It's the most intimate of the arts where the body is the canvas. Primal, personal and precise not to mention permanent, tattooing is perhaps the true test of an artist. It's art that's born of a profound collaboration between artist and subject as we discover in a conversation with tattoo artist, Shyamli Panda who speaks about her life, profession and what it takes to bring a design to life.
Interview: Shweta Vepa Vyas
Photographer: Aditi Tailang | Art Direction: Pranav Sawhney of @Jullayproductions
Shyamli's slam book
Sun sign: Aries
Profession: I work as a tattoo artist, paint and occasionally write comics.
City you presently live in: Gurgaon
If not an artist, what would you be? Unemployed…LOL!
Self-care rituals: Drinking a concoction of water, ginger, turmeric and lemon every morning, getting an hour-long workout everyday and meditating once in a while
Instagram handles you love: @chellaman @alokvmenon for educational and sometimes heartwarming gender queer content, @maisonartc for feeding my visual library with a fresh and diverse sense of aesthetics and ALL cat handles ever for their cat content
Podcasts you're listening to: Radiolab, Reply All, Science vs, 99% invisible, rabbit hole, The Cut, The Great Women Artists
Films: That’s a difficult one because I watch too many. Some of my forever favourites though are From Dusk Till Dawn, Midsommar, Snowpiercer and What We Do In The Shadows
TV series: People Just Do Nothing, Flight of the Conchords, Curb your Enthusiasm, Insecure, Big Mouth and Dave
Favourite recipe: My homemade peanut butter, made with roasted peanuts, lots of jaggery and some Himalayan pink salt—I toss in toasted almonds and dried coconut in there for extra flavour.
Websites: I realise now that I don't really spend a lot of time on any particular websites! I'm pretty sure the longest time I've spent on a website recently has been on https://bongo.cat
Artists you heart: My close friend Harsh Nambiar (@hrnambiar) is definitely in my top five, while New Delhi-based artist Mad Paule (@madpaule) is another one. Jasjyot Singh Hans (@jasjyotjasjyot) and Priyesh Trivedi (priyesh_t) are also on the list of usual suspects. To be honest, I could go on but for now I'm going to finish with a woman at the top of the list—Alice Neel.
Books: My forever favourites are the Oryx and Crake Trilogy by Margaret Atwood, The Neapolitan Trilogy by Elena Ferrante, The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy by Douglas Adams and Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Beauty and skincare routine: Water! I drink lots of it! I also consume Vitamin C and gut-cleansing foods—my routine is more about clean eating than external products. My skin is sensitive, so some of my essential products are a mild Bioderma or Cetaphil face wash, a witchhazel toner, a mild moisturiser, rosehip oil and tea tree oil—something I always keep to counter breakouts.
Most special piece of jewellery or clothing in your closet and why: It has to be a metal hairpin that I purchased over a decade ago at a small tribal handicraft store in Koraput, Orissa. It's not very expensive but I'm extremely fond of it.
What first comes to your mind when you think of Lune?
For some reason, I think of a fire place on a winter night. There's something extremely inviting, comfortable and lumnous about the jewellery.
Tell us about your journey of becoming a tattoo artist. Did you always want to be one?
I wanted to be so many things growing up—a tattoo artist did not feature in that list. Tattoos intrigued me but I never thought of who made them or the process behind them. It was only when I graduated and got my second tattoo that I started considering it a viable profession. I loved to draw and after college, I was convinced that graphic design was not my true calling. However, I realised I was bad at graphic designing. While I was still interning as a graphic designer, my mentor, boss and friend, Lokesh (owner and founder of Devil'z Tattooz) suggested that I could use my drawing skills to good use. He saw something that I didn’t see in me and pushed me to better myself which is probably why I stuck it out.
My decision to switch careers less than one year into the profession just seems preordained now. The path wasn’t easy—I had to lean on my parents for support as I learned the basic skill set and I also had a tumultuous relationship that constantly needed my attention. Despite the challenges that learning a new craft poses, I think this was THE only path i could've chosen. That being said, being able to tattoo is just one of the things I want to do. Don't ask me the 'ultimate goal'—I still don't know!
What were your learnings at Srishti?
I think Srishti was one the most pivotal periods of my life. It made a huge part of who I am today, simply by letting me be myself. My most freeing learning there was the power of lateral thinking and the ability to question everything.
How would you describe your artistic style?
If I have to be brutally honest i would say 'confused.' I still feel like I'm constantly working to arrive at a distinct style. Ask me again next year and hopefully I'll have a better answer.
What is your creative process like?
Everywhere! I have to be careful though—I feel like I pick up from things around me so easily that sometimes I can’t really tell what's really me or a product of me having heard/ seen/ read something.
How is it to work with a client? How much of a design is their input?
The basic elements of the tattoo come from the client. Then, I make them really think about their very subjective ideas in objective terms and once that process is done, they have a clear idea of what they want me to draw out. Then, I take over and give it life. I've formulated this after nine years of dealing with clients. Many are often confused because of not knowing what they want—including them in the ideation process makes it more collaborative.
What are your thoughts on the tattoo industry in India? What are the challenges that you face?
I think the main challenge we face is education in the creative sectors is not on par with international standards. Everything is still quite basic and so clients too are not very open to experimental ideas. We have to systematically work towards not just profit-oriented goals but expanding the knowledge of the masses—normalise good design, normalise being unique, normalise art and art education so we can really develop good design sense. And that's a monumental challenge in a country like ours where individual and creative thought has never been made a priority.
Would you have any experiences or cute stories about the type of people who come to get tattoos?
I don't know how this happens, but I think the setting of a tattoo studio is so intimate that as an artist you almost double as a therapist; people really let me in on their deep, dark secrets. What's cool is that I meet a lot of people whose stories remind me to be grateful for what I have and also inspire me to keep doing better.
What are your thoughts on the question, 'What does this tattoo mean’?
Honestly, I just get mad. People attach so much weight on 'meaning' because tattoos are still sort of taboo here. If you can chalk up the existence of your tattoo to something, then it’s more acceptable. I couldn't roll my eyes far back enough in my head. Get something because you want it and means something to YOU—no matter how trivial it is. If it's not understood by anyone else its fine—it's not on their body. Similarly, if you see someone whose tattoo you don't understand, leave it alone—it's probably not for you or anyone to 'get'.
This is a question from Lune's Instagram. How supportive were your parents about your decision of becoming a tattoo artist?
Very. I've had a blessed journey with the most supportive parents and colleagues. My parents were confused and concerned by my decision but that's understandable.
How would you describe 2020?
It's been a year of growth and self-reflection. I've learnt how to stay calm and creative in an increasingly chaos-filled world.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on a set of paintings that will hopefully make it to a small exhibition. There's also a semi- autobiographical comic/ graphic novel which I think I will only finish in a decade. Apart from that, I'm working on a few, fun tattoo designs that i want to do—with no client inputs whatsoever!
We visited Shyamli at home for the first time in Delhi, where she generously offered us a glimpse into her world—and also featured our silver-toned jewellery in a shoot for the first time. She wears our Mini crescent necklace, Starburst necklace, Pearl egg necklace and Hail pearl necklace in silver tone along with our Plain silver signet and Line bar rings in silver tone and brings the look together with our trusty Small crater hoops.