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What it takes to create a tattoo

Published Jun 03, 2019 05:58am
Asif Raza inks a Superman tattoo on a client’s arm at his studio | Photos by Mohammad Ali, White Star
Asif Raza inks a Superman tattoo on a client’s arm at his studio | Photos by Mohammad Ali, White Star

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.

Creating a tattoo requires a lot of concentration and skill since a single mistake can ruin 
the whole image being inked into the skin
Creating a tattoo requires a lot of concentration and skill since a single mistake can ruin the whole image being inked into the skin

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.

Before a tattoo is carved on a client’s body, the artist makes a sketch on paper in order to get the design right
Before a tattoo is carved on a client’s body, the artist makes a sketch on paper in order to get the design right

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.

Rameez Arif is not only interested in the art of inking the human body but also does graphic and interior designing. His talent is evident from the bright and creative decor he has chosen for his studio. Instead of simply plastering the walls with samples of work done for his clients, he has made an extra effort to give his studio the appearance of a creative space by adorning it with photos, art pieces and sketches
Rameez Arif is not only interested in the art of inking the human body but also does graphic and interior designing. His talent is evident from the bright and creative decor he has chosen for his studio. Instead of simply plastering the walls with samples of work done for his clients, he has made an extra effort to give his studio the appearance of a creative space by adorning it with photos, art pieces and sketches

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.

Rameez Arif creating a tattoo design that he believes will bring him on a par with international tattoo artists
Rameez Arif creating a tattoo design that he believes will bring him on a par with international tattoo artists

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.”

A refelection of the waiting room at a tattoo studio in Karachi
A refelection of the waiting room at a tattoo studio in Karachi

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.

Zain Ali, a regular client at a tattoo studio in Karachi, has an array of tattoos on his arms
Zain Ali, a regular client at a tattoo studio in Karachi, has an array of tattoos on his arms

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.