INDepth: With Tender Pokes

INDepth: With Tender Pokes

Meet the tattoo artist revolutionising the concept of modern day tattoo and DIY culture - with an ethnic touch! Read on to learn more about her hand-poking and flash tattoo venture, Tender Pokes.

INDepth by FTC is an ongoing exploration of all the uncut diamonds that are making their mark in India's growing cultural community.

Delhi based, Shreya Josh, is a multifaceted artist, promoting the ethnic form of hand poke as well as flash tattoo's in India through her venture Tender Pokes. FTC caught up with the artist to talk about all things related to her craft, its future in the current cultural community, and what the future holds.

First impressions - Shreya exudes warm, radiant energy that is equally disarming as it is charming. It is a surprise to see the truly shy yet animated girl behind the exceptionally bold artwork and designs of her craft.

With her father being a fashion designer and Mother, an interior designer Josh had close connections to the creative field from an early age. Graduating from a design school in Chicago, Josh has delved into several different art styles and disciplines including, object design and sculpture as well as glass blowing.

"I didn't want to stick to any one thing - any specific art style or medium. I'm still learning and growing and trying out different art forms. Tattooing has taken on another role that has become more popular and I want my art to be more accessible. I've never been good at something too meaningful or deep - political, conceptual, or spiritual. I like it to look cute and be silly. My tattoo style is exactly that, nothing too serious or meaningful."

Shreya Josh

Stick and poke is an ancient craft that has been one of the oldest forms of what we now recognise as contemporary tattoo culture.

Josh reminisces how her time in college lead her to be acquainted with the craft,

"I saw a lot of people doing stick and poke tattoos in college during parties. They used them for art projects, using oranges and other fruits as canvases, making them into sculptures or would even tattoo themselves for projects. That truly resonated with me - the idea of tattooing not necessarily being a serious or meaningful art, even if it is permanently marking your body."

Shreya Josh

Josh further reveals that while the art form intrigued her, at the time, she had made no firm plans of getting involved on a deeper scale. It was one of those ideas that formulated in the back of your head, but you never actually made any concrete plans regarding it and how after her 2nd year of college, she eventually dropped out and moved back to the country at the request of her parents.

"They were a bit apprehensive about the whole art school vibe, anyway - even though they are in the creative industry, it came down to 'how are you going to end up making money and being financially stable after 4 years with a fine arts degree?' They asked me to take a gap year, work for some time and once I had a better sense of direction, go back and find something more concrete - but the entire point of design school was to not have a particular direction and to be fluid with my artistic style!"

Shreya Josh

Josh divulges that when she returned home, she began working at a few design companies but maintains that her creative side remained less than satisfied.

"In India even if you get a creative job, it doesn't really allow you to create with your own hands - its more along the lines of conceptualisation, designing, and sketching. I remember when I came back initially, I got a job at this modern furniture store and began designing for them. My first project was designing interesting concepts for Tissue Boxes - I think I made about 500 sketches while brainstorming. That's when I realized that I wanted to make it myself - not just sketch and design it. I quit that job after a week of working there."

Shreya Josh

It was around this time that she found another medium of exploring art - flowers. The artist began experimenting with baking with edible flowers, using pressed flowers for artwork and prints, and even dyeing clothes using organic floral dyes. She discovered, a New York based artist specialising in organic dyes and applied for an internship, subsequently making the move to New York. The trip turned out to be the stepping stone to finally finding the way to her true calling - hand poke.

"I was interning there for 4 months and my boss had a lot of stick and poke tattoos - when I say stick and poke I mean sewing needles tied to a pencil using indigo ink, its very DIY. So she had a lot of those along with some traditional hand-poked tattoos from professional artists and it inspired me to give it a go. I ordered the supplies and tried tattooing an orange to practice, but I didn't have the patience! I just wanted to tattoo skin directly."

Shreya Josh

Engulfed by her newfound intrigue for tattooing, the artist reminisces the first hand-poked tattoo she ever gave herself.

"It was super late at night, around 1 am or so. I remember I was watching a lot of youtube videos on how to tattoo - it was kind of gross really, to be able to see the needle go in and the ink oozing out. I didn't watch too many and decided to finally just go for it! I ended up giving myself my first tattoo - it took me about an hour."

