Zaheer Chhatriwala: Art and Nothing Else


Indian tattooing is at such a stage now, where you find young artists flooding the scene from all corners of the country. Now, that is exceptional for a country whose professional tattooing history doesn’t go beyond 20 years, but then this art form is still a social taboo to some length. The people who chose tattooing before the digital age still see the art form as not something for which there will be takers aplenty.

Zaheer Chhatriwala is one such tattoo artist, who doesn’t pander to any of the commercial aspects of being a tattoo artist, who dismisses the idea of competitions in art, who still believes tattoos were for rebels, and who still acts like one. And his cause is very straightforward. It’s art, has always been art, and will hopefully remain so.

Shubham Nag of Tattoo Cultr met up with Zaheer, to know more about the artist and person in detail. Here’s what happened next…

How did tattooing start for you?

I think I was studying in Pune, and… a bit of it had taken influence from the metal culture. I wanted to have tattoos on me, but couldn’t have any because I was in college. So, I used to keep designing them. Even for the graphic design assignments, my point of reference would always come from tattoo elements. So, basically that is when the basic idea of tattooing occurred to me. And then, I got kicked out of college and came back to Bombay.

Once I was back, I fixed my mind that I am not going back to education again. But my dad was like, No, you have to do something. And, I was like let me just learn tattooing, for a hobby’sake, not even as a profession. At that time, I had not even thought of it as a profession. So then, I approached a few studios here, and ultimately went to Sameer (Patange). He saw my college portfolio, and agreed to teach me.

At the same time, my dad told me I had to complete my graduation. So, I chose fine arts, because that felt the easiest thing to get into, at that time.

Did the fine arts course help you with your tattooing?

No. Actually, my tattooing helped my fine arts because what my perception of fine arts completely changed after I entered the degree course. I entered the course with the idea that fine arts is all about one’s artistic skills and vision, but most of my fine art work was also revolving around tattoo elements, like skulls and roses. The college authorities didn’t take that kindly, and said that I need to keep my fine arts and tattooing seperate, but I was like tattoo designs are also art. So yeah, tattooing helped my fine arts, and not the other way round.

Take some more interest in your own tattoo. Give it thought. Sleep over it.

After starting your apprenticeship with Sameer, how and when did your outlook towards tattooing change?

It actually didn’t change for the first year and a half. At that time, I really thought I was going to be a fine artist. The only reason I enjoyed tattooing so much at that time was because of the exposure it gave me. I was getting to learn a lot, from a lot of people, because it is only in tattoo shops that you get to meet so many different people on a day-to-day basis. And when I got exposed to the different styles and techniques, that’s when I realised that I should bring my fine arts abilities to tattooing, instead of doing it the other way round. I took tattooing seriously in my last year of college, because that’s when I reached my saturation point with the shit curriculum they were following in college. That’s when I decided that I will stick to tattooing.

Initially, my parents were completely against the idea, but when they saw the seriousness and passion towards the art form in me, they too started to accept it.

In the world of tattoos, which artists were your initial inspiration?

They never inspired me. I used to see their works, and used to be just curious as to how did they do it. I was like, Wait, that’s a different type of shading. I don’t know how to shade like that.

The big guys at that time were the likes of Victor Portugal, Paul Booth, Bob Tyrell… (Anil) Gupta was big. You always refer to their works, but you never got the chance to do all that work until now, in India. We have been looking up to that shit for quite a while now.

From the time when you started out to now, how has the client psyche changed?

See, I think because of the fact that for the past four years, I have been trying to push the notion that every client of mine should think themselves on their tattoo, as well. I have always been like, Take some more interest in your own tattoo. Give it thought. Sleep over it. So, people have then passed it on that you can go to this guy with your own unique concept, and he can do something for you. That has evolved from back in the day. It is a slow process, and is still going on.

FUCK IT!, I have to bring new shit into this.

4-5 years ago, if I told someone to get a mandala tattoo, they’d be like, Fuck You! We are not doing this Rangoli on our body. And now, people are like dying for it. Back then, people’s perception of dotwork was that they are just mehndi patterns. But, look at the scene now. So, the more unique work you do, the more people are exposed. See, the general public doesn’t browse Pinterest for tattoos, everyday. It is only if you are friends with them on Facebook that they will get to see your work. The thing that has evolved is not much of the design sense, but the trust in the artist. Back in the day, you needed to convince them a lot, educate them really deeply. Now, people are like, We have seen your work. We trust you.

Even at that stage when you need money, when you need to put yourself out on all social platforms, I was like FUCK IT!

And, how are your consultations like?

In my consultations, earlier I used to show them references of works of different artists, saying that this style will look good on you, and such. But now, I don’t even bother doing that. Just leave the work up to me, I am going to create something different. When it’s a totally unique concept, then obviously I need to refer to something.

