Himalayan High: Tattooing in the Shadow of Everest
By Kiri Westby
When I first heard there was a tattoo convention in Kathmandu, Nepal I was astounded!
I lived in Nepal as a college student, worked there as a human rights activist during the recent civil war and have spent a lot of time studying Nepali language and culture. I also married a tattoo artist seven years ago and have been on a crash course of American tattoo culture ever since. Nowhere in my mind did the tattoo scene that I had come to know and the traditional culture of Nepal mix. But there it was, website and all, and I was instantly fascinated.
My friend Eric Inksmith, a veteran of American tattooing, challenged me to take him to Kathmandu, having never really left the U.S. before. Like a butterfly suddenly wondering about the storms it’s own wings have produced, Eric was curious to follow the trail that he himself had blazed. I was honored to be enlisted for the job and to have the chance to experience alongside him what tattooing on the other side of the world has become.
At almost 70 years old, Eric recalled stories from the National Convention in Philadelphia more than 30 years ago. As I listened to tales of rival biker gangs fighting on convention room floors and people being thrown from hotel room windows, I tried to imagine how the kind, soft-spoken, Nepali people have embraced and come to celebrate tattooing. And not in a subtle, underground way either, the convention was being held at the famous Yak & Yeti hotel, one of the most iconic establishments in the Kathmandu valley.
As these things go, friends were recruited, word of the adventure spread and we soon had a posse heading East from the U.S., including: Mike Wilson, Mac Bibby, Robert Ryan, Jae Connor, Phill Bartell and Chad Koeplinger. Eric handled the longest flight of his life and no one killed each other on the way over…in fact, from the beginning, everything felt pretty magical.
Kathmandu has changed significantly since 2007. Corruption and an inefficient, newly-Democratic government have left city services under-funded and unattended. Half-finished construction projects leave gaping holes and exposed power lines, not to mention the electrical brown-outs and water shortages, which have left things feeling chaotic on the streets. But the upside to Nepal’s new political landscape is that there is also more public art and individual self-expression, and many people I spoke to were hopeful and optimistic for Nepal’s future, a far cry from my time here during the war in 2003. Part of this new self-expression has manifested in a relatively fresh and exciting tattoo scene.
I took some time one morning to speak with Eric Inksmith and the Nepal Tattoo Convention’s Founder, Mohan Gurung.
I asked Eric to share a bit about what tattooing was like in the US 34 years ago when he first began.
“When I started, everyone was tattooing on their own, not sharing any information and keeping real secretive. To be honest, I was thinking of giving up. I went to the National Convention in Philly and had a crummy time, until I met Paul Rogers on the last day, and he extended an invitation for me to come to Florida and learn about machine building. [The Scene] was so closed that I tried to approach several artists at the convention and no one would talk to me about anything, everyone was standoffish and unapproachable. At that time Tattooing was illegal in much of the country, it was in Jacksonville and there were only 3 shops in the entire state of Florida; Not even 6 shops in all of Georgia. To find a shop you had to be in the know, it was word of mouth, asking someone who had fresh work where to go, and they usually wouldn’t tell you. You had to work hard to find a place to get a tattoo!”
Mohan seems to understand what that is like, though the context is completely different and shares his beginnings,
“I learned to tattoo in South Korea actually, near the military camps, when I was 17. I asked a man named Petey from Holland to teach me to tattoo and he did…and from that moment on I have never seen this man again, I don’t even know his full name [Petey, are you out there?]. I thought I had learned everything there was to know about tattooing from him, ha! I came home to Nepal with nothing, no money to show for all my time abroad, just some tattoo machines and ink. In Nepal, there were very few tattooers, you occasionally saw traditional Tharu tattoos from The Taraai (Nepal’s lowlands bordering India), but it was still far out. I was tattooing friends and some people who came along and asked, maybe once a week, maybe once a month. I was considering joining the army, wondering what to do to make a living. It was not an easy path to consider tattooing professionally and opening a studio. My friends put a lot of pressure on me to give it a shot. In 1995 Babu Raja Pradhan opened the first studio in Kathmandu, even though it was illegal. People were not even allowed to have long hair in those days. Police would stop people on the street and cut their hair, pull out their piercings. Eventually there was a protest and people with long hair came together to protest the ongoing police abuse. But even two weeks ago, while organizing for this convention, the police were giving us a hard time.”
