Sameer Patange: Mumbai’s Original Tattoo Gangsta

When an artist is as old as the industry, you expect him/her to have the aura of an emperor who feel they stand beyond and above all. But not with Sameer Patange. The most successful name of Indian tattooing is also the most chilled out punter you will come across. He loves his dog as much as he loves his art, he doesn’t mince his words, and he still underplays himself.

When Sameer started out tattooing, it was still largely a taboo. But he is best example of what can happen if you believe in your abilities, more than anything else. From drawing inspiration from WWE to being an inspiration to thousands of young tattoo artists across the country, Sameer Patange’s story is the one made for blockbuster scripts.

Shubham Nag of Tattoo Cultr caught up with Sameer Patange to know more about Sameer the artist, the person and the leader.

We all know about the brand, Sameer Patange. But how did the journey begin?

The journey started 16 years back, when tattoo as an art form was totally unheard of. To tell you the truth, tattooing came to me by fluke. I was just probably at the right place at the right time. I met a gentleman by the name of Dr. Kohiyar, who then went on to become my mentor and my teacher. I was an artist from my school days, and was surrounded by friends who were into grunge, rock and other such subcultures had this urge to imitate their favourite rockstars. In fact, WWE (WWF back then) was also a huge influence. So, tattoos actually started inspiring a lot of people in a lot of different ways. Nobody actually knew what tattoos were, but they were intrigued.

When my friends wanted to get a tattoo done, they came to me as I was from an art background. So, I used sketch out designs for them, and that’s how it started. It was just for kick’s sake that I happened to accompany my friends, who were going to Dr Kohiyar to get tattooed. He saw my designs, and asked, “Who made these designs? They are really good.” My friends promptly pointed towards me. Then, Dr Kohiyar turned to me and asked me if I would like to work with him. I was honestly startled, and told him, “Sir, I do this just as a hobby.” He replied, asking what were my thoughts about a weekend job. That offer from him sort of fell into place because at that time, I was in art school, and had my offs during the weekend. And on top of that, he offered to pay me Rs. 200 for every Saturday that I worked with him. Now, I looked at it from the perspective that a month has 4 saturdays, which implied Rs 800 (plus the pocket money of Rs 150). That made it Rs 950 a month – enough to take my girlfriend out (laughs). So I asked my parents… And I have been working since the age of 13. From odd jobs after school till now, I have been a workaholic. But my parents were against the idea. They were like, You have already tarnished our name enough, we don’t need this. So, in a way, my tattooing journey ended even before it began.

But then, I saw the tattoos on my friends heal, and it felt so good to see them the way I wanted them to look. That is when the rebel in me shouted out, ‘FUCK THIS SHIT! I am going to Dr Kohiyar.’ So, I went to him again, and he instantly recognised me. And that’s that; I started working with him, and didn’t even tell my folks about it.

Like your mentor, Dr Kohiyar, you too have had few of the brightest tattoo artists graduating out of Kraaayonz. Did you ever foresee this picture when you started out tattooing?

To be honest, when I started out, I didn’t think this industry would last this long in India. Back in the day when I started out, I got a lot of media attention because I was one of the only few guys tattooing. At the age of 21, I was actually approached by the Limca Book of Records for being one of the youngest people to embark on such a radical job. Even then, people used to ask me, ‘Where do you see tattooing in five years?’ I used to say, ‘Give it another 5 years, and it wouldn’t be heading anywhere.’ Mind due, they didn’t even call it an industry back then. In a way, I think people like me are blessed to have seen this industry grow to its current stature.

Coming to your new studio; this place looks stunning. And it gives you a feeling that it has been planned this way for a long time. Is this space a representation of Sameer Patange himself?

Yes, it is! I have grown up with a father who used love collecting old coins, stamps and artifacts since he was a kid. So, that kind of rubbed on to me as well. Every time, I would pass by the Chor Bazaar, I would keep an eye on such artifacts, and have always collected them. Before this studio, I never really had the space to display all my collections. Like, if you go Kraayonz Bengaluru, it is filled with artifacts. My studios speak about my character and tell you the story of where I hail from, rather than creating a very pseudo tattoo environment. If you ever saw my old website, the homepage had a picture of me holding a squirrel. That’s my love for animals. Similarly, every aspect of Kraayonz is a characteristic of me. I also strongly feel that even if you are an artist, not everything about you should scream art. I do a lot of small little things, and the studio is just an outcome of that.

‘FUCK THIS SHIT! I am going to Dr Kohiyar.’

Last year, you and Lokesh teamed up to organise the most successful Indian tattoo convention; the Heartwork Tattoo Festival. But how did the idea come into being?

See, it was always in the pipeline. It was always in the thinking process. I have been in that zone since the time of Tattoo Republic. Tattoo Republic couldn’t make it big because of a few unforeseen reasons, but even that convention was visited by some huge international names, including Anil Gupta, who specially drove down to Tattoo Republic. So, in a way, I have always had that at the back of my mind.

