When Lokesh, an award-winning professional tattoo artist, decided that he was going to learn the art of making tattoos by himself, there was no YouTube or Google to fall back on. This was the early 2000s, and he had no idols, reference videos or material to refer to. The only thing he had was passion to become a top tattoo artist, and the necessary skills to do it.
The strong belief he had in himself was the reason he was able to afford his artistic dreams. He took up various odd jobs, such as mopping floors and flipping burgers in McDonald’s, so he could purchase a tattoo machine and fund his MBA course.
For the next few years, Lokesh rigorously learnt how to make innumerable tattoos using the machine, and even paid his friends to let him practice on them. In 2008, he opened his studio in South Delhi’s Greater Kailash area, and there has been no looking back since.
Fast forward to 2021, Lokesh is known across the globe for his colour realism tattoos and portraits, and owns three studios. He has travelled to 15 countries for various projects and holds a Guinness world record for tattooing the maximum number (199) of flags on a human body.
“When I decided to enter the tattoo industry, it was very niche and there were hardly any professional artists. I wanted to etch my name as a pioneering artist. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, considering my father had retired from the army and my mother was a school teacher. My dreams were far from my reality. So instead of changing my dreams, I changed my reality,” Lokesh tells The Better India.
Lokesh has a quintessential rags-to-riches story that may seem biopic-worthy, but underneath this fame lies the hard-hitting reality of a boy who literally studied under street lights and took up jobs during college to support his family.
Giving wings to childhood dreams
Lokesh was artistically inclined even as a child, and loved drawing and colouring on any kind of surfaces, be it papers, walls or school desks. He grew up in a one-bedroom house in an unauthorised colony in Delhi, where the building received power for only three hours a day. Lokesh remembers judiciously using those three hours to complete his homework and giving time to the thing he loved the most — drawing.
He would paint only when there was power, to ensure the painting dried quickly. If there was no electricity post sunset, he would silently sneak out of the house, find a quiet corner near a street light and start drawing. His exceptional drawing skills made up for the average marks Lokesh got in exams. His parents never complained or chided him for not being a topper. They were happy that their son was engaged in art and working on mastering it.
“I remember making sketches on my desk and when there was no room left, my bench partner happily offered his desk. When even that space was full, I used his bag also to draw,” Lokesh recalls.
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Despite his artistic prowess, he never considered himself an artist, or thought about making a career out of it, even after winning the first prize in the Inter-Asia painting competition.
“After retirement, my father worked in a security department, and my mother would teach 20 children to earn Rs 100 a day. I don’t remember going to a restaurant till the time I was in college. I saw my parents struggle daily and work endlessly to educate my sister and me. I knew drawing wouldn’t fetch me money, and that I needed a stable mainstream job to improve our financial condition,” he says.
After completing his schooling he took admission in Delhi University in 2000, and also took up a cleaning job at McDonald’s. Through his undergrad, he switched a few jobs, one of which was to sell movie CDs, where he ended up making high sales. This tweaked his interest in marketing, and Lokesh decided to pursue an MBA degree after graduation.
“My MBA days were very hectic, as classes would be held from 8 am to 12 pm, post which I would be on my job till 7 in the evening. After that, I would perform at a few music gigs to earn extra money. Weekends were the only time I had to explore different mediums of art. One of those weekends, I came across a tattoo parlour. I was fascinated by the designs,” he says.
With his savings, he bought a tattoo machine. Lokesh says this was one thing he was not doing with any ulterior goal — it would be his own work, minus the pressure of earning money. He began without any real road map, and didn’t even know how to insert the needle in the machine. Regardless, he gracefully followed his dream. Soon, requests from friends started pouring in.
When he ran out of material and inputs such as needles and ink for the machine, he started charging a minimal amount for tattoos. It wasn’t long before people began noticing the boy from a Delhi neighbourhood who possessed a special skill. Lokesh takes pride in telling me that all the marketing for his art was done through word of mouth. He never took efforts to publicise his artwork.
“I was able to produce good work only because I had a backup plan of an MBA, and a supportive family. My dad never hesitated to give me his skin to practice on. As my customers increased, I moved to my friend’s house, and later, to a small salon. However, when the salon shut, I opened my own studio, ‘Devil’z Tattooz’ in 2008 and took aspiring artists under my wings,” he recalls.
A pioneering artist
Lokesh is one of the few tattoo artists in India who has mastered 3D tattoos, portraits, and mandalas, and his studio offers tattoos on more than 10 organs of the body, including arms, legs, the back, and wrists, among others. However, his most impressive services include coloured realism and soundwave tattoos. Colour realism is a challenging but fine art style that aims to capture the objects as accurately as possible onto the skin. Meanwhile, soundwave (Audible) tattoos are coded messages inked on the body and upon scanning them, you can hear music/audio on your phone.
These innovative and detailed-to-perfection artworks have taken Lokesh to several countries, including the United States in 2010, and later Europe. Some top-rated studios that he has been invited to include Paul Booth’s Last Rites Tattoo Gallery in New York; Nikko Hurtado’s Black Anchor Tattoo in Hollywood; Off the Map in Massachusetts; Tommy Lee’s Monsters; Heaven of Colours in Switzerland; Alex de Pase Tattoo in Italy, among others. Additionally, he has cemented his place as a sought-after tattoo artist among the celebrities such as Swara Bhaskar, Remo D’souza, Tapsee Pannu, Ishan Sharma, Umesh Yadav and so on.
For every tattoo, Lokesh maintains European hygiene standards. “I am very particular about hygiene and end up sanitising my hands ten times,” he says.
Lokesh rightfully channels his years of experience and expertise by training aspiring tattoo artists. He has taught more than 100 artists, many of whom work at his studios today. From doing five tattoos a month to now making 15-20 every day, and seeing a footfall of 3,000 customers every month, Lokesh has come a long way.
When asked if he plans to expand his studios across the country, Lokesh quickly dismisses the idea. “There are hundreds of tattoo artists in India today, but only a handful of them are good. The only reason I never intend to make a franchise is that I don’t think I will ever find enough highly skilled artists. It takes 5-6 years of strenuous work to master this craft,” he says.
Edited by Divya Sethu