Indian Tattoos: Mysterious Origins and Polarized Visions

Indian Tattoos

Indian culture is, without a doubt, one of the richest and most unique cultures in the world. It is also full of folklore and mystery, something reflected on its tattoos. This article of the series explores the still mysterious origins of Indian tattoos, their different meanings, and current polarized state.

Ancient Times and Indian Tattoos’ Mysterious Origins

Tattooing has been a tradition in India for hundreds of years. In fact, Indian tattoos are so ancient that it’s still impossible to tell exactly when the practice first started. Tattoos are widely popular in practically the whole country. They go from deep in the Eastern jungles of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, to the western deserts that surround the India-Pakistan border. Throughout history, tattoos in India have had different purposes, ranging from beautification of the body to acting as a protection against bad spirits.

There’s a number of myths and explanations surrounding the origins of tattooing, or godna, as the practice is called in Hindi. For instance, a group of people in Central India, called the Gondi, have a legend focusing on Lord Shiva, a Hindi deity. According to the story, Shiva once hosted a feast to which he invited all the other Gods. The Goddesses were also there. However, they were sitting in a different group. A Gond God was present in the event as well. When he went to get his wife, he accidentally mistook her for Parvati, Lord Shiva’s wife and the Goddess of love and fertility. The Gond God put his arm around Parvati, which enraged her. This caused her to command the tribal women to wear specific tattoos to differentiate themselves from others. Tattoos supposedly became a tradition after this.

Indian Tattoos
Member of the Apatani Tribe

Other explanations for the origins of Indian tattoos are much rougher. An example of this is the Danuks, a tribe established in Bihar, in the North-centre of India. The Danuks believe tattoos reduce the attractiveness of women, thus making sexual predators less interested in them. The same is true for the Apatani, another tribe that inhabits the north of the country. This tribe tattooed young girls to make them look less attractive in the eyes of neighboring tribes that would otherwise be more likely to abduct them.

Different areas, different tattoos, and different meanings

Tattoos have different meanings and purposes in different areas of India. For instance, the North-eastern Noctes and Wanchos tribes associated tattoos to strength and courage due to the pain getting a tattoo involves. The Munda tribe in the North-east used them to record important events such as winning battles. On the other hand, the Korathi, a nomadic tribe got tattoos that represented the kollam, a labyrinthine in which they believed evil beings would be trapped. This was done in order to keep them safe and to make sure they had a mark that would allow their relatives to recognize them in the afterlife. Something similar is true for the Kutia Kondh tribe of the East. The members of this tribe tattoo symmetrical lines on their faces to make sure that they’re able to recognize each other in the spirit world as well.

Indian Tattoos
Indian warrior with a face tattoo. In certain tribes, tattoos were seen as symbols of courage and strength.

Another North-Eastern tribe called the Singpho has very specific rules regarding tattoos and women. If a woman is not married, she’s not allowed to get any tattoos. Then, once she gets married tattoos are done on both of her legs, starting in her knees and going all the way to her ankles. This example actually leads us to the next topic…

Current Rejection to Certain Tattoos

In the past, if a woman did not have a tattoo, she used to be seen as impure and untouchable. Girls used to get tattoos as they grew up. As previously mentioned, they would get a tattoo after getting married, but this was not the only benchmark that led to one. Tattoos would also be done to indicate a girl was part of a certain tribe, after she turned 10 years old, or after giving birth. It is estimated that millions of women were tattooed forcefully throughout their lives. However, modern media, the internet, and people in rural areas more commonly being in touch with urban areas, have led young girls to start refusing being marked in any way.

Indian Tattoos
Tattooing young women’s faces used to be a popular tradition in India. It is still common in certain tribes.

Tattoos on women used to be done using very rudimentary methods. These included needles heated with fire, and a black pigment. These procedures were extremely painful and would more often than not lead to bleeding. Furthermore, they did not include any sort of anesthesia and the process of healing would take up to a month. Young Indian women believe there’s no place for such a procedure anymore.

Rejection to this kind of tattoos is not new. The Indian Government actually banned tattooing young girls’ faces back in the 1970s. This led to a decrease in girls with this kind of tattoos in urban areas. However, there’s still criticism amongst the older members of society. These members insist tattoos are all what’s left of them after their deaths. They are not willing to lose an ancient tradition.

