COVER IMAGE: Mo Naga visiting Konyak Naga warriors at Hungphoi village, Nagaland. Photo courtesy of the artist. (*click on images below to enlarge)
HIDDEN IN THE GIANT ROOTS of a sacred banyan tree, dozens of human skulls peeked out of the morning mist to greet me as I approached their forested home. Some seemed to be smiling or screaming, while others wore blank expressions across their bony faces. Strewn about them were the remains of shattered ceramic pots, glass bottles, plastic plates, and burned-out candles that no longer held their wicks. Rice grains littered the ground and the dank earthy soil smelled of fermented alcohol. The entire scene resembled a dinner party gone horribly wrong. But I later learned that the dead inhabiting this otherworldly realm were “noble” and provided with seasonal offerings to enhance the fertility of the nearby village and its people – the Naga.
Living amidst the high mountains and forests of India’s borderlands with Myanmar, the Naga people have always paid deep respect to the dead. Whether it was the severed head of an enemy or the skull of a revered ancestor, human heads were curated and fed because they were believed to contain life-giving powers linked to the spiritual essence of the deceased. In fact, human heads were likened to containers of seed that, upon germination, had the magical potential to increase the yield of agricultural crops and numbers of newborn children.
Long feared and respected as a warrior people, the Naga are comprised of more than 30 local tribes, each with its own traditions, language, and culture. Of these groups, more than half tattooed in a variety of styles related to natural symbols taken from the surrounding world. These incredibly bold tattoos could not be worn by just anyone, since typically only men who had proved themselves on the battlefield could earn the right to mark their bodies. Women were also tattooed with a variety of patterns that typically announced tribal, clan, or family affiliations and rites of passage.
However, with the arrival of missionaries in the late nineteenth century, the cessation of tribal warfare and headhunting in the mid-twentieth century, and the adoption of European dress and Western style tattooing in recent decades, indigenous forms of Naga tattooing are becoming quite rare in the twenty-first century. Today, the last traces of this once vibrant cultural custom can only be seen on elders, many of whom are between eighty and one hundred years of age. And in one more generation, the last of the traditional Naga tattoo bearers will disappear forever.
But here in the land of the dawn-lit mountains there is new hope of a tattoo revival. Mo Naga (Moranngam Khaling) is an ethnic Uipo Naga tattoo artist. Originally from the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, he trained as a fashion designer at the prestigious National Institute of Fashion Technology in Hyderabad where he started tattooing fifteen years ago. In 2008, Mo Naga opened his first tattoo studio in Delhi, and in the same year he became the brand ambassador for Lee Jeans. Over the course of his career, he has become recognized as one of India’s most prominent tattoo artists. Mo Naga was one of only three India-based artists featured in The World Atlas of Tattoo (Yale University Press), which chronicles the work of one hundred leading global tattooists, and his artistic accomplishments have been featured in dozens of media features. In 2008, Lee Jeans promoted him as India’s Best Tattooist in a national campaign.
After tattooing professionally in New Delhi for several years, he left the capital in 2012 and moved to Guwahati, Assam (the gateway city to the Naga homeland) to open the first tattoo studio and tattoo school in India’s northeast called Headhunters’ Ink. Armed with social capital and inspired by the desire to resurrect traditional Naga tattooing through training the next generation of artists, his seventy-five square meter space provided two courses that offered basic design, tattoo machine mechanics, clinical hygiene and sterilization practices, among other offerings. Subsequently his base of tattoo operations moved to Dimapur, the capital of Nagaland state, then back to his home village in Manipur where Headhunters’ Ink now operates as a seasonal enterprise. In order to sustain the tattoo school financially, however, Mo Naga opened a tattoo studio called Godna Gram in Delhi where he and his team of tattoo artists are dedicated to promoting Naga tattoo art and culture through contemporary renditions of traditional patterns and responsible tattooing.
Mr. Naga selected the business name Headhunters’ Ink not as an attempt to conjure up exoticized images of Naga people. Rather, the moniker is a literal translation that should not be perceived in a negative light. “If you look at it on its face,” Mo Naga says, “it speaks about the stories of my brave tattooed ancestors, who were headhunters and warriors. Their stories were told in ink. So this name reflects positivity, and was certainly not meant to appropriate some Western visage or concept.”
Mo Naga explains why he largely avoids foreign tattoo designs: “Today, the Western tattoo designs that Naga youth see are completely foreign to their culture. If we can develop tattoo designs inspired by our local indigenous art and heritage, tattooing will become more meaningful and more acceptable.” Indeed, his geometric tattoo designs are derived from traditional Naga tattoo patterns, textile designs, beadwork, sculpture and objects of material and ritual culture, such as painted human skulls.
Traditionally, Naga tattoos were meaningful marks earned as a result of particular life achievements and were not worn as local fashion statements. Mo Naga believes that creating “a new line” of contemporary tattoos for Naga people to wear will help preserve this dying ancestral practice. He says: “Naga warriors may not be headhunting anymore and receiving tattoos for valor, but the relevance of those designs should not be lost. Even now a Naga person can still get a tattoo in accordance with their achievements, just like their ancestors did. In this way, we can preserve our [tattoo] culture and ensure that the noble way of our Naga forefathers does not fade from memory.”
