Sakshi Vij is a senior tattoo artist at Devil’z Tattoos, Gurgaon. Born in Delhi, Sakshi moved to Toronto with her mother after her parents’ separation while her father and sister remained in Delhi. From a young age, she wanted to study Cancer Biology but turmoil within the family meant Sakshi’s academics got little attention. Once back in India, Sakshi went to Bangalore for her graduation. Two years into it, she met with a terrible accident, which left her hospitalized for a long time.
Having lost a chunk of flesh from her leg, it took Sakshi three years of physiotherapy to be able to walk again. She didn’t go back to college after that. “I started getting tattoos to compensate for … I don’t know what.” She liked everything that came with tattoos: the process of tattooing, the studio, and the art pieces around the place. Then one day she met Lokesh, her future mentor, at the Devil’z Studio, Gurgaon. Something just clicked and she knew this was what she wanted to do. She immediately asked to become his apprentice. Her mother however, disagreed. She felt that it would be a disgrace for her to not get a degree and take up this line of work. Already in need of financial support, Sakshi dropped the idea.
Then one day, without telling her mother, Sakshi sold off her car to pay for an apprenticeship at the studio. She was twenty-four years old then. The studio soon became a space for her to learn tattooing, and develop her own sketches and style. A stark dichotomy still existed between her professional and familial self. It was only when her mother offered her money for the apprenticeship, two years later, that Sakshi told her more about her work.
As cool as it sounds to be a female tattoo artist, Sakshi says it is extremely stressful. A largely male-dominated industry, the women in the profession is not highlighted at all. And while men and women both have to prove themselves within the field, women simultaneously have to deal with stereotypes and sexist comments. “I’ve had female clients tell me, ‘Are you going to tattoo us? We were expecting a male tattoo artist!’ I told them it was sad to hear that from people of my own gender!” Moreover, though the act of drawing and sketching is often considered appropriate for women, tattooing it would appear, is not. A common question Sakshi has to tackle is whether it is her actual job or just a hobby: and if so, does she make enough money. “I come to the studio seven days a week. I work my ass off from 11 am to 8 pm. Just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean tattooing is not my profession.”
Being a tattoo artist, designs inked on her own skin are part of her art and self-expression. They are also, as it so turns out, an excuse for people to judge her. She says her male clients, among other men, often do not take her seriously and ask her inappropriate questions. The assumption often is that she suffers from substance abuse issues and men tend to be more sexually aggressive towards her. “So many of them touch me inappropriately and try to get my number. It’s frustrating. No, I don’t want to drink or smoke up or have sex!” Then there are insensitive clients. Sakshi likes drawing cockroaches and beetles, and has some tattooed on her arms. A female client once looked at her drawings and her tattoos and exclaimed loudly in front of the entire studio, “Were you molested as a child or what, that you draw such tattoos?” She wanted to retort back but being the one who manages the studio, she could not.
Strange reactions have become commonplace for her. They range from “Oh, poor thing, who’ll marry her now!” to “Oh you’re not married – what an artistic cliché.” To her it seems absurd because people break stereotypes all the time. Her mentor is married, has a lovely wife and two kids. “I am not trying to be a rebel or come across as anti-social. I am just doing my job because I am good at it.”
She says life is harder outside the studio. When travelling in the metro or the streets, eyes follow her body parts, her piercings and tattoos so often that she feels like an object. “There are moments when I wish I could undo some of my art on myself. It’s pathetic, but the city can really make you doubt yourself sometimes. There is such invasion of privacy and it makes you so uncomfortable in your skin!”
There are real costs to her art. She explains that she is often refused medication when she goes to a chemist unless she has a prescription. When renting a house, she has to provide her sister’s details as many people assume she is unreliable based on her physical appearance. “People must think I am a social waste. They don’t value art here. Nobody bothers to know what my anxieties are, or how lonely I feel sometimes. They can be so insensitive to grief.” There’s a hint of sadness in her voice. She isn’t close to her mother and prefers to stay off the radar as opposed to how edgy and engaging she looks. “But I want my clients to remember me through my art. I have always been forgotten by my loved ones, my parents.”
With a smile she narrates how some interactions make her feel appreciated. “This one time someone noticed the two skull tattoos I have – (on my) back and thigh – and exclaimed, “Wow! Have you got a ghost tattooed on yourself?” She laughs. Meanwhile, she is waiting for an appointment with a Polish artist to get her chest tattooed. She wonders if people would call her a freak then or if she would wear turtlenecks. But she does what she wants, and draws and needles what she will.