Modern Indian Tattoos

Certain aspects of ancient Indian tattoos have started to be rejected. However, modern tattooing is starting to be seen as a form of art and self expression. This a phenomenon that is also happening in other cultures around the world. It is now common for young, well-informed, Indian people to get tattoos. Popular modern tattoo designs include realistic portraits, nature-related imagery, dot work, watercolor, and religious tattoos. This last type of tattoos includes Gods, mandalas, chakras, and their corresponding mantras. Religious tattoos are associated with luck and prosperity for those who wear them.

Indian Tattoos
Just as in other societies, tattooing is now prevalent amongst the Indian youth.

Tattooing in India has developed so much in the last ten years that being a tattoo artist currently is an extremely viable profession with a good reputation. Tattoo parlors in India are equipped with high tech equipment. Furthermore, Indian tattoo artists are starting to make a name for themselves in the international scene. These artists are now combining international influences, cultural heritage, and the wisdom passed from older generations to create unique pieces of work.

The World-Famous Mehndi Tattoos

Indian Tattoos
Example of a Mehndi tattoo.

Just as modern Indian tattoos are making their way through the international scene, there’s a type of Indian tattoos that became famous worldwide during the 1990s. This was in part due to its representation on Western media.

Mehndi are temporary tattoos Indian, and other groups of people such as Pakistanis, make with henna. People who do them usually mash Henna leaves until they form a paste. They then add oil to the mixture.

Indian Tattoos
Henna leave paste used for Mehndi tattoos

They are usually done as a hobby or as part of special occasions such as weddings and religious festivals. The most common spots for them are the hands, feet and, legs. Their primary focus are women, who wear them as a rite of passage in the aforementioned celebrations. It is believed that applying henna on bride before a wedding is a sign of prosperity and good luck.

Some designs for Mehndi tattoos include mandalas, mantras, and Indian motifs that include the bela, creeper vine, peacocks, and flowers such as lotus.

Also, as a random fact… It is possible to find tenths (if not hundreds) of very hypnotizing YouTube video-tutorials showing the steps to follow to create a Mehndi tattoo. You can watch one here:


The history and current state of Indian tattoos is extremely polarizing. The true origins of the practice are still pretty much unknown. Furthermore, there are two extremes in the current Indian tattooing scene. On one hand, certain groups see ancient practices and types of tattoos as degrading and even dangerous for women. Thus, those affected by them are trying to stop them. On the other, certain groups of people are becoming fond of tattoos, giving modern Indian tattoo artists a prestigious position.

Indian tattoos, are, without a doubt, a unique mix of present, past, and future.

History of Tattoos and Tattoo Evolution Through Decades

history of tattoos

No doubt, the history of body art falls back several centuries, and over the centuries, the tattoos have a significant place in the lives of people. Ethnographic and historical texts also divulge that every human culture has practiced tattooing during some part of their history and are taking a new form in modern time.

History of Tattoos

The history of tattoos and the word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word “Tatu”. Tatu means is to mark something. However, it is claimed that the history of tattoos on the human body has existed since 12,000 years BC. The purpose of inking body varies from culture to culture. The trend of inking your body is not new but the culture, the social revolutions have a significant impact on what styles one should choose to get inked.

According to Research, the trend of getting permanent marks has been evolved a lot in the last years, transferring from an underground culture, sordid practice to a middle-of-the-road, blasting and mainstream industry. We can see a drastic change in the ways of getting inked, the designs and the purposes.

Anyhow, let’s have a look at how tattoos have changed over the years, and especially over the last century in the USA.

Tattooing trend earlier in the 1910’s, 20’s and 30’s

Well, at the beginning of 20th century, tattooing was considered as a seedy act and was only related to those people or a society which perceived as an insalubrious one or to others like sailors, circus freaks, prisoners, etc.

That is true to some extent because at those times it was common for some social groups to ink their body. For example, sailors were using (and sometimes still use in some cultures) tattoos as a symbol of their traveling or to showcase nautical tattoos. One is very popular which everyone knows and is an anchor. All tattoos related to this field had specific meanings in the nautical community. Another great example is a swallow tattoo which was used a lot by the sailors who had traveled over 5,000 miles. Similarly, a turtle tattoo was used by those people who have crossed the equator as a status of completion.

In those days, tattoos were not an art form or a common practice, therefore people used to pay thousands of dollars to see people with full body tattoos in a freak circus. This is a great example when it comes to contrast what tattoos were representing back then and where they are positioned nowadays in our lives.

The pain!

Another other reason for rejection for having tattoos was the fact that they hurt like hell and were usually made in a not very sterile environment which was causing many infections and even deaths. Tattoos were done in a very old and traditional way with a “Stick-and-Poke” method. Not everyone was able to survive such high levels of pain.