Eric’s first response is, “But what type of machines were you using?”
To which Mohan replies, “a Micky Sharpz coil machine”.
“Wow!” Eric exclaims, “You started on one of the best!”
At this point, I was hoping to flesh out a deeper conversation about what it was like to be on the fringe of their respective societies and the roles they have played in making tattooing more culturally acceptable (Eric was integral in legalizing tattooing in both Florida and Georgia), but instead they launch into a discussion about machines, much of which goes over my head. Though I am intrigued when Eric, who’s wearing a shirt with Paul Roger’s face on it, has to explain to Mohan who Paul was and the incredible impact he had on American tattooing.
Sadly, It seems reality TV has replaced the names of real American tattoo legends with over-hyped Hollywood tat-stars, all the more reason this trip feels so important. Eric doesn’t mince words when expressing his feelings about Tattoo TV shows, and seems to enjoy the opportunity to educate Mohan on his beloved mentor.
I pull them back to task by asking Eric about his reactions to the convention, which ends today. “What I’ve seen at this convention is very mind expanding. I’m seeing techniques and ideas that I’ve never seen before and it’s very exciting! The feeling of brotherhood has been an unexpected surprise for me. I really love Kathmandu. In fact, Mac and I’ve talked about coming to live here for a while. I’ve been overwhelmed by a feeling of benevolence and compassion my entire time here.”
So I ask Mohan, who seems pleased at what a profoundly good time Eric has had, why he thinks tattooing in Nepal is so unique? “I think we see a lot of input from Nepali spirituality in our tattoos, holy images and deities show up in most tattoos I do, so it’s more than just a fashion statement, there is a lot of influence of our culture and spirituality.” To which Eric replies, “Yes! In the U.S. people often care more about being tattooed, than what they get tattooed. They’ll come into the shop these days and want neck and hand tattoos first, just so everybody can see them. They don’t really care what the image is.”
“You see some of that in Nepal as well”, Mohan admits, “as well as lots of tourist wanting Nepali images and phrases just to appear more ‘spiritual’. It’s funny when their desired phrases don’t translate well into Nepali and we have to convince them that it doesn’t work.”
I talk about the tattoo my husband Phill Bartell just did on one of the hotel managers, a depiction of the Hindu Lord Shiva. After it was done, the man had tears in his eyes explaining that now, even on his deathbed, Shiva will always be with him. “Yes! That’s it” Mohan agrees, “Nepali tattooing is unique because the images come from our spiritual beliefs and help us as visual reminders”.
He continues, “Because of the Internet and TV, Nepalis are seeing a while different side of tattooing and incorporating it into their views, so Nepali tattooing is changing. As tattoo artists we have a lot of responsibility to guide the future of Nepali tattooing. As part of the beginning of democracy, we have seen a huge resurgence of art, with new liberties and freedoms to express ourselves. We are not trying to imitate the west, this is our art and we have cultural and spiritual connections with these images. We are not trying push tattoos on Nepalis, but asking that the Nepali people expand their acceptance and understanding to include tattoos. The most important thing is how we live and what examples we set. I am trying to do something positive for this industry in Nepal and once I took that on, I committed myself to presenting a different image than the stereotype of an angry tattooed man.
Eric agreed, “It’s like you become an ambassador of tattooing and everyone is watching you and you actually change your ways to prove them wrong. I felt the same way.”
Mohan concurred, “tattooing has brought so many positive things into my life and introduced me to so many great people, that I have really changed internally.”
“Exactly!” Eric responds, “I am a completely different person now than when I started tattooing. Paul had a huge influence on me and pointed out my own negativity and anger and through tattooing, I began to change.”
I end our session by asking Mohan what he hopes for the future of Nepali tattooing and what we have to look forward to in subsequent conventions.
