If you follow guitar instrumentalist Warren Mendonsa, you would know that ‘The Universe Has a Strange Sense of Humour.’ New Delhi-based artist, illustrator and (now) tattoo artist Barkha Lohia also has a similar story, but, instead of humour, there is grit!
It’s interesting to see how a twenty-five-year-old illustrator started tattooing as a hobby and now is a full-time ‘inker’ at the Godna Gram-The Tattoo Village—a reputed tattoo studio in New Delhi. And the interesting thing is that she started inking people (professional) just last year!
And how can we forget her illustrations? They are funny, serious, with grave attention to detail. Her tattoos follow the same trail too. She is an avid listener, and a person who want to build on her craft, and she is a die-hard fan of singer-songwriter Bipul Chettri too! (we like her already) So, if you are at the studio anytime soon, we reckon you ask for her.
We catch up with Lohia, who tells us more about her Delhi Tree Series—an anthology of botanical illustrations rooted on trees around Delhi, her new job at the Godna Gram-The Tattoo Village, her challenges as a tattoo artist, and more.
Let’s go back to the time when you were little, how was life growing up in New Delhi, things that (you remember) shaped your insight as an artist?
I grew up in a small town in Delhi, so had a somewhat carefree childhood. Anyone’s who has grown up in such small towns would tell you the exact same thing, from fixing your television antenna, jumping from roof to roof, trying to set up a tent on your rooftop with your mother’s sari, and more. I lived in a joint family, so it came with another level of crazy—from good to bad. I remember watching detective shows with my siblings and cousins and rushing off in the afternoon to ‘spy’ on our great-grandmother or on the neighbours trying to complete our missions—God only knows what they were (laughs). I would say that there was no dearth of imagination and creativity. We used to invent our own games (indoor or outdoor), played in large groups and were mostly unsupervised and more independent. This contributed a lot in my creativity and imagination.
I started drawing from an early age; I think I might have been 3 or 4. I was lucky enough to have an art teacher who saw potential in me and supported me. I remember going to a lot of art competitions during my school days too, including the inter-school competitions that kept happening. The backs of my notebooks were filled with scribbles, sketches, and anything that caught my attention. But even after this, I didn’t consider art as a career option. It was only after high school I realised it was something I want to pursue further.
Your Delhi Tree Series looks really interesting. What spurred the project? When did you start it? And the idea behind the illustrations?
I was looking to do some botanical illustrations and started with the black mulberry tree. While researching for it, I ended up reading an article somewhere about native species of trees in New Delhi. It was a project started by Pradip Krishan where they decided to plant saplings of 22 native species from Peepal to Ber. Not only do trees aid in the environmental well-being of the city, but they also have a long history linked to a particular city and the rituals, benefits and story attached to them. Further, I grew up knowing most of them and wanted to document it.
We also see that you have started tattooing—when and how did you stumble upon this art form? What is it that made you pursue tattoo art as a profession?
I have always been fascinated by tattoos. Both my great-grandmother and nani (grandmother) had tattoos that covered their entire body. There were a lot of women with tattoos in my community (Gujjar). So the interest came from there. I remember asking them why they had them and what they meant. The stories behind them fascinated me, as well as how they adorned the body. I never really gave it a thought as to why they appealed to me, they just did.
As I grew up, I became more aware of the tattoo culture around the world. I loved how someone could come with a concept and create a permanent piece of art for them. I decided to go for it once my college ended. I didn’t really think it would become my profession. I only wanted to learn this art form and pursue it as a hobby.
How similar or how different is tattooing for the other forms of art your do?
Once I started it, I realised it wasn’t much different from an illustration or any art form, to be honest. The medium to make the work is different, but the core remains the same, at least for me. Being an illustrator actually helped me with it. Learning to master the machine is a skill which can be learnt through practice. You’ll eventually learn to handle it perfectly. But it’s the art form and your technique which is going to define you as an artist.
Is it difficult being a female tattoo artist in India?
It is a problem for someone coming from a community/society that doesn’t think it is a good career choice. A lot of misguided and negative notions are attached to art itself—for tattooing, it just goes up one notch. That being said, I feel it’s better now considering tattoo is slowly becoming mainstream in India.
In terms of clients, I have never come across any gender biased reaction or treatment. I have actually been shown so much support and encouragement from them and the people I know.
You recently joined Godna Gram-The Tattoo Village—a reputed tattoo studio in New Delhi? How did the folks at the studio spot you? Could you give us a little insight on how you ended there and any reason why you chose Godna Gram?
I have been following Mo sir’s (Mo Naga) work for a long time. What hooked me to his act was when he talked about the Indian tradition of tattooing and how he was trying to revive it. I had started research on my community’s tattoos a long time back and the meaning behind them, but I had to drop it after a point. Then to see someone who has such passion, and who was doing so much to bring back the lost art form was inspiring. I didn’t think I would join his studio, I was merely one his followers (laughs).
Sir was handling the studio alone for some time in May and had put up a status (on his social media) as to how hectic it had been with his apprentice gone on a break. I ended up commenting on that post. This is when I sent him a message telling if I could meet him. I was freelancing as a tattoo artist then. He saw my work and asked me to come and visit him in the studio. And that was it. We ended up talking for hours, from traditional tattooing to art to what inspired us. What worked in my favour was the fact that that I looked at tattoos as an art form and not something to make money. His ideology is to be true to your art, to express fully and to understand that it’s a sacred form of art—more about the connection between the client and the artist. You are exchanging energies and experiences of a lifetime and more importance should be given to this aspect than the money part. So we were on the same page here (smiles). The vibe and the approach to art/tattoo designing are unique to the studio. Consultation here takes longer than the actual tattoo process sometimes. The trust and love the clients and artists have here for art and this form is what made me join the studio. Or rather why I was chosen (laughs).
If you had to choose between illustration and tattoo art which one would it be? Why?
I don’t really think of them as different. They are sort of interrelated for me now. An illustration is the starting point. For me, I think I can transfer it anywhere, wall painting to tattooing or concept art. I am not yet limiting myself to just one approach.
Tell us a little about your style—themes and ideas you like to work on?
Right now I work on making custom pieces for clients. A majority of my work has been custom. I’d like to continue that since you get to play around a lot with the concepts and styles.
With that said, I want to shift my illustration style onto tattooing too. I want to work on my style, that is natural illustrations, and fuse it together with other elements. India has few tattoo artists whose style is instantly recognisable. I want to work on forming mine.
Is there a boom in the art scene in India in 2017? Comment.
There is. More people now recognise it and understand its importance. There are still misconceptions around it but it’s slowly getting the respect it deserves.
Plans for the future?
I want to research more and go into the natural history direction. Learn more about the connection we had. The Delhi Tree Series is just the beginning of a project. Something to hook you, to get you interested in it. I would like to work more on it later on and keep building on it.
Follow her on her Instagram page here.