See, I am a very restless character, and being one of the older guys in the Indian scene, I feel that I was sort of made for this industry. I’d probably die doing tattoos. Quite a few of my friends, even Lokesh is at times of the opinion that ‘You know, I think we have done enough. Now is our time to just sit back and relax…’ But I don’t think I will be able to do that, because I still feel there is so much more to learn for me. And so much that I have to give back to this profession.
So, the idea of HTF sparked off when I met Lokesh at an international convention, and we questioned ourselves as to what are we doing with the industry in our country. We are way bigger than most countries, we have 10 times more artists than those nations. We should also have a convention that justifies the scale. And that is the story behind the inception of HTF.

Once the plan fell in place, we realised that to make it big, me and Lokesh would have to pump in money from our own pockets. And we didn’t realise it then, but in quick time, HTF’s value as a property went up to almost 1Cr. For six months, we were doing nothing, but just this. We weren’t tattooing…

I feel what we actually need right now is probably a TV series, like Ink Master on TLC, or a Miami Ink, because now is the right time.

That means you weren’t even making money, while spending so much…

Yes. Exactly. We could just see the number on our bank accounts depleting, but we had no choice. We had to do it. We had that will to do it, just for the industry. Financially speaking, HTF as a pilot convention ran into a lot of losses. Lokesh and I are still paying off the overheads. But the bigger picture is that HTF was done keeping in mind the future of Indian tattooing. But the real heroes behind the convention were both the Kraayonz and Devil’z teams. They ran the show in the studios, working overtime and without leaves to help us out.

Social media – it has changed the very spectrum through which we view tattoos in today’s age. While it is a great networking tool, do you think a lot of the younger artists are paying way more importance to social media than they should?

Aaah, it’s a debatable topic. Me and a couple of other senior artists in this country are referred to as veterans. But a lot of other senior artists, who started a year or two after we did, are still struggling to establish themselves.

For example, if you ask me, I still can’t operate Photoshop that well, whereas I see the tattoo industry only functioning on Photoshop. There is this new horde of artists, who want to learn Photoshop even before they learn tattooing. Even before learning to tattoo, they are learning how to market themselves on Facebook. Similarly, the older artists like me are still struggling to understand this era of digital of marketing. So, these are the artists who deserve recognition because they have fought it out, sustained themselves, and therefore deserve a little more recognition. People are bestowed with comments and likes, but I think an artist’s world should not just revolve around likes and comments. The tattooing world should concentrate more on what the artist has done it till date, and that is how the legends of the industry should be chosen. That’s my perspective on this issue.

As an artist to another artist, I just have this one advice that stay true to the art form.

As you said how 16 years back, you didn’t see this industry lasting for even 5 years, and here we are now talking about social media. Do you think India is ready for a tattooing culture?

I think tattooing as an art form is slowly, but surely creeping into the mainstream. Lot of fine artists are choosing needles over paintbrushes as a career option. That clearly implies that tattooing as an art form is doing much better than fine arts. I also see a huge change in the way clients approach us now. We used to be actually looked down upon. And now, when a client enters the studio, they have a certain amount of respect for the person who is sitting on the other side of the table. It is getting more mainstream, but we still have a long way to go, as purely an art form.

The scene will only grow bigger as more and more aspects of entertainment are merged with tattooing, as that will attract the masses.

So, I feel what we actually need right now is probably a TV series, like Ink Master on TLC, or a Miami Ink, because now is the right time. I remember few years back, Discovery Channel had approached me for a reality show idea, and I blatantly turned down the offer, saying it’s not the right time. ‘I don’t think we are ready yet.’ Now, I think we are ready.

This is the future…

This is the future.

Time for the cliched question, but I want to know this even more than the readers – who are Sameer Patange’s biggest inspirations?

As an artist, my biggest inspirations are not just from the world of tattoos. I have been hugely inspired by Dave Mckean, who is a very fine digital artist. I got introduced to him through rock music. He has done some amazing album covers for bands like Disincarnate, Fear Factory. I always used to wonder how that kind of art evolved till the time when I got to know that it was Mckean behind it. And then one of ,my biggest inspirations ever is Boris Vallejo, who is probably the best ever fantasy artist. Back in the day, there used to be this artist by the name of Jonathan Shaw. There used to be this tattoo magazine, Tattoo International, and Shaw was the editor. Back then, it was the only hit magazine on tattooing.

And being inspired by such varied artists, that has reflected on my art as well. People always tell me that I should choose my specialisation, but I like doing everything that comes to me.

And what does Sameer Patange do when he is not tattooing?

Good question, because it’s difficult to point out any one thing that I do. I love to paint, but I barely get the time to do so. At times, when I have nothing to do, I just play with my dog, read up on new things, look up for great new work on Instagram, and watch some movies.

Final question: As one of the senior most voices of Indian tattooing, what would be that one advice that you would like to give to the younger artists?

As an artist to another artist, I just have this one advice that stay true to the art form. We are what we are and for because of the art. The moment you start beefing up your work, manipulating your work, I don’t know how you’d look into the mirror, but I would probably lose all self respect, because I would know that is not my work. That’s work that has been digitally enhanced to such a level that it should go out as a digital art, and not a tattoo.

I know everyone wants to move ahead of everyone in such a competitive world, but you know, we’ve stayed ahead without doing these things. We could do it because we stayed true to our work. It’s a longer route to take, but a sure route too.

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