Conversations with The Tattoo Observer: Travelin’ Mick

I personally believe in the outsiders’ theory. In any sphere of life, there are outsiders who may not be practicing the craft/art/whatever you call it, but they have been associated with the scene for so long, and have invested so much time and effort to bring the culture to light, that they become indispensable for the community and the craft, without being the craftsman themselves. Travelin’ Mick is one such important pillar of the global tattoo industry and culture. He’s the living, breathing, walking library of tattoo culture in the last few decades, and his presence itself enhances the value of modern tattooing, sometimes. Last year, at Heartwork Tattoo Festival in New Delhi, I got a chance to spend some time with the legend, and simply strike a conversation. It was enlightening, to say the least, for me, and beyond that, an understanding of how we have progressed to where we are now. Here are some snippets from our chat. Take some time, make yourself a cup of coffee, and enjoy reading this. It is insightful to venture into the minds of one of the rare people, who has seen this tattoo crowd evolve, from a distance and from within the crowd.

All photos courtesy Travelin’ Mick’s Instagram handle

It was the third and final day of the festival, the afternoon winter sun was right above our heads, jackets were coming off, when I grabbed a chair and sat beside him. I started off the conversation by pointing out a tattoo done by Bimal Rai, aka Eek Glass Pani during the fest, “Bimal’s fucking crazy. He spins out a special vibe I think. You see the koi that he did this time…”

Mick: I was judging yesterday, saw it and thought that must be Bimal’s work. He’s got a certain way of designing a piece like that mixing South-Asian and East-Asian cultures.

Shubham: He had a very modern approach also… breaking away from that mythology mould every time

Mick: Hmm… He was one of the first ones to actually grab this and bring it into the tattoo culture and now he’s already developing it and others are still kind of like, “Okay, I got to figure out how many cones this Tara has”… 

Shubham: He’s probably like among the four of them in India and Nepal who are sort of able to do that so seamlessly.

Mick: We were just discussing and maybe this would be interesting for the interview too, that actually the modern Nepali tattooing guided modern Indian tattooing…

Shubham: Absolutely. That’s a very good point.

Mick: This is my opinion, and I spoke to Lokesh and Sameer, and they actually agree that when modern tattooing started in India, it was modelled on western tattooing, and in Nepal from the very beginning there was Mohan & John, and only a few others. They immediately went, took their own culture and religion and put it into tattooing; which Indian people didn’t do in the beginning. And then because of the conventions, many Indian tattooists went to Nepal, saw what the Nepali artists are doing, and then brought it back to India.

Shubham: That’s a very valid point you mentioned because; also we talk about like, our tattooing culture or what kind of character do you think you associate yourself with when tattooing; And these are things we often find sort of lack of discourse around in India. And always going to Nepal in search of something like that. Sort of finding a prophetic meaning to what you’re involved in at the end of the day…

Mick: Right right right… And I’m sure often Nepali see this, little bit as the paternalistic approach, like the big brother wants to find their roots in our country. This is just me guessing…

All photos courtesy Travelin’ Mick’s Instagram handle

Shubham: We often talk about like, how, say the West looks at Nepal, say from just a tattooing perspective. Or, how the west looks at the East from the tattooing perspectives, and how a country like India now, which is completely new breed in commercial tattooing right now… How it looks at America?

Mick: Absolutely. Western tattooists are coming to Nepal and India to find their roots; which are not actually their roots, or maybe from many many many generations ago. There is like the, uh, Indus cultures and all that so we do have common relatives but cultural roots are quite different.

Shubham: This difference that is evident between the neighbouring countries like Nepal and India in terms of the way we approach tattooing. How would you explain that difference?

Mick: I think those boundaries they are blurring… umm, I mean, you see Nepali artists coming down to Indian conventions because now there is good Indian tattooing conventions. Before, everybody had to go to the Kathmandu convention; to acquire supplies, to be involved in the international tattoo scenes because those famous tattooists; they went to Kathmandu, they didn’t come to India. So, if a young tattooist, say Lokesh (Verma) wanted to meet famous western tattooists, they had to go to the Kathmandu convention. And, then they bought it back with Nepali artists coming to Delhi, then they come to Goa to work at the Indian conventions. So, that I guess there is more exchange and there is more awareness of the Indian tattooing scene of their own culture and their own roots.

Shubham: Yeah, it is growing.

Mick: It is growing, and what I find absolutely beautiful, and I have only started watching this for the last two years, is all the Indian ladies getting inked. Beautiful young girls getting the tribal tattoos… like the dots and lines on the back…

Shubham: And there are some Indian artists, who have been able to take Rabadi and baiga folk art, and they are being able to use those elements here and there…

Mick: Exactly, and it looks so stunning on women, you know. I always wish you know when I travel to these tribal areas, I always wish that ‘can you imagine like a beautiful girl from Mumbai or Delhi having these tattoos and combining it with fashion?’ That would put Indian traditional tattooing history in a contemporary context.

It really looks beautiful, and it seems like the stigma is disappearing as well. I mean these tattoos they used to be for the lower class or the Adivasi and the people who say uh, modern law would look down upon, but there is for a few, a certain sense of appreciation.

All photos courtesy Travelin’ Mick’s Instagram handle

Shubham: Last year in Nepal, I met this Spanish artist based out of London; Dalmiro Dalmont. And, Dalmiro was saying, “sometimes, a doctor comes to me, and wants a certain kind of a tattoo and the next day the skateboarders come to me and want the similar kind of tattoo, but in my headspace, I’m sort of conflicted because I sort of, attach a certain kind of character with what that tattoo is to me, so when two people from two completely different sections of the society are asking for the same thing.” Is that too plain a homogeneous nature of tattooing that we are getting into?

