We catch up with tattoo artist Shyamli Panda to find out what is it like to be a female tattoo artist in India in 2017
Photography: Runvijay Paul Hair and Make up: Radhika Khunteta
HI SHYAMLI, TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF My name is Shyamli Panda. I am 28 years old. Originally from Orissa, born and raised in Gurgaon.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN TATTOOING Around five and a half years now.
WHAT SPARKED YOUR INTEREST IN TATTOOS I always loved tattoos but don’t ever remember consciously considering it as an actual career till I met Lokesh, my mentor, at Devilz Tattooz. I loved the idea of having something beautiful and poignant being a part of our skin. I’m not too attached to the idea of “untouched”/ “clean” skin- our lives leave deeper and uglier scars that are unseen and beneath the surface. At least this way we can choose to put beautiful things on top as reminders of where we’ve been and where we wish to be.
AT WHAT POINT DID YOU REALISE YOU COULD MAKE A CAREER OF YOUR ART I don’t think I could’ve done anything else. I’m not someone who can do things that don’t come naturally to me no matter how hard I try. Art or rather drawing was the only form of expression for me and my only true friend for the longest time. I feel fortunate that it became a career as I don’t know what I would do without it.
WHAT KIND OF EDUCATION OR TRAINING HELPED YOU DEVELOP YOUR SKILL SET IN ART AND TATTOO DESIGN Creatively, and conceptually speaking, my college had a huge role to play in how I approach my work now. I studied Visual Communication Design at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. It used to be a good school once but it won’t behoove of me to comment on its current state of affairs. As for tattooing, all my learning is due to the wonderful artists I work with at Devilz Tattooz. They are the most patient, nurturing and inspiring bunch and I would’ve most certainly not lasted without their tough love and support. The initial training was just 3 months, which are the basics but the real hard work begins after that- it takes dedication and sacrifice along with a good dose of passion to get anywhere in this field.
What advice would you give a young girl looking to get into tattooing Don’t let the fact that you’re a girl get in your way and definitely don’t use it as an excuse to not give it your all. If you go out there and kill it, no one will question your worth.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE THING TO DO OVER THE WEEKEND I work weekends! I love going out and catching any good gigs if I can, however. Mostly I am a recluse and a homebody but a couple of drinks down and I am the rowdiest mofo around. My real weekend, however, starts Monday- Wednesday. I take these days to work on my own artwork and a graphic novel that I am slowly chipping away at. I also love catching movies with my friends and my family but I don’t want to go to the f**king theater and stand for the national anthem, so that’s out for now.
ONE RULE YOU LIVE BY Expectation management is everything. Do things with an open heart and mind but learn that life isn’t fair and you possibly won’t get everything equal in return.
YOU ARE YOUNG AND THIS SOUNDS LIKE FUN, DO YOU THINK YOU WILL HAVE OTHER PLANS LATER IN THE FUTURE This doesn’t just “sound like fun”- there are people who have been in this field for 40 years and counting. The plan is to get better and better and definitely to open my own studio.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FORWARD TO IN 2017 Being a happier person, building a great portfolio and visiting Bombay for the first time.
HOW DID YOU GET THE JOB? IT MUST NOT HAVE BEEN EASY OR AS SMOOTH Like I said I was fortunate, I really screwed it up in my first two years at the job, I was definitely the worst employee ever. But for some reason beyond my grasp, Lokesh didn’t kick me out. I was going through a pretty rough patch personally and it was frustrating for me to not be good at something. It took some time but once I got my head back in the game its been a nice steady climb uphill.
AT WHAT AGE DID YOU DECIDE YOU WANTED TO BE A TATTOO ARTIST I first got the idea when I was 21, I’d just graduated. But i didn’t start follow through on the plan till my 23rd birthday. That’s when I quit my previous job as an inhouse graphic designer and started tattooing.
WERE YOU A STUBBORN CHILD? WHAT SETS YOU APART FROM OTHERS I was. I was naive but pretty bull headed. Which is a dangerous combination- I walk into things head first because the idea strikes me. But I can only learn from my mistakes. Who are these others you speak of? I don’t think I am entirely unique- but I’m definitely not a part of the crowd either. That’s because I’ve never actually been able to do so- I’ve always functioned best as an unattached individual who floats from one thing to the other at my own whim. I can’t just stick to tattooing, for instance, I am also into fine art and illustration and writing and collecting music and partying and travelling. So I never quite settle into one thing. It can be an isolating sort of existence at times but its what I know best. Jack of all trades.
HOW DO YOUR PARENTS REACT TO WHAT YOU DO? DO THEY WANT YOU TO CHANGE? WAS IT TOUGH CONVINCING THEM Oh no, my parents are God sent. I don’t really believe in God but if he/she did exist then they would be definite top tier products. They are supportive and encouraging, and in spite of their initial reservations have opened their minds and hearts to each of my endeavours.
How were you practicing? Were you tattooing on yourself I did one tattoo on myself. It was cool, it’s a lot less pressure if you f**k up on yourself. I was terrified for the whole first year while I was learning- I think the key was finally letting go of that fear and focussing purely on technique.
What was your first tattoo My first tattoo was Celtic pentacle- I was into nature worship and all things pagan back then. It was my 18th birthday and I went with the whole goddamned crew to a tiny a** studio in Bangalore. I’ve never taken anyone along for a tattoo since then.
Do male tattoo artists stare and give you that nasty attitude? How do they react or is it a thing of the pasT Oh no, as far as my experience from the industry goes, things have been pretty amazing. Like I said, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am without the support and guidance of the artists I’ve worked with and they have mostly been male. 🙂
In fact, it is the female clients that are most hesitant about female artists- a lot of them are still stuck in the era of living off someone else’s hard work and can’t quite picture women having hard skills to match their male counterparts.