Mo Naga’s school was born out of the fact that the craft of tattooing is so essential to preserving Naga history and culture. Northeastern India had not been part of the country’s booming tattoo industry, although the region had skilled artists. Mo Naga notes: “The people here are gifted with superb artistic talents. We are here to just help them recognize these skills and transform them into real professionals. With our experience in design and art, through safe and hygienic tattooing, and through our understanding of the industry, we can offer the best in tattoo art education. In turn, the region would become a force and source of inspiration in the global world and culture of tattooing. After all, if Americans, Japanese or Polynesians can boast of an ancient culture in tattooing, why shouldn’t we do the same?,” he exclaims.
Guru Rewben Mashangva, one of the Northeast’s most prominent folk musicians, is excited by Mo Naga’s vision to create a new era of Naga tattooing. He says: “Very few people have the courage to skip the pre-defined paths and choose a career that identifies them. But Mo has not only excelled at what he does, he is also trying to impart what he has learnt to the next generation of artists. Growth can be justified only when we are able to pass on our knowledge and skills to the advantage of the people.”
As part of his desire to understand the legacy of Naga tattooing, Mo Naga regularly travels to remote tribal villages in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and his home state of Manipur to learn about the meaning of tattoos from the last generation of tattoo bearers. He also interviews surviving tattoo artists about traditional tattoo techniques and rituals. “There are days when our camera batteries die because we are recording so much information. The elders regale us with so many stories and sometimes break out into old songs that might otherwise not be heard unless we rekindled those memories through tattoo.”
The neo-Naga tattoo revival that is currently underway is certainly in its nascent form. Most of Mo Naga’s clients who desire a neo-Naga tattoo are foreigners, not other Naga. Recently, he explained to me that approximately seventy-five to eighty percent of his clientele are non-Naga, fifteen percent are Naga, and five percent are from other parts of India. These non-Naga clients are usually cultural tourists who respect and value local cultures. He says:
“They don’t come to me to get tattoos just because they look good, or for fashion, or because they are unique. They come to me to learn about the Naga, their way of life, and our tattooing culture because very little has been written on the subject. They do not want to offend anyone or misappropriate culture, so they learn what tattoos they can and cannot get. What I do for them is combine elements of traditional Naga tattoo patterns with other art forms that tell a story of our ancestors as well as some aspect of their personal journey.”
The tattoo artist’s non-Naga clientele also want to support the tattoo revival, a process that is ongoing in Delhi, but not so back in the Naga heartland. Mo Naga explains that most Naga people are very reluctant to get an ethnically-inspired tattoo, and to come forward and support it in the public sphere. Those who do are typically important figures like Naga youth leaders, professional or government workers, cultural performers, or Naga working abroad. “For them, coming to me and getting a tattoo becomes very special,” he said. “They are proudly carrying the tattoo all the time as part of their cultural identity.”
There are other factors which have limited indigenous interest in the neo-Naga tattoo. Although Christianity continues to be a deterrent, there are many contemporary Naga with tattoos but they bear Western-style tattoos because they are perceived to be “modern” or “fashionable.” Mo Naga suggests that even if he offered free Naga-style tattoos to Naga youth, tattoos that are part of their cultural history and identity, they would probably not chose them right now because they are perceived as being somehow backward. “They have only read what has been written about tattoos in old books or newspapers by outsiders, where tattoos have constantly been associated with headhunting and negative activities like that,” he says. “They have been made to believe that our tattoos are something that was barbaric and uncivilized and should be discarded.”
Thus far, Mo Naga is making strides in apprenticing the next generation of Naga tattooists. For example, he has trained four tattoo artists, but two are no longer tattooing for a variety of reasons. He explains:
“The first apprentice, who is Rongmei Naga from Manipur, was quite talented and he came to me after completing his computer engineering degree. But he stopped tattooing completely because of parental pressure, because they are big supporters of their local church and are very Christian. The second is named Ringvean, who is Monsang Naga, and he will begin managing our Delhi location Godna Gram soon. The third, who is Sema Naga, was not serious enough. And right now, I am training my fourth Naga apprentice who is Lotha Naga. He looks like the most promising. But the guys that are still tattooing are more interested in Western-style tattooing, not traditional Naga tattoo, so it’s always a challenge.”
Notwithstanding, Mo Naga has yet to accomplish his mission, which is to carry Naga tattooing into the future through a revival movement that is fully embraced by the Naga people, and especially the youth. He says:
“The Naga people as a whole do not consider this to be a significant thing yet. It needs a lot more time, but now we are in a better place than a few years ago. The movement is a reclamation of Naga tattoo culture, moving it forward. But I don’t look at it yet as a form of decolonization per se or as a form of cultural healing, like the Native North Americans and other ethnic groups such as the Maori, who have embraced and reclaimed their tattoo cultures for several decades. I have not had time to think about the movement in this way, but perhaps in the future it will hold these meanings as more people join the movement.”
For more information on Mo Naga, please visit his Facebook page and studio.