This Ain't Bollywood - Abhinandan Basu

Published: 15 October, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 217, October, 2012

In the heart of the historic Indian city of Pune, amidst the temples, theatres and IT companies, we find Abhinandan Basu. A tattooer who has accepted lessons from an American ex-con, advice from his 83-year-old grandmother and executed an almost nine-hour-long debut tattoo. It’s safe to say this guy doesn’t play by anyone’s rules.

The only way I can explain this is by holding destiny responsible,” says Basu of how he ended up becoming a tattoo artist when he was, in fact, supposed to get a master’s degree in business. “I was in college studying biotechnology when I got my first tattoo. And in a very weird, unexplainable way, while I was getting my tattoo I just somehow knew I wanted to do this. It was love at first sight, as corny as that sounds.

“After I finished my college, I took a year off to prepare for my master’s, and that’s when I got my first tattoo kit. I had no money and had no clue how to get my hands on a kit because there were no suppliers in India then and I didn’t know any tattoo artists in my city, but a friend of mine who was studying in Canada ordered a kit for me.

“The kit didn’t come with a manual and I didn’t have internet access, so I had no clue how to put the machines together. But again destiny intervened and somehow, through another friend, I found this ex-con from a California state prison who was deported to India on possession charges and happened to be living in my neighborhood. I met him and he showed me how to put the machines together and how to put a needle in. He was tattooing with a handmade machine and sharpened guitar string from his dingy little room and he did a tattoo on my leg to show me how it’s done.

“We struck a deal where I would let him use my machines and kit and in return he would share whatever knowledge he had about tattooing; and that’s the crazy, almost unbelievable way of how I got into tattooing. It makes me dizzy when I think about it because it was just five years back.”

Growing up in Kolkata, India’s culture capital, Basu was encouraged to embrace art early on, especially by his uncle.

“He was particularly good at scripts and was involved in wall graffiti catering to political propaganda. I would copy illustrations by him or art from his books. During lectures I would be drawing in my college books; I remember once drawing a film poster that I had seen on one of my medical entrance examination answer sheets. Needless to say, I didn’t make it through on that exam!”

Unable to do a formal apprenticeship – “There was no one willing to teach me. And the ones who were, well, when I looked at their work I felt there wasn’t much I could learn” – Basu was forced to stick to good old trial and error, and to learn from talented artists he met along
the way.

“I eventually downloaded shit-loads of books from the internet and watched hours and hours of videos just to pick up that one technique or that one trick. After about a year or so, I met an American tattoo artist, named Paul, who was visiting Kolkata, looking for a bride… don’t ask me why. He was an old school guy and also a machine builder. I picked up most of the basic tattooing techniques while working with him; he tattooed both my forearms. He also sold me two of his machines, which I still use sometimes.

“Later I started travelling, met other tattoo artists and picked up a lot of techniques from them. I have to mention Kostas from Prive Tattoo in Greece who I met at a convention in Nepal. I was a great admirer of his dot work; I got my elbow tattooed by him.”

That’s when Basu made it his mission to incorporate dot work into his otherwise traditional designs, moving a long ways away from his first attempt at tattooing.

“I was so excited about it that it got the better of me. I got overambitious and ended up designing a very complex cross with Celtic knots. It was about six inches in height and it took me eight-and-a-half hours to finish. It was on a friend’s back and I think I managed to make him see his maker that day!” he laughs.

Not that his first experience on the other side of the needle was much better…

“My college was in the city of Bangalore and there was this artist there who had a shop called Brahma Tattoos, he used to make his own needles by tying a thread around the needle then putting superglue on it… I [got] the most basic tribal arm piece that you can find on any flash sheet because that’s all I could afford.”

That tribal piece, however, was a landmark moment, the start of the unveiling of Basu’s passion to friends and family.

“When I visited my family that year I lied to them about the tattoo and told them it was a temporary one. Next year when I was back and the tattoo was obviously still there, they realised it wasn’t going anywhere and they were not very happy about it. Of course their apprehensions were justified since they had no idea what tattooing was, forget about it being a profession.

“However, one day, my 83-year-old grandmother took me aside and told me never to lose sight of my dream and to do what my heart felt was right, and I listened.

