On a Tattoo Trail in Nagaland

Here is tattoo artist Mo Naga’s quest to understand the traditional Naga tattoo and ink its revival.

It started in 2004, in my first year of college at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in Hyderabad. As students, we were exploring different mediums of art; when one of my friends saw a tattoo artist, he was immediately fascinated, to the point of convincing me to purchase a tattoo machine. We pooled together some money and bought a Chinese-made machine, which was commonly used for cosmetic tattoos. The news somehow spread and soon, there were three guys who turned up to get their first tattoos. My friend was enthusiastic: “Mo, let’s start,” he said. So I drew the illustration of a woman with a pen and made my very first tattoo. That’s how I began tattooing. Prior to that incident, a tattoo had never been on my mind, even though I had seen tattoos that were done in Burma—a cousin of mine, after completing a martial arts course there, returned with some tattoos on his back and arms. After that incident, I started inking tattoos for people every now and then. This went on for three years. I had already been tattooing most of my college mates, and soon people started coming from beyond this group as well. In my last year in college, Lee (the jeans company) approached me to become their official tattoo artist in the Delhi-NCR region. In 2008, I came to Delhi and I worked as a tattoo artist for the brand for a couple of months. Even then I was not thinking of picking up tattooing as a serious profession. I was just doing it for pocket money.

After that I went back home and was researching on Naga textiles for a project when I came across a traditional form of tattoos in Nagaland—the tattoos of the Konyak Nagas who were headhunters during the days of the yore. I was blown away. That’s when I started my research about the traditional versions of this art form. Tattoo art was not really mainstream at that time, but nonetheless, when I went back to Delhi in 2009, Lee wanted me back. After two months I opened my own studio ‘Mo Tattoos’ in Hauz Khas Village. In 2012 September I decided it was time for me to go back and start my field work. Whatever I could find out from the internet, I had already learned. So, I moved to Guwahati, and opened my school—‘Headhunters Ink’—which is not just about inking traditional tattoos but is a platform to educate the younger generation about our culture as well. Using Guwahati as a base, I began to visit Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur on a regular basis. I started inking traditional tattoos only in 2013. Since there were not many books on the subject, I had to physically travel to the villages and learn about them instead. I went to Mon district of Nagaland first; that is the region which is mostly written about when it comes to Konyak tribe’s headhunting days and tattoos. The experience was overwhelming. The group of elders I met—mostly in their eighties and some even crossing a hundred years—had been headhunters once. Some spoke of having taken as many as twenty heads, some as few as five… I got sucked into this completely different world.

From what I gathered from the elders, people could not just get a tattoo to suit their whims and fancies. Every tattoo is special. In some villages, they are used to mark the transition of child from a girl to a woman. Later, for when she gets engaged, there is another tattoo, and yet another for when has a child, to indicate that now she is a ‘complete’ woman. For men, it is slightly different; men get their first tattoo when they take part in a headhunting raid or into an initiation in a headhunting raid. It is difficult to just say that there is a ‘standard’ to this process, because how they do a tattoo differs from village to village and even the eligibility of getting a tattoo changes from village to village. In some communities one cannot have a facial tattoo if he has not taken a head. In some Konyak communities they don’t do face tattoos at all. One cannot speak in generalities about the tattoo traditions of the Konyak tribe. For me, making a pattern of this kind is a complicated issue. For example, I would never copy the tattoo that a Konyak man is honoured with for taking a head. That would be disrespecting the tribe, and it is important for me that I show respect to this tradition. Naga tattoos are not limited to a certain area of the body—they are drawn on the face, chest, back, arm, fore arm, neck, abdomen, thigh, calf…everywhere. The patterns are mostly symmetric and geometric. From what I understand, there is no pattern in a society which is meant for just one person. Every pattern is predetermined, and passed on from generations to generation. Of course, the pattern must have originated from a trial and error method. And there came a point when a group agreed that a particular tattoo aesthetically suited them and they kept it as their identity. After a point, the tattoo did not change.

Western anthropologists and historians have written that this tradition will be extinct in the next 10 to 15, years when the last elder who has these tattoos passes away. That’s where I come in. My plan is to train talented youths in Nagaland, to groom them into professional artistes for the revival of tattoo art. And through these tattoos we spread our culture. The tattoo revival has already begun. These days, I find that more and more people are asking for and getting traditional tattoos from me. My responsibility is also to tell my clients about our culture, and what the pattern they are getting inked means. I can say with confidence that in the next decade or so, the tattoos that we wear on our body will not only mark our identity, our character, or how we want to be perceived, but the clothes that we wear will be made in such a way to accommodate your tattoo on your body. I want to introduce the Indian art, the Naga art, to the rest of the tattoo world. I want people all across the world to wear these patterns with pride. And tattoos will become one of the biggest cultural ambassadors of the world very soon. People have travelled from England and Germany to get tattoos from me and that says a lot. Indians are getting Japanese and American style tattoos, so why not flaunt patterns that are Indian and which even outsiders are wearing? And for those who want to go on a tattoo trail to Mon district in Nagaland, I can assure you the experience will be worthwhile. There are guest houses, though basic where tourists can be part of our culture. The villages are very welcoming, but one cannot expect luxury here. Those passionate people who want to know about a culture and experience the traditional way of living in Nagaland are very welcome.

Photo Credit: Mo Naga

By: Kishore Seram

Kishore is a friend of Sita and Editor of the magazine – Discover India’s Northeast.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *