Even though tattoo culture has been prominent throughout Nepali tradition, it has always been frowned upon by people
In recent times, the tattoo culture in Nepal has grown increasingly. It has weeded itself through a long history of taboo and misunderstanding although the art itself has been prevalent among many indigenous tribes since the pre-modern era.
A tattoo is a form of body modification where a design is made by inserting ink, either indelible or temporary, via a needle into the dermis layer of the skin to change the pigment. It is a form of artwork that is slowly being recognised and appreciated in conservative Nepal.
Among Newari women, getting inked was quite the power move in Kathmandu valley. Called Lha: Chyogu in Nepal Bhasha (Newari language), ‘Lha’ means flesh and ‘chyogu’ means ‘writing’; the literal translation being ‘writings on the flesh’. Women tattooed themselves in the leg to symbolise strength; with a mixture of charcoal and milk from special plants, the Newars usually got images and symbols of different gods and goddesses and specific patterns related to nature. Similarly, among the Tharu community, Godhani or tattoos are a part of their social norms. The womenfolk decorate their hands, legs and chest with symbolic designs of the natural world, mythological stories and historical events.
The actual time when the tradition really began in the country is still unknown, but the practice of getting inked has been a cultural and social aspect of people’s lives since an ancient period. In today’s Nepal, however, tattoos aren’t really affiliated with religiosity but an expression of the self.
Even though tattoo culture has been prominent throughout Nepali tradition, it has always been frowned upon by the people. Considered to be atrocious renegades, individuals with tattoos were often turned away by their own community- tattoos were dominantly associated with criminal behaviour. However, after the Hippie Movement in Kathmandu from the 1970s, this body art slowly rose to popularity.
And as the orthodox forms of tattooing have slowly declined, a new generation of tattoo lovers have mushroomed all over the nation. The art has mostly been limited to the skin on younger boys; men tattoo their chests and arms to show it off while women are known to get inked in a concealed manner. Maybe because tattoos have been perceived to be traditionally masculine, girls are more hesitant to openly display it. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t getting uninterested in it.
An example can be taken from Thamel itself; you can find various types of tattoo parlours while loitering around the area. Parlours ranging from tattoo houses that have gone international to shanty little rooms can all be found in one of the most touristy of spots. Besides Thamel, Basantapur, Patan, Pokhara and Boudha have also established a reputation for their tattoo industry. Since the shops have spread out, the idea of getting inked has become much more convenient.
There is most certainly no reduction in the number of people who opt for religious tattoos. Images of Bhairav, Shiva, Kali, Ganesh, and Buddha are still highly preferred by clients. People also get religious texts and symbols inscribed on them in Sanskrit or Tibetan. But with a surge in teenage clients, a lot of watercolours, geometric and realistic pieces are being favoured.
Nepal’s tattoo scene is also being recognised globally with two tattoo conventions being held annually: The Nepal Tattoo Convention and Nepal Inked Tattoo Festival. So, if you’re in Kathmandu valley during the month of April, maybe, take time and be a part of the Nepal Tattoo Convention. Or if you really want to experience what it is like getting inked the Nepali way, there are many well-known parlours all over Kathmandu: Mohan’s Tattoo Inn, Gagan Tattoo Inn, Yala Ink Tattoo Studio, Tike Jhya Tattoo and Jads Tattoo. These are some of the few places where you can immortalise what you feel is precious to you or just get inked because you feel like it. Whatever your reason may be behind your tattoo, the experience of getting it in Nepal will surely be unforgettable.
Text: Reeya Pradhan