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Mo Naga is on a mission to revive traditional Indian tattoo culture 

By Jenny Thingshung

Mo Naga was studying to become a fashion designer at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Hyderabad, when he stumbled upon the dying art of traditional tattoos in India.

Researching indigenous textile from Nagaland, led him to his lifelong mission to help preserve tattoo art, which is “as ancient as human culture is.” Now, Morangam Khaling, known popularly as Mo Naga, is the lone Indian artist-researcher working on preserving the traditional tattoo culture of India.

He is also among the only three Indians to be featured amongst the 100 most notable tattoo artists in The World Atlas of Tattoo, published by Yale University Press, (2015) for his dedication and passion to preserve the traditional art.

In 2012, he set up Headhunters’ Ink, the first tattoo training institute in the northeast, with an aim to revive the art. Mo was struck by the age-old beauty and uniqueness of Naga traditional tattoo. He found that unlike other art and crafts, tattoo art was the only art that was neglected by government, NGOs and institutions alike. And seeing the once rich culture fading into oblivion made him feel that, “there was a need to preserve and to bring back the pride to the people,” says Mo, when we meet him at his studio in Delhi.

As he went deeper into the art, he found that, “tattoo is probably the most ancient practice of human beings and the understanding of our identity and from where we come from, will remain incomplete without being aware of tattoo practice.” Mo, who is a Naga by birth, found tattoo as the missing piece to understanding more about his own people and culture.

The Naga people stopped practicing tattoo art 60 years ago due to various reasons, but most importantly, because of the arrival of Christianity. Mo travelled extensively to places where tattoo practice was most prevalent. In Nagaland, he covered places like Mon, Tuengsang, Kiphere and Phek. He also travelled to Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and across border villages in Burma.

On one such trip, he got the Naga traditional tattoo done. The woman who made the tattoo for him, an Angya (queen) in Mon district of Nagaland, was doing it for the first time in 60 years. The Naga tattoo is done in hand tapping style like the Maoris or Indonesians. Mo shared that the experience is overwhelming. It feels like meditation, he says. “Hand tapping involves minimum three people sometime even four people. One or two will spread the skin and the main artist will tap the organic ink into the skin. So while that is happening, to create good art, all the four involved should be in sync with each other. They have to become one, because the person who is tapping has his role, as is the person who is stretching the skin.”

The experience of Naga traditional tattoo art drove him to expand his horizon by exploring the traditional art of other Indian communities. In the process, he found that, “there’s no other
country like India with such diversity of tattoo tradition.”

In 2015, he started Godna Gram – The Tattoo Village in Delhi’s Shapur Jat area. The studio gives a platform to indigenous artists from across the country, to support them in the study of their tattoo history and also to help them find ways to preserve it.

With his study and research, he is trying to dispel most people’s understanding that “traditional tattoo talks about backwardness… and that adivasis are the only people who practice tattooing. It is not true. Even Rajputs have a tattoo tradition, so does Punjab and others. And most people are not aware that even Lord Krishna used to tattoo the gopikas.”

Mo is a celebrity in the world of tattoo art. People from around the world come to him, but his greatest challenge has been to spread awareness to Indians about the art form. “To convince the people that tattoo is not a foreign art, because lately, even educated people think that tattoo is western, whereas the people from outside are trying to understand our art.”

This month he will travel to Spain to participate in the world’s biggest traditional tattoo festival. This will be the first time where Indian tattoo art will be represented there.
The artist-researcher wants young Indians to look at traditional tattoo art on a more serious note and not just as a fashion statement, but as something that can be sacred in our culture.

“Tattoos not only marks our identity now, but mark it in our next life also. And in some cultures in India, it also talks about our previous life. Tattoo has its own soul and energy,” he mused.


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