjay Dutt also sports) or Ganesha besides their names in Indian/Sanskrit calligraphy. "
Although the traditional way of making tattoos is with bamboo sticks and thorns, Naga, a stickler for hygienic materials, prefers working with modern machines and equipment. "Those times have gone. Our bodies, with their low immunity levels, might not be able to take to the traditional methods any more. Plus, that technique cannot produce fine lines and results. "
While Naga is happy with the growing interest in tattoos, he has a word of warning for those very young: "It's better to wait till you are adult enough and your skin stops expanding. Otherwise tattoodesigns tend to become disfigured. " Yet another no-no for him is getting a tattoo of your boy/girlfriend's name. "When college-kids come to me with such a request, I often tell them to think it over. Who knows how long a relationship will last? A tattoo, once made, is for keeps;getting rid of it is very difficult and painful. I tell them to leave all this to Hollywood stars and get a traditional motif instead - something that's meaningful, lasting and of course, Indian. "
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