As the tattoo needle moves on her wrist creating an image of angel’s wings and the word “Dad,” Rakshita Gupta, a designer of home furnishings, recalls what her father, who died two months ago of COVID-19, means to her and her sister.
“He taught us to be independent, he taught us to be brave, he gave us all the freedom we need, he taught me everything I knew,” Gupta said with a shiver as she sat with her sister in a tattoo studio, Inkinn, in the Indian capital. “At the same time, he was the most pampering parent in the world.”
The Guptas are among thousands of families who lost loved ones during a ferocious second wave of the pandemic that shrouded New Delhi in grief in April and May.
Some family members could not spend the last moments with spouses, brothers, sisters, or parents as they struggled in hospitals. Some watched their loved one succumb to the virus while they scrambled to find a hospital bed and oxygen. Farewells were lonely in overwhelmed funeral grounds.
And some are now memorializing their loss in tattoo studios, which are experiencing a growing demand for memorial tattoos since reopening after a lockdown.
Tattoo artists say that for most, their memorial tattoo is their first tattoo — like the Gupta sisters. The tattoos vary from names, signatures and portraits of loved ones to words, phrases and images that carry a personal meaning.
The Gupta sisters chose angel’s wings because they see their father as an angel watching over them.
“It is our way of just putting it out there, how much are we are missing him,” said Akriti Gupta, who is an accountant. “We feel him, that he is with us all the time.”
For Rakshita Gupta, who had come from Dubai to visit her family when her father fell ill, the tattoo is an affirmation that her much-loved parent is with her.
“I don’t know how to live without him,” she said, “and I thought I want him to be with me.”
Tattoo studios have been seen their business grow exponentially in the last decade in India, where younger, more affluent people seek the body art as an “expression of their personality.”
Now these studios are inking the pandemic’s impact. The artists say they have never spent so much time conceptualizing memorial tattoos. India suffered more than 400,000 deaths from the coronavirus and more than half of them came since March, during the second wave.
Memorial tattoos require utmost sensitivity, says Max, owner of Inkinn Studio, who etched the Gupta sisters.
“Tattoos are like the soul you carry on your sleeve. At times it can be painful, at times it can be memorable,” he said.
He advises his clients to choose visible places like arms and wrists only if they are prepared to face a lifetime of queries.
“If the tattoo catches other people’s eyes easily, they will always ask you questions and you have to go through that pain again and again,” said the former investment banker turned tattoo artist.
As tattoo needles puncture the skin, grief and suffering are often shared.
“Sometimes they pour their heart out, sometimes I talk to them and know what they are going through,” Max said, who goes by one name. “As an artist you have to be very empathetic.”
At another tattoo studio, Devilz Tattooz, owner Lokesh Verma is sketching a poignant tattoo: “She lived for those she loved and those she loved remember.” He is designing it for a client who lost his wife.
“I almost broke down hearing his story,” he said.
Verma has seen demand for tattoos rise from five in a month when he started inking clients nearly two decades ago to more than 20 a day.
“Body art is definitely now an acceptable way of expressing what you are or what you feel,” he said, including grief.
He likens the memorial tattoos to therapy, doing their bit to heal a city where many suffered so much.
“Mostly people who are very scared of pain, when they are getting a memorial tattoo, they don’t even feel the pain as much because they are thinking about that person they lost,” Verma said. “So, it is more like therapy to them, going through this whole ritual of pain and then seeing their image or their signature or their writing come up on their skin.”
That may be true. Akriti Gupta is planning another tattoo memorializing her father.
“I always admired his signature, so that is what I want for the second one,” she said.