No neon signs or billboards indicate that an apartment building in Karachi’s Defence area houses a tattoo studio. The entrance to a flat on the first floor offers the first indication of that: it is painted bright yellow, the same colour as the studio’s logo. Inside, walls have a grey brick pattern — with wooden alcoves decorated with knick-knacks such as vinyl records, small speakers, clocks and comic book figurines.
In one of the rooms here, Rameez Arif makes tattoos on his client’s bodies. The walls of his studio are decorated with numerous tattoo designs — enough to distract anyone going through the painful process of getting one themselves.
Arif started working as a tattoo artist nine years ago — almost by default. His wife wanted to get a tattoo, but he could not find anyone in Karachi who could make an attractive design while also ensuring that she did not get an infection. So, he decided to do it himself.
He imported the required equipment from the United States and started researching on how to make a tattoo. The first tattoo he ever created was on his own leg. After rehearsing for a year, he finally inked his wife’s body.
Today, Arif is a known tattoo artist in Karachi, with a large and rich clientele. He charges 18,000 rupees for a three-square-inch tattoo. Any other studio would do that for half the price. “I use organic ink and sterilised equipment imported from the United States [to avoid the danger of tattoos becoming infected]”, he says, explaining why his rates are high.
Asif Raza, too, runs a tattoo studio in Defence, Karachi. His workplace, on the fourth floor of an apartment building, also looks like any other residence in the neighbourhood — until you get in.
The waiting room of his studio has ivory walls and a wooden floor. On a wall behind a table, a board carries a number of tattoo designs. Inside a small room at the farther end of the waiting room, a client is getting a tattoo. His feet can be seen and the buzzing sound of the tattoo gun can be heard through a glass door. He twitches his feet every time the tattoo needle scratches his skin.
Raza has been working as a tattoo artist for the past 11 years and creates conceptual designs which can be permanent as well as temporary. “Some people want the names of their love interests inked on their bodies, especially on Valentine’s Day,” he says. “Many of them return to get the names modified after a breakup.”
Raza is passionate about his work but he occasionally receives threats that leave him nervous. “I receive threatening phone calls sometimes,” he says. The callers tell him to shut down his studio because “tattoos are not permissible in Islam.”
Ghulam Mustafa developed an interest in tattooing at the age of 17. He rigged a tattoo machine by attaching a needle and a motor to a toy gun and learnt the art of tattooing from an older mentor.
Soon, he found a large clientele among Hindu men and women. “They believe they will not get married if they do not get tattoos. They have had this tradition [for centuries],” he says. He would charge people 100 rupees for tattooing someone’s name on themselves.
However, Mustafa’s family and friends did not like his work. They insisted that making tattoos on human bodies was un-Islamic. In 2017, 10 years after first tattoo venture, he decided to quit. He now does Islamic calligraphy on rice grains, turns them into jewellery and key chains, and sells them at an amusement park in Karachi.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.
The article was published in the Herald's May 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.