Ngathingpei Khayi

You can make anything by writing – CS Lewis

The Lost Art

Monyakshu Village, Nagaland. Giant buffelo skull. photo by Mr.Teiso Yhokha

Taking his passion to another level Morangam Khaling is not just a tattoo artist but doing research on it and going to represent India in books alongside the legends like Horioshi III and Ed Hardy. And also he has been invited for the 2015 Frankfurt Tattoo Convention.

With the mention of ‘Tattoo’ it sounds like something foreign or rebellious and everything that connotes to hormone ragging youngsters. However tattoo was always a part of our rich culture and heritage. And this is what man on mission Morangam Khaling is doing by searching our past, the lost art and trying to revive them. “I was tired of the popular Western and Oriental designs which were appearing everywhere. I started exploring the vast world of tattoos and found a huge gap in the world of tattoo art. By then I had started studying Indian tattoo traditions and my mind was blown away with what I found! I was sitting on a goldmine. India has a history of very rich tattooing cultures spanning from central India to the south, from Eastern Hills to the Western Ghats. This whole tradition of Indian art was absolutely invisible or unrepresented in the world of tattoo. I immediately realized that Indian tattoo art could become one of the biggest cultural ambassadors in the coming years,” explains how it began Morangam Khaling who is also known as Mo Naga.

Today Mo Naga is counted among the best tattoo maker in the country and his work is recognized by the international bodies of the world of tattoo art. He has two studios one in Hauz Khas, Delhi (Mo Tattoos) and another in Guwahati (Headhunters’ Ink Tattoo School) which is also first of its kind tattoo institute in the north-east. He has been selected to represent India in the upcoming book called the ‘World Atlas of Tattoo’ which will be published by the Yale University of Press, America in mid 2015. Also he is to contribute in another book of world tattoo design where his designs will be showcased alongside the legends like Horioshi III, Ed Hardy and others. And the artist is personally invited for the 2015 Frankfurt Tattoo Convention.

Though always artistically inclined but he never thought or planned to be a tattoo artist. He was doing Apparel Designing from NIFT Hyderabad where he got in touch with this art through some friends and took it up as a hobby but after that as they say rest is history. “The moment I decided to become a professional tattoo artist/expert, for me tattoo is more than just an art form. I am continuously rediscovering the designs and its significance which are so deeply rooted to our culture which I am excited to share with the rest of the world. Since last 4-8 years, I have focused my research particularly on the history of Indian tattoo culture- starting from the North-East India,” says the twenty-eight years old artist.

Getting deeper into his explore he elucidates, “To understand the tattoos and to create new art you need to capture everything in the surroundings. So, my research is focused not only on tattoos but various other aspects of their culture as well, like their songs, folktales, lifestyle, philosophies, beliefs, aesthetics, the scribbles on the walls, the wood carvings and all the art, flowers, fish, insects etc. Everything that comes along is documented. I have successfully decoded the significance of various symbols and design patterns like the Naga Evil Eye – a tattoo which protects the bearer from evil harms, The Thread Cross – a cross shaped object with contrasting colored thread running along the wooden frame, which is an imitation of spider web to filter out bad spirits in the similar line with the western concept of the Dream Catcher.” He also shares the positive impacts of his work, “During my course of work, I was able to clear some prevalent age old misconceptions about the tattoos of the Appatani tribe from Arunachal Pradesh which has resulted in re-instilling pride and respect to them.”

Furthermore bringing the urgency in his work is that this art form is not going to be there for long if not preserved. “It is a race against time because there are just a handful of old people alive with the traditional tattoos on them and are able to give us first hand stories about those tattoos. We have collected and recorded some rarest of the rarest information and data not found in any book or museum. We travel to places about which even local tour guides and agencies have not heard. Some places didn’t have motor able roads, no electricity and no phone network at all. Our research is an ongoing process which can continue for years,” speaks the Manipuri fashion designer-turned-tattoo artist.

One thing that makes Mo Naga and his art stand-out is that there is no other artist who does this style. “I am reviving traditional tattoos of the tribal people of North-East creating Neo tribal designs and introducing them to the world at the same time. My designs are unique mostly because through it I am telling the stories, beliefs, and philosophies of the people with their own colors and lines keeping their aesthetics intact.” According to this self taught artist he does not have any role model or inspiration, “However I would like to make a special mention of Dr. Lars Krutak the world famous tattoo anthropologist (The Tattoo Hunter: Discovery) who has been constantly encouraging me and helping me in reaching out to the world. He is a good friend and we are researching on Naga Tattoo culture together.”

Like a true master craftsman he says he never forgets his work. “I remember every tattoos that I have done till today. I may not remember the person’s face or name but you show me the tattoo and I will remember everything about it. That’s because I am still learning and every tattoo is an opportunity to improve.” Celebrating his mastery Mo Naga shares, “Recently I had an amazing tattooing experience. A lady from France came to get a Traditional Tattoo inspired by a Konyak Naga Queen (a tribe from Nagaland). It was the most difficult tattoo I ever did. It was totally different and back breaking but at the same times my most enjoyable tattooing experience in the recent past. I love it more because she is very proud about the tattoo and she is taking my culture with her to France and everywhere she goes.”

Now here some dos and don’ts from the expert if you are thinking of inking your body and before zero-in on a tattoo. “The most important thing is to understand that tattoos are permanent art. It is very important that you do your research on artists and studios. Do not go to a studio without a clear idea or concept of the tattoo you want. Once you have chosen your artist, don’t hesitate to clear your doubts and tell your concept but listen to him also. After all he is the expert here!” And he goes on with the health aspect, “Tattooing has evolved so much, everything is scientific and safe now. The needles and grips are pre sterilized and the inks are sterilized pigments manufactured for human skin. However pregnant women should avoid getting inked and people with sugar problems and sensitive skin should intimate the artists while fixing appointment. Those with dangerous diseases like the Hepatitis must inform the artist beforehand so that he can take the required precautions. In India there is no set regulations for a tattoo studio, thus one must be very careful while choosing his artist and studio. There is a famous saying, cheap tattoos are not good, and good tattoos are not cheap.”

It makes one wonder as he himself said tattoos are for permanent, what if one is not happy with the job done, what about unhappy clients? “I give my best in every tattoo big or small. My job as a tattoo artist ends inside the studio. It is not my headache, but if the client does not take good care or for whatever reason if the tattoo doesn’t heal the way you expected, we work on it again.” He laughs and on a serious note, “The designs, placement, size, colors, and everything are all approved from the clients prior to the actual inking process and those who want free hand custom designs have full faith in me so I have not faced any unhappy clients.” Looks like everybody is happy here!

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