Heleena Mistry: Breaking The Taboo Of Tattoos
By Chloë Green
The Whistle chats to Heleena Mistry, 21, a Leicester born and bred tattoo artist who specialises in traditional indian inspired tattoos. Her powerful, female designs are helping to reclaim tattoos within Indian culture.
How did you get into tattooing?
I decided I wanted to be a tattoo artist from a fairly young age, and began by making a portfolio to showcase my work. I then went around Leicester looking for apprentice positions in lots of different studios. It is notoriously difficult to get into the tattoo industry and I struggled to find somewhere to take me on as an apprentice. Even when you find somewhere, you’re very aware that there is little job security. I’ve been in 3 different shops in the last 2 years, but luckily I’ve been at Francis Street Tattoo for around a year now and it’s such a great place to work.
What was your first tattoo?
It was a floral rib piece, which really hurt. My mum wasn’t happy! The first tattoo I did on myself was a small umbrella, which should have taken about 10 minutes but took me over an hour.
How many do you have now?
I haven’t really counted but I think around 20!
How does your identity influence your work?
There is a deep-rooted history of tattooing in Indian culture, which stems from a more spiritual place. Tattoos were used to ward off bad spirits, and thought of as a way to recognise people in the after life. After colonial times in India, tattoos became more of a western tradition, and they have since become associated with criminals - they’ve basically been given a bad name.
Nowadays in Indian culture it’s preferred to keep your body pure and unmarked. One of the biggest things that people say is having tattoos means you’ll be unable to find a husband or wife, but I think tattoos can actually be the thing that brings two people together.
Describe your typical client
My usual clients are Asian and South Asian girls between the ages of 18 and 25. A lot of my clients feel they can relate to me, which is cool. My designs are very feminine and reflect feminism, girl power and the female form. When working with a client, it’s important to me that they understand the meaning/significance of any religious or cultural designs to ensure that their origins are respected.
Who inspires you?
When I was younger I found a South Asian tattoo artist named Saira Hunjan - she really inspired me to become an artist. Although she doesn’t do tattoos anymore, her work is very feminine and powerful, and includes lots of deities.
There’s also an artist called Claudia De Sabe who is based in London - everything about her work is beautiful and although our designs are quite different, I absolutely love her work.
Goals for the future?
My plan is to stay in Leicester for the next 3 years or so, then I’d really like to move to London and either work in a shop or get my own. My ultimate goal is to travel and work across the globe, meeting and tattooing new people.