Tribal art meets flower power in Nepal festival of body paint

Organisers of the inaugural Nepal International Tattoo Convention hope that one day so-called "tattoo travellers" will flock to the capital of Nepal for body art and that their visits will bring in needed tourist dollars.

A tattoo artist inks a customer's back during the Nepal Tattoo Convention in Kathmandu last week. Some 57 tattoo artist from 10 countries participated.
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KATHMANDU // As Nilu Shah leans forward in her chair, her shoulder becomes an artists' canvas. The Nepalese tattooist Ujjwol Mathema is more than happy to needle in.

"I can only smile … it tickles," said Ms Shah, 24, of the bird's wing that is her first tattoo.

Organisers of the inaugural three-day Nepal International Tattoo Convention, which closed on Sunday, hope Ms Nilu's pleasure will be shared by others. They hope that one day so-called "tattoo travellers" will flock to the capital of the mountain state for body art, and that their visits will bring in badly needed tourist dollars.

Nepal's image in the West has historically been confined to Buddhism, Mt Everest backdrops and treks through the snow-capped Himalayas.

More recently, the nation has been the battleground of a divisive Maoist insurgency that forced some developed countries to issue travel advisories.

Since the decade-long civil war ended in 2006, it has struggled to develop its economy and its potentially vital tourist sector.

But in recent months, the country of 29 million people has launched several tourist initiatives - both private and state-sponsored - known collectively as Nepal Tourism Year 2011.

This year, the Canadian rock star Bryan Adams became the first Western act to play Nepal. Now, two months later, the nation has hailed the success of the Nepal International Tattoo Convention.

The tattoo shop owner and body art historian Mohan Gurung is credited as the creative force behind the convention. He said the aim was to launch an annual forum in which local and international body artists and tattoo enthusiasts "can interact and interpret tattoos as an art form and not just some abstract fad".

Mr Gurung said Nepal was the perfect place for such an event because of its tradition, location and links to unconventional, counter-cultural movements that stretch back to the Flower Power heyday of the 1960s.

On Friday, amid the sounds of punk and metal music, tattoo artists from Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, Thailand, India and the United States, along with aficionados from around the world, converged on Kathmandu for the festival of bodypaint.

In 97 indoor stalls, tattooists displayed their artwork in booklets as enthusiasts browsed and some brave souls surrendered their skin.

Participants' motives were as diverse as the designs. Puskar Thapa, 20, a student, said having his name inked in on the underside of his left wrist was about being a part of pop culture.

"Guinness" Rishi, 70, from India, said his ambition was to "spread the message of world peace". Known as the "Human Flag Pole", Mr Rishi is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most national flags emblazoned on his flesh - 305 flag and 185 map tattoos.

He said he intended to add 30 more before the end of the convention.

For Yasramiya Chaudhary, from western Nepal, it's all about tradition. The 66-year-old was first tattooed at the age of 20 because it was mandatory in her tribe before marriage.

"Otherwise, my in-laws wouldn't eat anything I cooked," said Ms Chaudhary, whose hands, feet and chest are inscribed with tribal art.

Despite being an integral part of some of Nepal's ethnic cultures, tattoos have had a sketchy reputation in the nation's past.

They were once synonymous with the "free love" ideology made popular by the hippies who strolled Kathmandu's backpacker hub known as Freak Street during the late-1960s and 1970s.

Another reason for disparagement was cultural. For centuries, members of Nepal's lower castes would decorate their bodies with stars and moons in the belief that once their soul left their body they would be recognised in heaven.

Mr Gurung said that the perception of tattoos has changed in recent years and that they are now "becoming an acceptable art form".

Established 12 years ago, Mr Gurung's shop is one of the oldest tattoo parlours in Kathmandu. He said his clients range from tourists to college students and even to white-collar professionals. His waiting list is eight months' long, he said.

The beauty of Nepali art, with its colourful depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses, has helped Nepal become a popular destination for tattoos, said Mr Gurung.

"The underground scene has now transformed into a mainstream business," Mr Gurung said at his studio, Mohan's Tattoo Inn, in the tourist district of Thamel. There are roughly 30 tattoo parlours between the Thamel area and Freak Street, and more may be on the way.

Local tattoo artists, like Mr Mathema said there is room for improvement. "There's money moving in but they're not focusing on hygiene, quality or environment," said Mr Mathema, who opened his tattoo parlour, Ujo Tattoo, on Freak Street in February.

Mr Mathema said he wants to set a standard. His tattoo education began in Australia, and he has professional experience in Thailand, India and Dubai.

At the convention, Mr Mathema was one of the few artists who covered his mouth with a mask.

Health concerns, pain and indecision are common reasons to avoid tattoos, said Mr Mathema. But for diehard tattooists like these two, "tattoos aren't just tattoos".

"I have a relationship with my tattoos," Mr Gurung said of his 25 pieces of body art. "It's a collection of memories," he said, adding that the images are dedicated to his wife, children, friends and travelling experiences.

Sitting for her first tattoo, Ms Shah said she wanted her new image to be "special and different" from anyone else's design.

"For me, it's about the art and the feelings associated with it," she said. "I'll always have my first tattoo associated with this event [the first Nepal Tattoo Convention] and in some way I hope to be a part of an interesting history."