I am very happy to see the change, because now after seven and a half years, people are finally trusting me enough to do whatever I want to do on their skin. Even when I want to freehand something, they are cool with it.

At this stage of your career, where you have a clientele that trusts you so much, do you want to incline to any particular style of tattooing?

No, that’s so boring.Once you reserve yourself to a particular style of tattooing, you are gonna forget everything else. Why bother? At the end of the day, you’ve got to be creative. If you restrict yourself to any style, you will ultimately meet a dead end. Now, I have done like 10 dotwork pieces, and I am like, ‘FUCK IT!, I have to bring new shit into this.’ I have to do it different with every single tattoo.

So, when it comes to composing your designs, do you completely sketch them out, or are you a photoshop genius too?

No, I don’t even know Photoshop. It’s sad that I have to write it every time I upload a new tattoo, but I don’t even know it. I sometimes use Corel Draw to resize and crop some designs, but I mostly sketch everything out. I just take some elements, print them out, and sketch out the entire composition. The main point of any design is the composition, so if you don’t know your focal points, that is going to ruin your tattoo. For me, the design has to be composed well according to the design specifics. If you see my work, even a fifth grader can do better editing work than I do. And if your work is good enough, then why bother editing it? You should to be true to your work at every stage. If there is a mistake in the tattoo, let the mistake be. I don’t want my pictures to be so awesome that the tattoo is shit, yet the photo looks awesome. I want people to be like, FUCK the editing, just look at the work.

How is the experience of tattooing collectors, as compared to people new to tattoos?

Oh, it’s even more interesting! Every reference that you make, every suggestion that you make, you know they understand everything. If I tell him that I will refer to this artist’s work, he will be like ‘Oh, yes. I know that guy.’ A random client won’t even have the slightest idea. With a person who has got tattooed at least five or six times, it gets easier because your relation with that client also doesn’t remain like a client anymore. He/she becomes like your best friend. When you are tattooing for long hours, you tend to share so many stories and incidents. And with more experienced people, it’s more fun because they trust you a lot, and you want to do a better job on their skin too.

Unlike a lot of other studios, you have kept yourself restricted to just appointments. Why so?

I have not kept it just an appointment-only studio. I have kept myself away from all the commercial aspects. I don’t want to pander to every guy on the road, tell them that I am a great artist, come get tattooed by me. When I got into tattooing, it was meant to be very underground. It was kind of rebellious in a way. So, I was like it’s not meant for everyone, and I personally hate marketing. I don’t have any interest in even putting myself out there. I don’t care if I lose out on a hundred clients, but if I get to tattoo two good clients, I am very satisfied at the end of the day.

When I left Kraayonz Tattoo Studio, I started off with one client. Even at that stage when you need money, when you need to put yourself out on all social platforms, I was like FUCK IT! I ended up with a 4 lakh rupees, because of the rent. I was like, if the work is good, the client will come back. And probably in that process, he or she will refer me to someone else. And that way, it has helped me filter out the rubbish people.

What is your opinion on the idea of a tattoo convention – a space for all artists to get together?

You’re bringing out the hate, dude… (laughs). Initially, I liked the idea. I found it very fascinating until I realised that it is all a gimmick. I see it as just a stage for ego boosts. I do understand you get to learn a few things and get together with other artists, but I hate the fact that it’s a competition. I feel art is relative, and you cannot judge one better than the other. I find it like a mela, and that’s not where a tattoo artist should be. Now, it has become a very commercial space, and I don’t like to associate myself with that. I like to keep myself away from all of this, and grow everyday, because the only way you can grow is by growing through your mistakes. No matter how much you admire another artist, you cannot match their level without working on your own mistakes first. It took me seven years to work on my skills, despite someone teaching me the robes.

From the books and frames on the walls in your studio, one can clearly see Muhammad Ali having an influence on you. Can you explain how?

His views on life is what I have taken. He was a social guy, he liked the publicity, he liked to be out there. That’s not me, but I like the things that he stood for. He made a name for himself by standing up for things outside his industry; outside boxing. He became something bigger than just a world class boxer, and that is what I sort of want to be.

Do you have a choice of machines to work with?

I don’t really care about my machines much. For that matter, I have no issues tattooing with a shitty machine. I still have so many of them. For me, your skill matters more than anything else. I love coils, but sadly, I don’t use them anymore because the sound has freaked out a lot of clients. But a rotary can never match the lines of a coil machine.

Finally, if not a tattoo artist, then what?

Nothing. I don’t know anything besides this. I failed in everything else. I didn’t do good in my studies, I failed even design, in fact they threw me out of the course. I don’t know, my dad’s a chef, but I can’t cook for shit. My mom is into HR consultancy, and I am not good at that too. The only thing I know is how to sketch and paint…

Tattoos all the way, man…


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