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The Girl with the Goddess Tattoo

Her unique style, influenced by her Indian heritage, has created a quiet storm in the tattoo world and led to collaborations with luxury labels. For Saira Hunjan though, her art is a way of connecting with the divine feminine: 'it is my meditation and my prayer'.

To me, a tattoo is about bringing something to the surface from deep inside. It might be something karmic from years ago. It might be something from several lifetimes ago. I remember a client who had a double mastectomy. I tattooed the goddess surrounded by peacock feathers across her chest and when she saw it, she said she felt it was what her body had been asking for.

I have a two-headed serpent-goddess on my back. Her upper half is a woman, but at her waist – and mine – she turns into a serpent that wraps round my bum and down the back of my thigh. I feel I embody her. And she has my back, literally. A tattoo can also be a form of protection.

It’s only as I have continued with this path that I have come to understand how sacred tattooing is. When I first came across it I knew that it was what I wanted do, but not why. Actually that first encounter wasn’t with a real tattoo, it was with a drawing my sister had doodled on her hand with a Biro. She came back from school with it and I said, ‘what’s that?’ She said, 'that’s my tattoo.' I knew instantly that it was for me.

Later during my GCSEs I had to sort out some work experience. All my friends were looking at working in banks or retail. I went through the Yellow Pages calling every tattoo parlour in South London. Every one of them said 'no' apart from one guy off the Garratt Lane in Wandsworth, Barry Louvaine. He was like, 'oh yeah, come down, and bring your Mum.'

The House of Living Art smelt of Dettol, surgical spirit and the powders used to make up the inks

The House of Living Art was one of those really old school tattoo shops where the clients sit in one room and stick their arm through a hatch to be worked on in the other. It smelt of Dettol, surgical spirit and the powders used to make up the inks. Barry sat us down and said to my Mum 'there may be a bit of swearing going on, but don’t worry, she’ll be fine.'

Nowadays tattoos are mainstream, but when Barry set up his shop in the mid-seventies, they were an underground thing, the speciality of hard men and biker gangs. Even in the mid-nineties they still had an air of taboo. And it was a very male-driven world. You didn’t expect a fifteen year old girl to be prepping your stencil.

'Oh so she’s working with punks now! There’s going to be smoking and drugs and goodness knows what else'

I come from an Indian Sikh family and on my mother’s side the family is quite strict and religious. When my auntie heard about my career plans she was shocked, 'Oh so she’s working with punks now! There’s going to be smoking and drugs and goodness knows what else.' My Dad went to Camberwell College of Art and didn’t mind his daughters being creative. Still even he lost it when I told him. He roped in my uncle and they gave me a good talking to. I refused to give in. I said I would never dream of having a tattoo myself, I just wanted to work on other people.

I think I actually believed that.

My first tattoo was easy to hide, it was on my hip. But then I got half-sleeves done which meant that at weddings and family functions I always had to wear long-sleeved saris. Every summer I went about wrapped up in cardigans. One summer it was so hot I couldn’t handle it anymore. I confronted my Dad and said, 'Dad, I’ve got something to tell you. I’m really really tattooed.' He just sighed and said he had realised that years ago.

Dad, I’ve got something to tell you. I’m really really tattooed

By the time I was thirty, I was tattooed head to toe. Your tattoos should work with the shape of your body, so I have left the sides of my body bare to define the waist. I feel that that’s important for a woman. Apart from that, I’m pretty much totally covered.

Having met resistance, I ended up being celebrated in the family for what I do. I even ended up tattooing some of them. My mum and my sisters all have this little heart in the same place I do, and my mum has tattoos on her fingers and ankles.

In fact tattoos were not totally unknown in the family’s past. My father’s mother had a dot on her chin. That’s very traditional. And my great-grandmother had her name tattooed on her forearm. In India they used to do this in case the child became lost.

In India, they used to tattoo children’s names on their arms in case they got lost

My style is very influenced by my Indian heritage. In my culture it’s common to pattern the skin with mehndi (henna) for wedding ceremonies. I’m also influenced by ancient Indian tribal tattoos and Rangoli designs which are made using grains of rice or sand on the floor.

When I started out these were very different to what anyone else was doing. As time went by they caught on and I had a huge waiting list of people wanting my work. But I began to feel that I was working for other people rather than expressing myself. I began to feel I had another calling.

Within a month I was living alone in the Welsh Valleys

I’ve craved sanctuary ever since I can remember. Even though I grew up in South London, I’d always envisaged being in a place where it would take quite a journey for anyone to reach me. Then I heard that my cousin in Wales was emigrating to Canada. I had only visited his house once but I decided that that was where I was going to live. I packed everything into a van and within a month I was living alone in the Welsh Valleys.

But I never felt alone there. And for the first time I connected to nature. It was almost as if I could hear the trees when I was out walking. I felt a profound sense of home. There was something divine about it. It was something so deep and grounding. I was probably manifesting this place from an early age, just like the tattooing.

I began to draw.

I gradually realised I was becoming a channel for the divine feminine

For a long time when I moved in I didn’t have curtains and in the evenings the house would be dark except for the lamp on my drawing table. Every time I bumped into my neighbour she’d say 'I was out with the dog and I saw you up late again, Saira, drawing into the night.'

I gradually realised how much I was becoming a channel for the divine feminine. It just took control and it was really really beautiful. I would spend a lot of time drawing through the night and just allowing it to flow. It’s my meditation and my prayer and it’s absolute bliss. It’s almost as if I want to build my temple for it. I know the work will be shown some day. But for now, it’s mostly personal.

It’s my meditation and my prayer and it’s absolute bliss

A couple of years ago I also began to do collaborations with fashion brands, especially Tod’s the Italian leather company. They found me through some photographs I did with a friend, Damian Foxe, who works in fashion (I have been tattooing Damian for years).

I ended up doing a limited edition of six bags for Tod’s. I couldn’t do more because it takes such a long time to tattoo leather, so they decided to bring out a collection of bags and shoes laser-printed with my drawings. Over the last couple of years I’ve travelled all over with them, Milan Fashion Week, Paris, Dubai, New York. I loved working with Tod’s because they are all about craftsmanship.

Even as I have gone deeply into my drawing, I have never stopped tattooing. I’ll never stop completely, but it will not be at the forefront of this next phase. Right now I am packing my bags again. This time I’m moving to India. I have a burning desire to return there to work with various artisans.

I want to work with tribes who have been an influence on me, such as the Rabari

And I want to work with the tribes who have been an influence on me, such as the Rabari. Strong, assured, dressed in black, laden with heavy silver and covered in tattoos – Rabari women have inspired me from an early age. This pattern of small triangular dots I have on my throat comes from the Rabari. I am hoping there will be some kind of exchange and I will have the chance to tattoo them.

Doing what your soul wants – I am always trying to be true to that. I feel a pure devotion to my practice and I know it’s going to lead me where I need to go. I hope to realise things I haven’t even dreamt of. 

Limited edition prints of some of Saira’s work are available here:

Susan Irvine

Susannah Baker-Smith