Chris is returning to Switzerland after a year in Mumbai studying contemporary Indian art and he and close friend Geeta have decided to make their last day together memorable. They walk into a tattoo studio in Bandra where Swapnil Patil, the 22-year-old tattoo artist, offers them a mind-boggling range of designs. Finally, Geeta gets a butterfly inked on her upper arm with ‘Chris’ inscribed in the centre, while Chris keeps it simple with Geeta’s name on his wrist in black and blue. The five-inch tattoos cost the couple ∼10,000, but they think its money well spent. “This will remind us of each other,” they giggle in unison.
At Patil’s studio, there’s also 17-year-old Vedant Malhotra, who’s just got a one-inch barcode inscribed on his neck for ∼2,000. He’s been saving up for the tattoo and turns excitedly to ask his friend how it looks. “I feel priceless now,” he laughs.
Tattooing is a flourishing business these days. There are no official numbers but ask around and there’s tentative consensus that there must be around 1,000 tattoo parlours in India, especially in Goa and around foreign tourist hotspots like Manali, Leh and Khajuraho. The ones in Mumbai are certainly not doing badly. Patil, a fine arts student from JJ School of Art, opened his studio last year, investing a few lakh to buy three tattoo guns. A half-inch tattoo costs ∼1,500-2,000 and he gets four or five customers every day. After paying all overheads, he earns about ∼1.5 lakh a month.
There’s a checklist for being cool these days — a smartphone, being active on social media, hanging out in cafés and wearing the latest international styles is part of the list. But if you’re between 16 and 24 and want a shortcut to cool, body art is the way to go. Not piercings so much — an eyebrow ring or a tongue stud is still a little too outré for most Indians -- but a coloured drawing made by a stranger jabbing a needle into your skin? That’s so cool.