People of ink


Sajeer Shaikh


July 31, 2022


Mankind’s need to be identifiable, to mark traces of history and identity, dates back to the dawn of time itself. Many manifestations of the same have been found – within one’s external environment, as well as on one’s own self. Man has marked caves, leaving imprints of civilization as footprints to commemorate a point in history. Similarly, man has marked himself over the course of time to signify a sense of identity and celebrate belonging to a culture. One such signatory method was the art of tattoos.

Tattoos date back to as far as Neolithic times through traces found on preserved mummies. The art form has survived through the ages and remains alive and well.

In Pakistan, very little is known or understood about the art of tattoos, with little to no secondary information available about the prevalence of tattoos here. In a survey conducted of individuals based in Karachi for the purpose of this thesis, out of the 389 respondents, only 25 had a tattoo. However, a keen interest was shown by respondents to get tattoos, despite never having had one, with 77 respondents stating they would get a tattoo if they could, and 83 stating that they might explore the idea.

Given that this article explores tattoos as a growing counterculture, both interest and pushback are important factors. The growing interest shows that, at least for the past decade where documented tattoo parlors have existed in Karachi, there is an increasing interest in activities that were previously taboo or unknown. While many from the Sunni sect of Islam – a majority group in Pakistan – believe that tattoos are not allowed from a religious perspective, the same does not hold true for the Shia sect of Islam. Religious minorities do not have the same cultural or perceived religious limitations. If they do, the choose to place the sense of self above a need to abide by rigid guidelines.

Anthropologist Areesha Banglani said learning about their history can shed light on how people think about tattoos today.

“If we understand counterculture as anything that is separate from, or in opposition to mainstream culture,” Banglani said, “then definitely, tattoos are a part of counterculture in Karachi. However, historically, tattoos were earned or bestowed upon you. Tattoos were a means of reaffirming faith or praying to higher powers.”

Banglani uses the example of face tattoos that tribes would use for the purpose of recognition, as well as a means to display spirituality. The utilization of tattoos to express oneself was also common in yesteryears, as Banglani said, and is perhaps the thread of commonality in this particular context as well.

“Tattoos are an integral part of one’s identity – be it individual, or cultural,” Banglani said.

Rida Qazi, a tattoo artist who works at InkGrave Tattoo Studio, one of the older tattoo studios established in Karachi, that has been functional since 2012, said tattoos and identity go hand-in-hand.

“Most people get tattoos done as an expression of what they want to achieve, or be,” Qazi explains. “It is an important part of their identity. In fact, we do recommend getting designs that are linked to your identity and what’s important to you, so that you never regret it.”

Sania Sidiki, a Harry Potter enthusiast, said her ink correlates with her sense of self.

“As an avid bookworm, I first became interested in tattoos after having read about the Dark Mark in Harry Potter series when I was just coming into my teenage years. As a Potterhead, I wanted to get the mark on my wrist, but I was too young for the ink. Then, in 2002-2003, I saw a segment on body art on a show called ‘Taboo’ on National Geographic and was fascinated by the types and forms of tattoos that exist,” Sidiki said.

“Ever since then, I had been exploring what kind of tattoo I should get and what will it signify for me. I finally decorated my body at the ripe old age of 30 after much consideration this year (2021) and I do not regret getting it because it turned out great!”

“My tattoo is a culmination of a dragonfly over a circle of thorns and above the dragonfly are the phases of the moon,” Sidiki said. “The dragonfly symbolises rebirth, reformation and I believe I have grown into a woman [whose skin] I am proud to wear. It also shows that I love classic imagery and am fascinated with forms of life on Earth. The circle of thrones represents the barriers I fought through and the grey areas of my personality. The phases of the moon illustrate that nothing is permanent, and everything is subject to change. The phases also highlight that I love the supernatural and admire the atmosphere, the night brings.”

Maha*, a 21-year-old university student decided to get her family name tattooed across the posterior of her neck to celebrate her familial ties, alongside her best friend Hoor Gagai, who celebrated her family by getting a similar tattoo on the same location on her skin.

Both Maha and Gagai expect definite backlash from their parents, but due to the fascination that tattoos hold for them, they decided to proceed with getting tattooed despite the possible consequences.

Due to the idea of permanence associated with tattoos, many are reluctant to get them. For many, getting tattooed can be a spur-of-the-moment decision, as was the case for 20-year-old Ekta Shaikh, who decided to get her tattoo with her best friend, Anushka Salahuddin in Dubai in 2020.

“My tattoo is something I got in jest,” Shaikh said. “It was a long-brewing idea, but the act of getting it was pretty impromptu. I do ask myself what it means to me, and I have concluded that my relationship with my tattoo is that of slow revelation. Over time it has made more sense to me, or maybe I’ve learned its place in the narrative of my identity formation. It keeps meaning more things as time passes, and subconsciously I see myself imbibing the idea behind it.”

Transgender activist Aradhiya Khan said the meaning of tattoos depends on the person. Hers depicts dream catcher and an armband, with a feather, with a variety of colors such as pink, blue, purple, and maroon ornamenting her skin.

“I like the concept of dream catchers absorbing negative energy and harnessing it into positivity,” Khan said. “A tattoo does become a part of your identity.”

Whether or not people attribute meaning to their tattoos, however, is up to them.

“It depends from individual to individual,” Shaikh said. “Oftentimes people get tattoos just for the sake of it, and that’s fine too. In Pakistan I think, tattoos are mostly linked to one’s identity. Simply because, the very decision of wanting a tattoo disturbs the social normative, and so in order to make a decision that is supposedly rebellious, the rebel must have a really good cause for justification. I guess that plays a role in enhancing the importance of tattoos.”

