Post by: Avinash Kinra
When offered the opportunity to write a short piece, I was both eager and apprehensive. After all, I have analyzed, dissected, and at times struggled with many of the themes already covered in BGC (albeit from a male perspective). In an effort to avoid redundancy and still be relevant, I felt I should broach a topic I’m familiar with and that will hopefully be of some interest to the reader. Hence, I decided to discuss the visceral and aesthetic notion of being a heavily tattooed Indian male.
From a rational perspective, one can argue that tattooing is simply ink on skin, a minor form of body modification. It stands in opposition to more physical alterations such as piercings, implants, or cosmetic surgery. While I have a deep affinity for tattooing, I have never felt it detracted from my personal or professional relationships at this point in my life. I would like to believe that I have not experienced judgment, excessive curiosity, or avoidance due to my appearance, but one must be prepared to accept such a fate when venturing down the road less traveled.
People may argue that tattooing has become mainstream and that such a status should afford a sense of normalcy. That argument certainly has merit, as tattoos have become more prevalent, and will surely continue to do so in the future. There is, however, a clear difference once the level of tattooing ceases to be quantified numerically. For example, a typical tattooed individual may state something along the lines of, “I have 4 tattoos.” A more seasoned soul, on the other hand, may lose the ability to use such descriptions. When questioned about the extent of their tattooing, they may respond with “I don’t know, a lot,” or something similar depending on personal preference. I fall into the category of referencing entire limbs, with explanations like “right arm sleeve, legs from the knee down, right foot, right thigh, sides, back, chest, etc.”
As a disclaimer, I feel the need to mention that I do not have any tattooing on my face, neck, or hands. I have many friends who do and I advocate the level of personal freedom that allows for that, but I have chosen a path that requires my participation in a conservative, professional environment. Although I enjoy playing music as a hobby, it isn’t my career. If it was, my tattooing decisions may have been different. That being said, I also count myself as part of another community that embraces tattooing culture; the military. I served in the U.S. military as an officer in special operations. My professional life included attending US Army Ranger School as well as two deployments to Afghanistan. Once one considers my interests in independent music and my life in the military, it’s easy to understand my passion for and gravitation towards alternative forms of expression.
I feel like the best way to explain my passion for tattooing is to follow a linear path. The first tattoos I can remember seeing were a small one on my grandmother’s hand (an old school/hard Punjabi woman) and on my parent’s friend from Britain, around the time I was 10. I recall being mesmerized by the British gentleman’s small tattoo (on his forearm no less). When questioned about it he only responded with “days of the old lad, days of the old…” Fast-forward through the awkward years of junior high and into high school, an experience filled with skate boarding, punk rock, playing in bands, sports, literature, alienation, acceptance, and an introduction to ‘night life’. I was ripe and ready to accept a different path. I believe Ian Mackeye put it best when he described punk rock as his portal to the counter-culture. I can relate to his statement, and those new experiences soon manifested themselves into a liberal mindset (not in the political sense, but more in the traditional philosophical sense that we live in complex and volatile world where things are not so dichotomous.) I began to be exposed to a multitude of tattooed individuals in music, and I knew I had to get one. My first tattoo was a small piece on the inside of my leg that I got when I was an eager underage teenager (17). The whole thing took place at a seedy biker tattoo parlor, which is now; thank whatever god you please, defunct.
I hid the tattoo from my parents for some time, until a trip to the dentist with my mother. I asked her if I could get a tattoo, to which she surprisingly replied, “sure, maybe a small one might be cute.” I felt I had an “in” and promptly replied with great enthusiasm “I already got one.” I showed her my ankle and she screamed in horror “that’s too big!” I was in trouble, but the long journey of discontent was only beginning.
