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Hanuman is India’s top tattoo icon

Why deities and actors capture mindspace, backs and shoulders, writes Aarefa Johari.

art and culture Updated: Feb 27, 2010 23:51 IST
Aarefa Johari

Guess what occupies mindspace, backs and shoulders of the man on the street?

If French writer Stephane Guillerme were to be believed, most Indians will give their right arm to inscribe the monkey-god Hanuman on their bodies.

The Indophile, 43, discovered this after a year spent researching and clicking images of Indian street tattoos for his new book.

On his tattoo hunt, Guillerme came across religious symbols everywhere, with Lord Hanuman easily the commonest tattoo of them all. “Hanuman represents absolute physical power. So I guess it gives the male subconscious mind a feeling of being macho,” he said.

The average Indian seeks an object of devotion, it appears. So, not surprisingly, actors come close behind gods and goddesses in the popularity stakes.

Guillerme, who lives in a small northwestern French town called Vannes, first visited India 12 years ago as a tourist. Since then, he has been coming here every year, buying colourful film posters, advertisements and pop art that he sells back home for a profit. His vividly illustrated books include Gods and Goddesses of India, India on Posters and God is Pop.

Already the author of three books on India, Guillerme is wandering across the country to explore the stories and psychology behind tattoos, which have existed in India long before professional studios came on the scene.

Guillerme saw young boys get Shah Rukh Khan or south Indian superstars such as MGR stamped on their arms.

They didn’t seem to care that many tattoo artists used crude drills and did not change needles or the bottles of ink between customers, with this lack of hygiene raising the risk of contracting Hepatitis B.

One good reason could be that street tattoos are inexpensive. A street tattooist charges Rs 10 for the initials of your name and not more than Rs 200 for the figure of a deity or a star, compared to the thousands that professional studios seek.