“My friends thought I was on drugs or that I had lost my mind to be throwing away my life chasing a dream. I remember one of my friends calling me a tattooed fool. I found it amusing but it also made me push myself harder to prove all of them wrong.”

One particularly gratifying moment came six years after his stop at Brahma Tattoos.

“Me and [that artist] shared adjacent booths in a convention – he had graduated to premade needles by then – I thought it was perfect, almost mythical, like completing a full circle.”

Another career highlight was when a very excited and awestruck Basu met with his idol, Anil Gupta, just last year.  

“He was visiting Mumbai and has kind enough to meet me – we discussed art and tattooing and women. It was quite an experience to see your idol sitting next to you, offering you a drink. I honestly admitted that I had tried to rip off some of his work when I started tattooing just to see if I could pull it off, and how I aspired to be as accomplished as he is to which he said, ‘You should not try to be like me, because then you will only be as good as I am.’ Those words changed the way I looked at my tattooing and the way I looked at myself.”

Having travelled and tattooed across India and Sweden, Basu now calls Pune-based Inkalab Tattoo Studio home. And if there’s one thing he’s learned from being on the road, it’s that tattooing has a long way to go in his home country. “What you have to realise is that only about 30 percent of the entire population of India stays in cities, the rest stay in rural areas and there is a huge difference in the standard of living. In a major city like Mumbai or Delhi, tattoos are more of a fashion statement for the rich; in the interiors, you would definitely be stared at as a freak.

“People usually don’t get big back pieces or full sleeves, but opt for smaller, religious symbols or names of loved ones. But we do get the occasional experimental ones and that’s when we can really go all out and do something crazy.”

Like when a British man walks into a tattoo shop in Goa and asks for a major cover-up…

“I sat the whole night and drew out this big design with a knight and castles in the background,” remembers Basu. “He came the next day, liked what he saw and wanted to get it done, but we only had one day before he left for his country. I remember it was December 31 and we sat down in the morning and I finished his entire upper back. It took me 11 hours, during which neither of us took a single break. We didn’t even get up to take a piss. It was intense and by the end of it my back and wrists were in severe pain, but I was happy.”

Not everyone would be willing to entrust an Indian artist with such large-scale work however – misconceptions about Basu’s home country and its people are still prevalent. “India is not the land of snake charmers, all of us don’t work in call centres, and most of us have never done yoga in our lives,” jokes Basu.

“On a serious note, I think people should visit India and experience it for themselves. It’s not something they can read about in a book or watch in a movie, and while they are having the so-called great Indian experience, they can come and get tattooed by me!”

What should you get? Perhaps something in the signature style Basu’s been diligently working at creating.

“I have been experimenting with dot work for a year now. What I’m really trying to do is stay away from the conventional black and grey dot work and create something new with colours, using traditional Indian and Tibetan motifs and designs to form a style which is essentially my own and represents where I come from. I feel art should have a voice and my art should show where my roots lie and what I have learnt from them.

“There’s a vast wealth of art and culture in India which has been untapped in tattooing because everyone is so busy trying to copy the West. I want to create something which is essentially Indian.”

Schooling vs. Tattooing  

I believe in destiny, and I believe everything happens for a reason and it’s usually a better and greater reason. So I dunno if I can term it as a sacrifice or just a natural progression of things that led me to tattooing, but I did not pursue my MBA because I got so consumed by tattooing. But that’s good because I am certain that I would have made a terrible manager! [laughs]

First Indian Tattoo Convention

It happened in Mumbai last year and it was more of a local affair. I did win my first ever award, so I don’t have any complaints, however, I feel a tattoo convention should ideally be hosted by artists and not by event managers because their understanding of how a convention should be conducted is limited. People think tattoo artists make a lot of money, so everyone wants a piece of that pie.

Mother’s Ink

In India we have to worry about something called an arranged marriage. The bride and groom usually meet each other once before marriage or just see each other’s photos. My mom and dad had a similar situation, so on my left forearm I have the photo of my mom that was sent to my dad’s family for the selection procedure. It’s crazy, it’s almost like I exist because of that photo, so it made sense to get
it tattooed.

inkalab

A7 Ashiyana
Park Society
North Main Road
Koregaon Park
Pune, India 411001
www.inkalab.in

Credits

Text: Barbara Pavone; Photography: Basu

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