Who are you inspired by My sources of inspiration change everyday- a lot of times I am inspired by the new artists and individuals I meet through my profession. I love women like Sasha Unisex, however, who have mastered the technique have a unique style which they stick to. That’s the aim.
If not a tattoo artist what would you be A print maker! I love lino and screen printing and I eventually want to have a tiny print studio where I can do the custom illustration based prints for musicians and publications.
How many tattoos in a day do you make? DO YOU WORRY ABOUT JOB SECURITY On an average 3. It really depends on the season- some months are hectic and some months are slow. I work in a studio that’s currently doing well and has a steady amount of clients walking through the doors. I’m definitely not looking for safety- but where I work it’s actually hella safe in all ways possible.
Do walk-in clients have a preference for male over female? Have you ever experienced these reactions and HOW do you deal with these Yes! It’s frustrating. It isn’t just that they have a preference, they can’t actually imagine a girl, especially a young girl being a professional artist. I often get, “this must be a hobby for you.” Haha. I used to lose my temper before, often I’d try to school them, but now I usually just shrug it off, ask them to look at my work if they need and leave the rest up to them.
Where do you see yourself in the next few years In the next few years, I should’ve finished and published at least one part of my graphic novel, moved out of the city and started working on having a print/ art/ tattoo studio set up some place warm, preferably by the ocean.
What about fashion? What brands are you seen wearing mostly I’m not brand conscious at all. I think I’ve picked up my favourite things to wear online on sketchy Chinese/ ebay sort of stores or even thrift stores. I prefer to spend on books, travel, good alcohol, food and other naughty things. If I was richer, however, I would hit Miu Miu and Burberry stores quite often. There are quite a few slick local brands emerging in India too that I would definitely get in on if I felt like I could pull them off- Nor Black Nor White being one.
Do you dress up a certain way for work considering it is a creative field I dress up like myself, I work hard on my body (sort of) and I am very comfortable in my skin. I do think fashion is a great way of representing who you are and is a great way to develop an artist persona but it needs to come naturally to work. I usually dress up to suit my mood- all black with combat boots on days that I feel goth and grim, a pop of bright neon color with monochrome on most days, flare print pants from the 70’s on days that I feel my inner flower child and straight up cute little dresses on days that I feel like a princess. I hate the idea of having to cover my body up to make society more comfortable. I love short dresses, crop top, low neck tees, skinny jeans. Anything, that antagonizes the regressive Delhi male brain. (I’m half joking)
What is the best word of advice you have ever received Never give up, never look back.
YOUR STYLE ICON: Shilo Shiv Suleman 🙂 But I could never pull off her gypsy chic.
HOW ABOUT DATING, ARE MEN EASILY IMPRESSED (SINCE THERE ARE FEW OR NO FEMALE TATTOO ARTISTS IN INDIA) OR is it a the other way round Ah, way too easily impressed- it takes a lot to hold my interest however and I don’t date much because I’m a busy person and would rather spend my time with my friends, cat or at work. That being said, it’s silly how intimidating some men find women who have tattoos. I don’t pay a lot of attention to my tattoos as they are a part of my skin and I’m so used to them being there, so I’m always taken aback by the attention they receive and slightly bored of men thinking that they’re a great way to start a conversation with me.
Do you think fashion and tattoos go hand in hand? Why or why not Hmm, yes and no. Yes, because both are forms of personal expression. No, because the fashion industry is about passing trends and tattoos for me are way more esoteric and obviously far more permanent. I’m quite annoyed by people who jump on bandwagons just because everyone else is and that applies to tattoos as well.
YOUR GO TO OUTFIT Crop top, high waist skinnies.
Fewer women get tattooed in India compared to men or even compared to other countries. Is that changing lately I don’t think that’s true at all- at least in metropolitans that trend has changed drastically. What is true however is that women usually go for something small and safe and “classy”. The same patriarchal s*** of not being too loud and blending in with the rest of their basic circle.
Which is the silliest tattoo a client has every asked you to make I think the silliest is them walking in with no idea about what they want and expecting us to tell them what to get. They eventually end up getting some generic thing that thousands of people have- infinity, names of their lovers, feathers, birds- you get my drift.
TATTOO MAGAZINES IN INDIA… India DOES have tattoo magazines, they come and go though and are mostly only known to the people within the industry. I think our country needs an overall push towards individual expression and creativity. Also better knowledge of publication and content design. Till then, one can keep coming up with new magazines but none will be engaging enough to keep the ball rolling. To create interesting content we need a more adventurous client base who’re willing to get more interesting pieces. It’ll all develop slowly as the culture spreads across the country- it’s still a growing industry. We definitely need smarter people with global exposure handling media, though- we can create a smarter audience by feeding them quality content, instead, most people insist on dumbing down their output to cater to mass appeal.
IF YOU CAN GO BACK IN TIME AND GIVE YOURSELF ADVICE STARTING OUT IN THE FIELD OF TATTOOING WHAT WOULD IT BE FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS! Let go of your ego, learn from your mistakes and admit that you don’t know anything- because in the beginning one really doesn’t know much. Oh, and be patient!
YOU ARE ONE OF THE VERY FEW PEOPLE DOING WHAT THEY WANT TO AND LIVING A VERY UNCONVENTIONAL LIFE, WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE TO PEOPLE WHO WANT TO PURSUE A CERTAIN CAREER BUT HAVEN’T DARED TO YET Be headstrong dammit, you only have one life and if you are lucky enough to have the skill and inclination towards anything out of the mainstream then you’re already half way there. It requires as much dedication and discipline as cramming for your B. Com or whatever else everyone studies but it’s ten times more rewarding than any goddamned HR job you could land.