“In the future, we want to make it even smoother for the artists. We plan to increase the entertainment part of the convention, and create times for tattooers to hang out together in Kathmandu, outside of the convention center. This year we had some big names coming through to share their talents and knowledge with us and we would like to see that continue. We also had more Nepali people coming by and seeing what this level of tattooing is all about and getting tattooed. We don’t want to get any bigger, just increase the quality of the work and artistry. We want to make sure it stays Nepali in style and flavor and that there are always a significant amount of spots reserved for Nepali tattooers. This year we had Jondix giving a seminar on Tibetan style dot work, and we would like to increase these types of educational exchanges, spaces for expanding everyone’s knowledge. ”
He continues, “But we have to be very careful to avoid the big egos that we see on TV with so much of tattooing today. There is a real sense of brotherhood and respect among Nepali tattooers today and everyone really admires what the convention has done for Nepali tattooing.”
Eric chimes in, “I wish the U.S. had the same brotherhood feeling that were talking about. I don’t think Nepal has to change anything, just hope the ego part doesn’t come into play here.”
Mohan responds, “I think there is a positive affect from the TV shows, because the word is getting out and people are getting more tattoos and larger tattoos. But at the same time, there is a lot of bad talking between artists with people trying to bring each other down and to show that they are the best. Actually, the tattoos they show are beautiful, but the drama makes it ugly to watch. I like watching with my grandma, who doesn’t speak any English, and she smiles and marvels at the art”
Eric concludes, “So it’s best to watch those shows with the volume down and just look at the art! I’ll try that!”
We all agree that whatever else happens, they must stick to their roots and use the convention as a learning opportunity for cross-cultural education and sharing. The international artists I spoke to were stoked on the traditional Nepali music and dancing, and asked for more organized activities that highlight Nepali culture. The Nepali artists I spoke to asked for more seminars on different techniques and aspects of tattooing that they don’t have much access to, including Universal Precautions training.
We ended by talking a little bit about the issue of money. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world (monetarily, not spiritually!) and bargaining for goods is part and parcel to their culture. In fact, I once spent 4 months bargaining for a bracelet that I eventually got for 1/10th the original asking price…and best of all got a good friend out of the long process.
Some tattooers were shocked with the shrewdness of the bargaining taking place, and preferred to walk away from the meager amounts people were offering. In most places in world, the price an artist quotes is the price you pay. But if you were open to it, some interesting bargains were struck and Phill ended up trading a tattoo for some babysitting time (we brought our 2 year old with us and desperately needed a night off!) and Mike ended up getting a stack of beautiful Thangka paintings from two brothers who got matching Buddha tattoos…and we all got a lovely tour of the Thangka painting school they attend.
And this is the secret to the magic of the Nepal Tattoo Convention. As Mohan said, “There are two types of tattoo artists today. Those who are in it to make money and those who are in for the art…the real tattooers. If you are just a business-minded tattooer, this is not the right convention for you, you probably won’t make much money. If you are interested in a real exchange of ideas and sharing, in order to increase the amount of quality tattooing in the world, and learn about authentic Nepali tattooing, then this is the place for you and we welcome you.”
Most of the artists we met weren’t there for the money. Tattooers came from Australia, Europe, Asia and North America and many of them were up before dawn to meditate with the monks at the Boudhanath stupa or wander around the extensive markets nearby, most making plans before and after the convention to explore the beauty of Nepal (which is really one of the most stunning countries in the world). World renown tattoo artist Theo Jak was there, not to tattoo, but just to take it all in and share what he could. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the draw to Nepal goes way beyond the confines of the convention, and many booths were left unattended until late afternoon while their artists explored the amazing Kathmandu valley.
Something about Nepal changes people and helps us to see life from a new perspective. Surrounded by extremes, this highly spiritual, deeply impoverished, amazingly compassionate and curious culture takes hold of one’s heart and plants a seed that continues to bloom inside of you. Every one of us felt it and left Nepal with something much more valuable than money, a sense of interconnectedness and brotherhood to share and expanded upon back home.
Most of us went thinking we were going on “the” trip of a lifetime, but returned to start planning our next trip to the annual Nepal Tattoo Convention. With so much more to see and learn and share, this gem of a convention is a shining example of positivity and strength for the benefit of the entire international tattoo community.