In front of the Hawa MahalI got my first tattoo when I was 18 and didn’t know any better. I got my second, third, and fourth tattoos by the time I was 20. I’m heading now into my mid-30s. I have seven tattoos. Three are cover-ups of those early mishaps.  But I can proudly say that I have thought out each and every one of the pieces currently on my body.

I have two stunning half sleeves dedicated to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, smaller pieces on each forearm, plus even smaller ones on back, ankle, and foot. I’m planning more. Each tattoo is a work of art. I thought them out, and every one of them means something to me. The images themselves cannot remotely be considered offensive to anyone. But I also know how to keep them covered when the occasion or location calls for it.

Before going to India I did a lot of research on where I hoped to go, and the cultural views on tattoos in that region. I learned that despite TV and even Bollywood starting to break through the old taboos, in certain areas in the north and in the east tattoos on women continue to be associated with prostitution. So I was careful about what I packed and I made sure when I arrived in New Delhi to get clothes that covered up all my ink in case I ended up in those areas where tattoos were still considered taboo and that I would wear until I got a better sense of how my tattoos would be received.

Over the course of my three month adventure across India I learned that women in India don’t typically have tattoos, unless they are younger and come from a more progressive family or live in one of the bigger cities. And for the men who choose to get inked (for many it is against their religious beliefs) the designs are still often small and discreet – no sleeves or face tattoos that I saw!

A not-so-sanitary tattoo shop set up in the sand.

I learned during my month in Goa that in Goa pretty much anything goes – there were even several tattoo shops with artists who trained in the US or in Europe who had a booming business going there in India.

I learned that because Mumbai is fairly westernized tattoos are common among the youth of the city and tattoo shops could be found anywhere you looked, even in the local malls. And I learned that Rajasthan in general was just too hot to cover everything despite a more conservative outlook, and because so many tourists visited the region they had a much more relaxed attitude toward foreigners who displayed tattoos – and that during festivals, sanitation wasn’t the strongest consideration for those who set up their “shops” in the dirt. “Yes, I’d like that tribal design there, with a side of hepatitis, please.” Yeah, I don’t think so. But I saw plenty who did.

Dressed up for Diwali.

While in Mumbai, heading into the second half of my trip I finally picked up some shirts from a street vendor in Colaba that would be more comfortable to wear in hotter weather. I was on my way up to spend a month in Rajasthan.  I wanted something lightweight and comfortable and yet modest in that no cleavage or displays of body were revealed. What was revealed, however, were all of my tattoos. I crossed my fingers that this would not prove to be a bad idea because up til this point I had remained cautious, and was glad I still had the long sleeved kurtas purchased back in Delhi and later the sari I would receive as a gift in Jaisalmer as back-up just in case.

What I noticed once I began displaying my tattoos more openly is that while I thought I got a lot of attention just by being a foreigner, I got even MORE attention because of the ink. When before it was every fifth person stopping to ask to take my photo now it was every second or third person (and once even a newspaper photographer). When I went out in Udaipur with a new friend also covered in tattoos we flat out got mobbed. I’d had a month and a half in the country at this point so I had had time to adjust myself to the attention. Months later and I’m still not sure if I would have been able to handle it if I’d had to deal with this right from the start. So I am glad I had waited.

When walking down a street men would call out “nice tattoo! Where did you do it?” A crowd would gather to hear the stories behind each design, and all wanted to know where I’d had them done and how long each tattoo took to complete. Women and girls would jump to the assumption that it was paint or henna adorning my arms. And every time I say “no, it’s a permanent tattoo” they’d want to touch it and they would – sliding light hands over the vivid colors on my pale arms, astonished that there was no difference in texture.

Tattoos on full display.

I hadn’t realized this was an assumption shared by some men as well until close to the end of my trip. A young man in Pushkar came up to me one day and asked how long I’d had it (pointing to the Red Queen on my left arm). “Her? Oh, a couple of years now,” I replied casually with a smile. A look of shock crossed his face. “How long since you’ve had a shower?” He asked in astonishment! I still didn’t quite grasp what his deal was so I admit to getting a bit defensive. “This morning!” I said. “Why?” His look of shock changed to one of wonder and his hand inched out as if wanting to touch my arm. “How does it stay on???” 

I laughed… A burst I couldn’t contain when I realized his mistake. “No no no,” I told him. “It’s not paint. These are real tattoos. Permanent!”

It took some doing to finally get through to him what I meant by permanent. And he was pretty much in awe. He followed me around for the next little while, asking questions about the process and calling friends over to look, before I finally felt unnerved by the attention and begged off and returned to my hotel.

I am glad I figured out that hiding the ink did reduce some unwanted attention for days when I just wanted to be left as alone as I could be. And I also made sure, before going on to any new destination, to ask friends I made where I was what the reception would be to my tattoos and if I should be more careful to hide them or if wearing my comfortable tops baring my arms and shoulders (and thus tattoos) would be fine. That doesn’t always work, though, and not all of my experiences were pleasant ones.

I was told by the friends I had made in Jaisalmer that I would be fine at my next stop. Since it’s the only time I had this sort of experience I  am not going to blame the tattoos for what happened to me in Jodhpur: surrounded by a pack of men when I arrived at the train station late at night – touched, leered at, and made to feel truly frightened. I know that my choice that night to display my tattoos is not what led to that terrifying experience. That it came from a more deeply rooted cultural view men in India typically have towards women – and that my tattoos had nothing to do with their behavior.

I saw little boys in Jodhpur who chased after foreign women to pinch their asses, and they would gather in groups to whistle or make lewd remarks as I walked past dressed in proper Indian attire. I recognize that their role models were those men at the train station, and that saddened me more than it made me angry. I’m grateful that this experience only happened once. That over the course of three months my experiences led more to smiles and genuine friendly interest rather than this disturbing aggression.

Back in Delhi and comfortable being myself.

So with that said, I know that when I go back to India (because I do want to go back… the country was magical and one I want quite desperately to experience again) and when I travel to other parts of the world I’ll continue my practice of asking locals about local customs and beliefs and I will try to get a feel for attitudes myself. But after three months in India I am confident in my ability to handle the attention being a tattooed lady brings. And that means once I’ve done my homework I won’t be afraid to reveal my ink in the future, no matter where I go.