Monday, May 19, 2014

Tattoos and my Indian Mother-in-law

(Getting his Dancing Shiva tattoo)

Husband-ji is planning on getting another full arm sleeve tattoo this Summer, and of course my dear MIL hates the idea. He already has a full arm sleeve of a dancing Shiva on his right arm, which extends from shoulder to wrist. The tattoo artist he did it with is so talented that he is totally booked up until the Summer.

"I want to get another tattoo," husband-ji said to me, a few weeks ago. I said okay.

He said, "I feel like it looks uneven. I want to get another sleeve."

Good thing I love tattoos, right? 

Husband-ji has a dream of having Shiva on one arm, Vishnu on the other arm, and Brahma (the creator) on his back. The holy Hindu trinity...

My MIL recently returned from a 3 month long stay in India, so she phoned me and we had a nice hour long chat. When she was in India we hardly got to talk because she was surrounded by relatives, at ALL times. So naturally, like BFFs Forever, we got caught up on all the gossip.

I mistakenly told her that husband-ji was planning on getting another tattoo. (You see, I can't lie to my MIL....somehow her voice is like a hypnotist and she is always getting information out of me!) She totally thought it was the worst thing in the world. 

"BAH!" She said. "Why he has to get ANOTHER tattoo, why he can't be satisfied with one only?"

"Oh, Sandhya, don't worry," I said, "It's going to be a tattoo of Vishnu! It's devotional!"

"AIYOOO RAMA!" She said, frustrated. "Fine, let him be covered in tattoos then! Let him have it on his whole body then!" She knew how stubborn her son was...

"Well, actually, now that you mention it, he was also planning on getting Brahma on his back someday too...

I could almost hear her stomping on the floor in frustration.

OOPS!!! Well anyways, she was going to find out eventually, right?

I remember when husband-ji got his tattoo sleeve of Shiva, several years ago. My MIL had come to stay with us for the Summer and it was her first trip to Canada.

(Sketch of Shiva, pre-tattoo)

Coming from a conservative, middle class South Indian family, she was completely unaware of the tattoo culture in the West and had only seen tattoos on "uneducated rural villagers". She said these rural people sometimes they would get their family name tattooed on them for identification purposes. So seeing a tattoo that is a piece of art and is a form of artistic expression - was a completely foreign concept to her.

On my first trip to India, I think she knew I was going to be a bad influence in this particular area. I was the first one to have a tattoo, after all...oh, the horror....not only a foreign girlfriend, but one that has tattoos! How mysteriously alluring...

When we left for the airport, she said, "MADHAVAA, DON'T GET A TATTOO! YOU'LL GET HIV!!!" I think everybody in the check-in line heard her - she said it so loudly! Husband-ji said "Seri, seri, ma!!!!" We laughed so hard after, and sometimes we still joke about it.

(Husband-ji had to sit for twelve hours)

My MIL has this belief that tattoos are unhygienic and are done with infected rural villages!!! I wanted to take her to our neighbourhood tattoo shop while husband-ji got his tattoo done - just to show her that it was totally safe, and similar to going to a dentist (except of course, for the booming rap music that was playing). But she refused - as a way for letting us know that she would not support it.

When I pressed her further, she said, "AIIYOO RAMA! What if some Indian sees me, going into a tattoo shop wearing my saree! What all will they think?!?!"

(Ink drawing before tattoo)

Then, I tried the next best thing. I made her watch all these tattoo shows on the TLC channel - like "L.A. Ink" with Kat Von D. Watching the episodes was a constant "AIIYOO RAMA", as she squinted her eyes in pure horror watching kids get pierced with needles for the sake of an art that she didn't understand. She was both disgusted and enthralled. Some of the tattoos she liked, and some of them she hated - but it opened up the dialogue and the understanding of Western tattoo culture. She began to understand why people got tattoos, by watching each youngster explain the deep and meaningful reasons they got theirs. In a way, she liked the symbolism behind it.

(Halfway done - without the background)

(The finished sleeve)

As always, my MIL was a bit concerned that whatever we do will affect the youngsters in our family who look up to us. Will everybody go get tattoos now?

Husband-ji was the first one in his entire family to have a tattoo...on both the entire family tree. Surprisingly, a lot of his relatives really liked it. It was something that so many had not seen before - having a permanent devotional art. His thatha, being an artist himself, loved it.

But alas, he was not the last! Now one of his little cousin brothers has also got a Shiva tattoo....

We are SUCH a bad influence trendsetters. Hee hee! if only there can be hope of another Firangi Bahu!


Dear readers, do you have tattoos? Have you ever tried to explain tattoo culture to your conservative Indian elders?



  1. I don't like tattoos, so I never had to explain to elders actually.

    1. I am also wary of needles and god know what undiscovered virus they could transmit (too much science research)

    2. The very important pain factor - I don't want to give myself pain for a tattoo

    3. I might change my mind about. Then, I don't want to spend more money trying to remove it.

    4. Also, I always wonder about how it will be when we get older and the skin gets wrinkled he he

    1. The needles really hurt, but it is nothing compared to childbirth LOL. I also do not like needles, when they draw blood, I faint. But weirdly, tattoo needles I am not scared of. I am such a nut LOL.
      Sometimes you change your mind but often I forget that I have tattoos!
      On white skin tattoos fade and sometimes get a green color. On my hubbys skin the tattoo look perfect.
      I have one tattoo on near my hip that got stretched when I was pregnant. It now looks totally messed up but luckily I don't expose that area!

  2. well tattoos and parents a complete face off, but then one thing to keep in mind when some one has lived the entire life in one way for 50 or 60 years or more why even try to change their perceptions? let them be in their comfort zone and let us be in our own while being a bit more understanding

    1. It is always good to learn new ways of in intercultural relationships, there is no such thing as "comfort zone" ;) LOL

  3. Alex

    I don't think I could bear the pain having a tattoo done! What an undertaking when you have a full sleeve done on your arm. Maddy is brave to bear the pain and he must be passionate about having this done. Glad you talked with your MIL ahead of time better to let her know now, instead of waiting till she comes to visit you.

    Good week to each of you xoxoxo.


    1. The 12 hours were pretty difficult for him, but he loved how it turned out! I think he did have to take some pain killers after LOL.
      Now I don't really think it is a big deal after childbirth, hahaha!

  4. I have more friends in India with tattoos than in the US, oddly enough! Neither my husband nor I have them so it wasn't really an issue with us at all. The thing I could not explain to my in-laws was my penchant for taking a nice, long bath at 5 PM on Fridays :)

    I thought once I would get a tattoo - I even drew the design for it - and then got mehendi done once and got bored of it quickly and realized I should probably never get anything permanently inked :)

    1. No way! That is so cool to hear! None of our friends and family in India has tattoos, and everyone here does. Maybe because all our people in India are very straight-laced, and here we are part of more of an artists community.

    2. @Alexandra

      I can imagine the plight of your inlaws. First you corrupted their pure Brahmin lineage. Then, you wrote a racy post on it "Jab we met". Then your husband got those tattos done. You both have brought great disrepute to the family LOL...

    3. @anonymous - ya I know, I am like their worst nightmare LOL

  5. I'm pretty sure my MIL is one of those rural villagers your MIL is referring to, haha. My MIL has a tattoo on her forearm... apparently it was part of her wedding rituals, I don't know all of the details. My SIL here in London was also supposed to have one, but she told me she freaked out as soon as the needle touched her arm and only has one tiny little dot.

    I have a small flower tattoo on my foot, but it's never been an issue for any of my in-laws.


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