In this age of constant evolution, be it human or technological, tattooing too has reached a stage from where it has much to fall back upon, but it also has miles to travel before it can look back. And in current circumstances, Mumbai-based tattoo artist, Ketan Vaidya is probably in a similar plane. He has a sprawling studio (Tat2me Tattoo Studio) in one of the biggest shopping malls of the country, but to his sorrow, the mall is on the verge of losing all footfall. But such a minor hiccup is no match for Ketan’s confidence and drive towards tattooing. Keep his craft in the forefront of all matters, Ketan seems to have a plan for every roadblock.
In essence, he represents the new-age Indian tattoo artist, who will not shy away from challenges, and at the same time, always knows what his goal is. Good tattooing, what else…
We caught up with him recently to feature him as our Artist of the Week. This is what transpired thereafter…
How did tattooing start for you?
Honestly, it was an accident. I had my foot on the door step of a tattoo studio, and that’s how it started. We are talking about sometime in 2003, when I was in Goa for a vacation. We were just chilling, when my cousin instinctively entered a tattoo studio and jumped on the chair. I was just observing the process, and suddenly the magic happened to me when I started to realise the beauty in the art form. I started understanding the beauty of permanence, and permanence on skin.
I remember we used to hunt for other artists in the country on Orkut, and then we started sharing.
At that time, I was in college. I had the habit of drawing right since childhood, so I used to do temporary tattoos for my mates and college models. At that time, I had no clue of what I wanted to do with my life, and tattooing just happened.
But once I fixed my mind on tattooing, in the initial years, I was not even tattooing because I spent all my energy reading and figuring out all the aspects of the art form. I actually started tattooing full-fledgedly only from 2008.
Back then, how was the tattooing scene in India?
Back in the day, there were very few people who were actually tattooing. There was this old school mentality of not visiting studios, or not sharing knowledge. We are talking about a time when people only tattoo flashes to select designs from. Then, internet came into the picture. I remember we used to hunt for other artists in the country on Orkut, and then we started sharing. And that’s where it started changing.
Which artists helped you out during your initial days?
The first guy whom I met was Vishwas Dorwekar. Those days, he used to be tattooing at Victoria Terminus. He was the only guy I could approach back then, because a mutual friend of mine had got tattooed by Vishwas. So, I met him, and he told me that there are no schools or courses that can teach tattooing.
I was eager and wanted to learn tattooing, but there was no one to help me out. Then, I met Sameer Patange. At that time, Sameer was working with Hakim Aalim’s parlour. He helped me out a bit. Sameer showed me the more cleaner, safer and hygienic way of tattooing.
Another great moment of inspiration came when I visited the Singapore Tattoo Convention in 2010. That probably changed my whole view towards tattooing. Seeing legends like Bob Tyrell, Shige, Tim Hendricks being so humble, and sharing knowledge changed the spectrum of tattooing for me.
The problem with brown skin is that light tones won’t stay after a period of say, five years.
That must have been an eye opener…
Yes, and I felt this is exactly what we should be doing with Indian tattooing to improve our standards. If we share, we will all grow, and that’s when I started meeting and interacting with artists. Even now, whenever I see any tattoo studio around, I would just drop by. Till the time we don’t share, we won’t grow. And we cannot grow individually. We have the whole industry to grow together, and that has been the aim since the beginning…
So, what’s imperative for the Indian scene now?
We should start by first changing the Indian psyche towards tattooing. Our canvases need to know and understand the diversity and versatility of tattoo artists available in Inia now. Our works are at par with the global standards. So, once people realise that potential of Indian tattooing, they will themselves then start talking about tattoos within their communities.
Now, we get doctors who are very good clients of ours. They have been getting tattooed by me and Nikita (Vaidya) for over five years now. They come to the studio, and the first thing they notice is that our studio is cleaner than their clinic. So, we need to work in a more organised fashion, and in clean and safe environments so that more and more people gain confidence in Indian tattooing.
You cleary prefer the Japanese style of tattooing, as we can see from your works. When and why did you sway towards this style?
Early in my career, when I worked with soft shades, and when I saw the healed pieces after a couple of years, I saw that the tones had gone away. The problem with brown skin is that light tones won’t stay after a period of say, five years. I fell in love with the oriental style of tattooing because it has good line weight. You have thin lines and thick lines at the same time. Secondly, it has all sorts of contrast into it, which allow the tattoos to stay the way they were done, even after a decade. And it’s not just that. The way they are composed, the way they flow with the body is what I love about Japanese tattooing.
I don’t practice traditional Japanese tattooing, I mix it up with my own style. I like the amalgamation of oriental elements with a touch of realism. I also like placing Indian traditional elements in that mix. In my words, I call it ‘Oriental Realism’.
As a middle class teenager, what are the primary problems that an aspiring tattoo artist faces?
The primary problem is the mindset people have towards tattooing, but they need to understand being a tattoo artist doesn’t change a person. Tattoos do not change a person. You get a tattoo, because you want a mark of a particular memory, or incident with you for the rest of your life. Till recent times, tattoos have largely remined a social taboo in India.
What do you do to keep improving as an artist yourself?
As an artist, I am always trying to keep things a little simpler and precise, because if you do things bold, then people get to see an awesome tattoo from a ten feet distance. Of course, we are always evolving, and I believe in pointing out my own mistakes to myself, because at the end of the day, that is the most honest critique one can ever get. The way technology has evolved has also changed the spectrum of tattooing in a huge manner.
Artists should go back to their healed pieces, so as to pick out their mistakes and work on them. Plus, I also learnt about the importance of scale from Max & Akula. Talking to someone like Bob Tyrell was also an experience that keeps motivating me whenever I sit down to do a tattoo. Any artist’s hunger will never cease. We will always keep growing.
Time for the rapid fire now…
Coil or Rotary
Shige or Jeff Gogue
Black & Grey or colour
Now, a tough one: If I walked into your studio asking for a butterfly tattoo, what would you do?
Two seconds are over…
(Still laughing)… I would first ask you, ‘Why a butterfly?’ And then I would try and understand the idea behind the butterfly. I would do it if you are relating to it, but if you are not, I will sway you to the right direction, and convince you to get something bigger.
One final question. As an artist who has struggled it out, what’s your advice to the younger artists?
Work hard, and stay hungry. Forget about the rat race. Just focus on your work. If you want an apprenticeship, go get an apprenticeship. We made mistakes back in the day because there was no one to guide us. But now, we are here to help you guys out. But first figure out, whether you really want to do this, or you want to pursue this just as a hobby. If you really want to do this, understand that it is a huge responsibility.