Mick: Yeah but, again there’s a blurring. What I find interesting is that some tattoo artists are actually struggling with this. They are actually quite a conservative bunch, you know.

Shubham: I absolutely agree with you. There is a lot of normativeness in the tattoo industry.

Mick: So, there’s sometimes, uh, they don’t want to be recognised by societies, at least some of them, they want to be rebellious, they want to live without a bank account and without a credit card and…

Shubham: Still mostly a cash based industry in India.

Mick: It is worldwide. It is changing a little bit, in the last I would say 2-3 years, they, umm, tattooing has gone from underground to becoming a business, but actually, it’s now an industry.

All photos courtesy Travelin’ Mick’s Instagram handle

Shubham: When you pursued it at an interest level from, as a researcher to its modern discourse to now being involved in this industrial expansion of tattooing, where do you think is tattooing going towards? It’s no more just an artform, right?

Mick: In my opinion, Art has no space in this industry as well; you know uh, if you are just struggling to make a living everyday uh, and somebody comes in and whatever the client wants, you do it. There is uh, there’s a space for that. There are a lot of tattooists, they want to work like that, this is all they want, you know…

Shubham: And most of the better ones are doing that way…

Mick: But there are also tattooists who are really creative in art, who are being creative everyday, and because tattooing has become an industry, they are able to pick clients according to the common denominator, which is art. It’s almost like a corporation between the client and the tattooist, by creating an art on the canvas, which is the skin of the client. And this wouldn’t be possible if such a thing would just stay underground. It wouldn’t be as widespread, it wouldn’t be as known. I mean there are quite a few, very well renowned resumes we put on tattoo exhibitions, because they recognise, not only the socio-cultural and historical value of tattooing, but also the artistic value. I co-curated an exhibition two years ago in the museum of contemporary art in Rome. We posted about it and it was quite a big thing and this turned into a series recently, they picked about 8-10 contemporary tattoo artists and actually gave them certificates.

Shubham: Wow

Mick: …stating that their institution recognised them as contemporary artists, not tattoo artists, but artists.

Shubham: Which is a huge leap.

Mick: Which you can nicely frame and put it on your wall, but it’s also a recognition from this quite elitist circle, you know… They are quite snooty. It’s not easy to get into these circles, and for a whole group of tattooists to be into that… quite often this is only an initiative of certain individuals who have the connections and just keep on persisting, putting their nose into looking at that.

All photos courtesy Travelin’ Mick’s Instagram handle

Shubham: And you know, when we talk from that perspective, who are the tattoo artists that you think, that touch different notes in your heart when you just look at their tattoos?

Mick: Oh, this is a very tough question because the…

Shubham: There are too many names…

Mick: Yeah too many names and also tattoos on my personal preference. Like, if I want to be more objective as a researcher I should not be restrictive about it but, because I have preferences and I have artists that I just admire a lot for various reasons, whether they will be extremely creative or they are extremely popular or just do a style that I personally like. If you look at the art history, the type, the artists who are now famous and expensive, most of them were not actually very popular at that time because they were breaking boundaries. They were doing unpopular things, they were creating uncomfortable images, so sometimes uh… I’m thinking certain tattooists who are thrashed or flamed by the tattoo community, you should not rule them out, you know… like maybe you take a closer look at what they are doing and see…maybe you can distance yourself from what you like or not…you can see if you can consider this art or not. Personally, I have a close connection to Japan and Japanese art because my wife is from there, and so I have been studying a lot of Japanese artists and a few of those masters that I admire a lot.

Shubham: I mean as a historian, as a researcher, as someone who studies this, why Japanese tattooing is like that pinnacle of tattooing?

Mick: It touches the nerve of people not only because of the aesthetic value, because traditionally modern (post 18th century) Japanese tattoo encompasses the entire body, it wraps the body like a kimono, like a saree does… it becomes a part of the body, it becomes a part of the overall aesthetic of the human person, of the human being, so that appeals to people. What also appeals to outsiders is the exotic value of it; dragons, fishes, beautiful flowers, house of nature, wind, water… and to carry this on your body in a very striking way, that has a fascination. Also, it’s timeless, I mean, surprisingly enough, and things have changed quite considerably in the 200 years. It was not always the same and there was one significant change in the last 30 years, but still if you get a japanese body suit today or in the next few years, you can’t just get it today, it is a long term commitment.

All photos courtesy Travelin’ Mick’s Instagram handle

Shubham: From a personal perspective, do you think that in this age of say information and communication 24×7, is public validation like a constant hand-to-hand, with tattooing in general?

Mick: Yeah, absolutely. The internet and social media has changed tattooing globally in a very big way and also changed the perception of tattooing… umm not always in the best way.

Shubham: Yeah, there are pros and cons, constantly…

Mick: Few years ago, I used to say that tattooists that stay in Myanmar or in Chhattisgarh, they would be able to see the very best tattooers in the world. Now, I would say they can be the very best products photoshopped and Instagram filters can produce, actually some unrealistic expectations are being brought to those who don’t know better and you’ve probably seen this that tattooists come with their phones, they point at some famous tattooist’s picture and they want exactly this, just they want to duplicate it, which is not creative at all, and then that image that you found on Instagram or Pinterest has nothing to do with reality of the tattoo, so that there is some kind of a backlash we are facing at the moment. Like there should be a movement, and there are small movements…

Shubham: There are subtle online movements for healed tattoos to be more shared but it can be diluted very easily…

Mick: Yeah, I’ve seen that a few times, and then it gets forgotten again. I see this in a bit of a pitiful way and interestingly enough, tattoo magazines now are going back to actually showing the real thing.


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