The evolution of tattoos happened when in 1904 Charlie Wagner invented the coil and the tube tattoo machine 1904. making a tattoo became a less painful act, and a large number of aficionados were ready to tattoo their bodies.

Tattoos in the 1940’s:

There was no acceptance of getting inked back in those days, nevertheless, World War II enabled men to show their love, respect, and patriotism toward armed forces. Men in the 1940’s were able to easily get tattoos to honor their services. However, women were also at war, that made is acceptable to make tattoos to show their love towards their nations.

That was the time when getting inked was no longer for circus freaks as it was becoming a practice among the society. it was the beginning of a new art form which was exposed, endorsed and started being loved by many.

The most famous tattoos at that time were of Sailor Jerry tattoos. Yes, these were the simplest, two dimensional and colorful design tattoos. I found a few examples below:

Sailor Jerry Tattoos

The downfall of tattoos in the 1950’s

In 1950’s tattoos lost all their charm and went back to their original roots which were the underground practicing of the art. It was basically the post-war period when the United States chose a more conformist society where the focus was on different social issues.

The rise of patriotic tattoos in the USA in the 1960’s

The 60s can be referred to the middle age of tattoos. This was the time of various campaigns due to the Vietnam War and protests for women’s rights. Thwas wa the peak of the revolution for that time. People were more aware of the civil right movements in the United States, rock and roll was the devils music, TV was a magic box etc. 60’s were the times when the society was disturbed by cultures and at that time tattoo industry started reflecting that rebellious spirit of people which started to split themselves into subcultures, social classes and categories.

However, many people were not in favour of the Vietnam War, and many people were raging against all sort of injustice. So in that beleaguered era, the only thing which was getting popularity day by day was the “peace sign tattoo”.

1970’s – The evergreen tattoo period

It was the time when tattoos start gaining popularity and becoming convoluted in the 70’s. The trend of getting full-sleeve tattoos was at a hot note. And the artwork itself became more detailed. So the art took a step into the right direction where people became aware of shading, shaping and creating depth in their tattoos.

But there was no option of getting tattoos of your choice as people had to pick from the drawings that parlor offered them. However, the most iconic, famous and eye-catchy tattoo of that time was Janis Joplin’s tattoo.

Janis Joplin’s tattooJanis Joplins tattoo

Yeah, that was a wrist tattoo which was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone and encouraged most of the women to ink it.

Janis Joplin cover

Whacky tattoo 1980’s fashion

In the 1980’s, the trend of having long hair and tattoos was trending like never before, and the biggest reason for this was  probably MTV. This channel had encouraged thousands of people to get tattoos as a form of self-expression while featuring different TV shows, shoring and sharing punk music, indie cultures, street style, skateboarding etc. This was the boom of the 80s!

The most famous tattoos at that time were the tribal tattoos, the thick black line or colorful tattoos which were of a different kind at that period. However, the New Schools Tattoos was also at their peak point in the 80s. We can say the time of tattoos had come! Zany 1980’s

History of Tattoos - New Schools Tattoos History of Tattoos - New Schools Tattoos History of Tattoos - New Schools Tattoos

The rise of Feminine tattoos – 1990

These were the days when the feminine tattoos like hearts, stars and butterflies were enjoyed a lot by the masses. This is probably the ones we can see a lot still on older people.

Tattoos of 2000’s and today

Till 2000’s the concept of getting inked was evolving and is considered as the coolest thing that one can do. The main role of doing so was reality TV shows and Social media that played a big role in encouraging people for tattooing. Kat Von D is a celebrity which with her tattoos has boosted the tattoo culture in the 2000’s. She allowed the spread of the trend by representing herself on TV and different media at that time.

However, with the advancement in the processes of getting inked have changed the way of people’s thinking when it comes to getting a tattoo. In the beginning, people were afraid of catching a disease from the so-called seedy tattoo parlor, but now this process is fully risk-free thanks to growing professionalism, sterile environments, and progress of the industry in general.

No more worries! Tattoos today

Nowadays getting a modern tattoo is no more considered as a weird thing. From 2000 to today’s day, the discouragement against tattoos went down day by day, and for a good reason. Due to social media and reality shows, people started knowing more about inking, and now people like to get inked from lower back to inside lips. Which is a little bit weird yet becoming more acceptable in our society.

Almost everyone gets tattooed these days, it does not matter whether you are an employee or a pre-school teacher, therapist or someone else, inking your body is no more a seedy act or is shameful in any way. If there is a desire to get a tattoo, I highly recommend going for it.