Manaal Fatima, a 21-year-old student from IBA said in her view, tattoos are extremely personal.

“My tattoos are linked to my identity,” Fatima states. “My first one represents a person who played a massive role in shaping my identity. The second one does the same while also capturing one of my spiritual rituals. So they are rooted in who I am.”

Rhea D’Souza said she feels the same.

“My grandma’s death changed my perspective on life,” D’Souza said. “It made me realize how temporary everything is. The tattoo is a permanent reminder of temporary things and situations. For example, we see the semicolon and we know someone tried ending their life but chose to continue living. The reason they probably got the semicolon is to remind themselves of the tough time they got through and the decision they made then was worth it or not. The butterfly tattoo I have for the butterfly effect is similar to the semicolon. Edward Lorenz noted that the butterfly effect is derived from the metaphorical example of the details of a tornado (the exact time of formation, the exact path taken) being influenced by minor perturbations such as a distant butterfly flapping its wings several weeks earlier. A small change can make a big difference.”

Among the sea of people who are gravitating towards tattoos, there are many who have reservations about them.

Ammar Ali Asghar, a student at Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design, said the permanence of the artform is what is stopping him from getting one.

“I don’t dislike tattoo culture or people with tattoos,” Asghar said. “I think they are super cool. I can’t have tattoos on myself or art on my skin for a permanent period, it would give me hyper anxiety that the ink is not going away. I will get bored. I support tattoos done consensually with free will. But, I’m not sure I’d enjoy them on me for a long period of time.”

Amanoon Hussain, a client service executive, said he prefers not to get inked because he believes bodies appear this way for a reason.

“I am not a fan of getting inked because I feel people just use the ink to cover up their bodies and hide their insecurities. I don’t think we have any right to alter God’s creation.”

Rida Qazi from InkGrave Tattoo Studio and Ameer Hamza from Tattoo Ace Studio said the taboo around tattoos is still alive and well. Both tattoo artists faced initial hesitance opening up to their families about their career choice, but slowly, the art aspect of the same has begun to find acceptance.

“I’ve been into art ever since I was a child,” Qazi said, “but was never allowed to pursue it. After I got my first tattoo, I decided I wanted to polish my skills and after I was able to do that, I got into tattooing. It’s still not ideal. I’m unable to openly tell everyone what I do for a living to this day for fear of being judged. But it is what it is and I’m proud of what I do.”

“Karachi is a mixed-culture city where tattooing is sometimes accepted and sometimes, [it is] not,” Hamza said, “but there are still people who are obsessed with having one even if it is against their culture’s rules.”

People who got tattoos say they’ve also faced backlash.

Maha and Hoor Gagai both said they will keep their tattoos a secret from certain family members. Ekta Shaikh said that while her family is supportive, she is still asked to keep the tattoo hidden in public, with some people sharing warnings that bordered on objectification.

“The fabric of Pakistan, between the religious and cultural complexities, makes it very hard to get a tattoo in the first place,” Shaikh said. “People with tattoos have a stereotypical association attached to them – carefree and not too religious. And identifying with any of these two descriptions by default makes one part of counter-culture.”

Sania Sidiki, while facing no issues in the process of getting inked, does acknowledge that it can be a hassle for others.

“Personally, I didn’t face any issues,” Sidiki said. “It was all timing for me. However, I do empathize with other women, and men, who face challenges while getting a tattoo because of societal, religious, and cultural issues. Some like me, who are determined and have some form of independence, do not face issues.”

“But others are not so lucky. I pray they are. My sister had no problems with me getting tattooed, and I hadn’t informed my mother that I was getting ink on myself. My father passed away in 2014 and I don’t think he would have preferred me being a tattooed individual. Some cousins thought it was cool, but at the end of the day, people who respect your individuality will not be concerned about ink on one’s body. I don’t believe tattoos are widely accepted in Karachi. The art form is still stigmatized because of cultural and religious barriers.”

Rhea D’Souza, however, did face some opposition.

“My mom’s side of the family wasn’t okay with me getting tattoos or planning on getting more. They told me that I’m spoiling my skin, my body and that it’s not okay. Some people even told me it’s not allowed in our religion, I’m a Christian. All I said was it’s between me and God at the end of the day.”

With so much opposition to the practice in certain circles, another query that comes to mind is that of privilege – is getting inked a luxury for a few, or is it possible for anyone?

“If by privilege you mean having money to get a tattoo then, alright, I did have money to get it done,” Sidiki said. “Tattooing is expensive with respect to the artist and parlor. Because there are few tattoo parlors in the city, therefore there isn’t much competition. I am certain if more shops open, the prices will drastically come down.”

“Tattoos are expensive in Karachi,” Shaikh said. “Having said that, I think it’s a community thing as well. So many of my friends from the Christian community have access to comparatively cheaper tattoo places, and oftentimes have a different relationship with tattoos in general because of lacking religious stances on tattoos.”

“It’s very easy to get and flaunt a tattoo when you have supportive parents,” Qazi said, “and from the kind of people we get, it’s evident that class and privilege do play a huge role in changing parents’ perspectives.”

Although tattoos are countercultural, the desire to get a tattoo has grown among niche audiences over the past decade. More and more tattoo parlors are opening up with diverse male and female clientele. Over time, they might become more mainstream, even if people with cultural reservations remain opposed to the practice.

Perhaps the desire to get a tattoo says something about people’s desire for self-expression and the need to be heard and recognized for one’s values. Backlash against the practice may say the same thing. On both sides, its clear that getting inked intrigues people to ask questions, which cannot be denied as a force of artistic power.

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