Examining the collection of tattoos that now adorn my body, they can almost be seen as a reflection of not only generational styles, but also of my own maturity and interest in tattooing as an art form and craft. With the accumulation of tattoos, there are certain milestones which begin to separate the occasional dabbler from the committed enthusiast. When I completed a limb, I knew I had crossed a certain threshold. Once again the parents weren’t happy, but I felt content. I’m not proud of the early art work, but it is a reflection of my youth. As I became older, the pieces improved artistically and began to reflect my valuing professional work over competitive pricing. As my journey continued, the tattooing became more complex, aesthetically pleasing, and of course, more visible. I began to receive feedback not only from my immediate family, but also from those around me. For the purpose of entertainment and in order to better explain my experience, I have decided to include some of the more memorable observations and anecdotes:
– My Uncle and I happened to be visiting at a family function; he looked at my father and said something to the effect of “you let him do this?” My father quickly replied, “Well, he kind of did it himself.” My father eventually walked away and my uncle continued with “you know my son wanted to get his ear pierced, and I told him ‘If you want to, that’s fine, but I am going to mirror what you do. If you get your ear pierced I will, if you get a tattoo I will as well.’” Evidently this tactic worked, much to the chagrin of my cousin.
– While visiting India I was laughed at by the locals. I don’t take things too seriously though, so a part of me was chuckling on the inside with them.
– I have politely been asked to wear long-sleeve shirts at functions where friends of the family will be present. If it’s family only, it’s safe to bear the scars…
– While visiting family in Singapore, my (affluent) aunt asked to see my arm. She stretched it out and began inspecting it with a fervent attention to detail. My mother, in passing, saw this and remarked, “They’re ugly aren’t they,” to which my Aunt replied, “No, I think they’re beautiful.”
– My cousin in Singapore remarked that I was articulate, well read, and ultimately pleasant to be around. She reiterated this sentiment to my father, and was perplexed that my demeanor was not coarse considering my extensive tattooing.
– My father told me that if I pursued a PhD (something I was considering at one time), I maybe able to change people’s perceptions of tattoos (I really enjoyed that).
– My parents wanted me to meet a lady they had met at a wedding. She is a pleasure to be around and we share several common interests in addition to similar educational and professional backgrounds. Needless to say, my parents were adamant that I wear long-sleeves when I meet her due to her Indian heritage. I, of course, did not and later found myself explaining the nuances of generational and social viewpoints.
– My cousin told me his daughter expressed interest in getting tattooed one day. He said no, but if she goes to war like I did, then she could. As far as I know, she hasn’t taken him up on the offer.
– My father pointed out that when I was younger, I was an avid collector. I collected baseball cards, stamps, coins, comic books, and garbage pail kids (yes, my dear female readers I was a very hip, and I do mean hip, kid). He figured it was only natural that I would end up collecting tattoos and books in my adult life. I was rather impressed with his observation.
– My personal favorite: an Indian cashier at a drugstore asked me if I was Indian, to which I replied “yes, my mother is from Kerala and my father is from Punjab.” She looked at me in amazement and said, “Your parents let you do this (referring to my arm)?” I replied, “They didn’t condone it, but they love me and support me.” She replied with “Yeah, because you know you can’t get a good job.” I responded to her antagonistic statement with, “I’m a Captain in the U.S. military, and have attained a Masters degree from a respected University. Thank you for your concern, but I’m already a professional in my field.” She was clearly caught off guard by my response, and I hope she reconsidered her position on the matter.
Ultimately, I feel that you can’t please everyone in life. My goal is to live a reasonable and humble existence. My family understands my position, and they support me. I am, at times, sensitive to my parents concern over how people may perceive them, considering they have a tattooed hooligan of a son, in which case I have no qualms covering my limbs. I have also resigned myself to the fact that I will wear long-sleeve attire for the rest of my professional life; my current co-workers are not aware of my tattooing. My parents feel that my tattooing may be a detriment to marrying someone of Indian heritage, but I feel that the marriage wouldn’t last if my hypothetical fiancé couldn’t accept my tattoos anyway.
So what is the take away from this? I certainly believe the descendents of the Asian sub-continent will continue to evolve in ways that are not conducive to a historically stoic mindset while living in a fluid western culture. I’m not one to discount the implications of culture, nor do I disdain them. In fact, I rather value them. But why must it be perceived that with such actions I inherently deny being “Indian?” If anything, I recommend readers watch the Vice episodes of Tattoo Age with Freddie Corbin, where he travels to India. Evidently the poor and misguided in India want to get tattooed, which brings me to my last point. Essentially, tattooing is viewed as something viewed in terms of socio-economic status. The good boys with good careers don’t indulge in such nefarious behavior. This may have some validity to it, but not in my world…