Shreya Josh

With the initial seed sown, her newfound passion grew overnight and Josh explains how she ended up convincing her friends, the very next day, to tattoo each other as well.

"We ended up giving each other tiny dots and crosses as tattoos. I think that day really paved the way in hand-poking for me. This was about 3 and a half years ago and everything kind of changed!"

Shreya Josh

On her return to India this time around, Josh was surprised to find several of her friends requesting tattoos, inspired by posts of her New York activities they saw on her Instagram.

"It kind of just happened naturally, which was nice. Otherwise, you can sometimes end up building it all up in your head and have all these expectations out of yourself which isn't a good thing. My main goal at the time was to bring it back to India as a very chilled out social art form - something you could do at parties, tattooing your friends!"

Shreya Josh

The artist began tattooing from her home and started promoting the practice through the artistic community around. It was only a matter of time before the word spread far and wide and Josh found herself booked with tattoo sessions back to back and decided to start hosting workshops as well.

"I started holding workshops in the first year of me tattooing professionally itself, even though I wasn't as experienced as I am now. The main aim of these workshops was to have people be able to learn the artform hygienically. We use only one-time usable, sterilised needles, and make sure it is a safe working environment."

Shreya Josh

However, there is still some stigma and concerns attached to the art form - primarily regarding safety. This proved to be the main challenge the artist had to overcome while proceeding on this journey.

"A lot of people have a lot of misconceptions that it is very unhygienic and it's not safe, that it can cause infections - but with the proper tools and care that is not an issue. It was challenging in the beginning because a lot of people didn't want to get it because they thought it would be super unsafe or that it would fade quickly - that's another very common misconception people have. It's not true - its permanent ink at the end of the day. With proper aftercare and once the healing process is complete, it's like any other tattoo."

Shreya Josh

Talking about and elaborating on the technical aspects of the craft, Josh observes,

"I have noticed that a lot of tattoo artists in India refrain from using thinner needles. They usually have a set standard that they use for outline work. Their versions of thin usually seem thicker to me, I prefer a more delicate approach I suppose."

Shreya Josh

Being a creative individual opens you up to being exposed to several opinions - both personal and related to your work. The artist reveals how initially, being an individual of a shy disposition often stopped her from voicing concerns and disagreeing with potential demands from customers.

"Being able to say no to things came very late to me, it is still something I struggle with. Sometimes people have a certain idea or style they want me to replicate, and earlier I would go ahead with it. But it is now that I raise my concerns and opinions because I feel it is my responsibility, knowing this craft the way I do, to be able to guide them and suggest ideas that will provide a better final result."

Shreya Josh

Refusing to do certain work is a struggle that many artists face - the fear of upsetting the customer or eventually losing work overshadows the need to vocalise one's concerns and opinions. However, it is important to maintain the integrity of your creations and your unique aesthetic.

Josh continues,

"I've finally started learning how to say no to things that I would not want to be associated with me or my work. The initial thought process is always to get a big clientele, but soon I realised it is more about the quality of the work I'm doing, than the quantity. It is about giving out what I enjoy doing, which ends up reflecting in the tattoos as well."

Shreya Josh

An avid sketcher, she reveals how she has spent her quarantine days trying to use the time to get back into sketching "silly doodles" that can be included in her flash tattoo portfolio. The flash tattoos are quirky characters that don't hold too much meaning, but invoke a feeling instead. The artist is a firm believer in constantly coming up with new ideas and does not tattoo the same flash more than once.

"I make it a point to let the person know that no one flash design will be repeated the same way. They are all unique. Even if someone picks a design that has been tatted already, I make sure to make considerable alterations and changes to the design, so it is still a bit different from anything anyone else might have. It's all about individuality."

Shreya Josh

Josh is a fearless experimenter when it comes to delving into different streams in the creative space. With multiple organised events and ventures under her belt, the creator is a true all-round pioneer for her art form.

"Two years ago, a friend and I, came up with the concept of this 'Art Market'. They were a series of pop-ups that were very DIY centric and underground. The idea was to be able to bring your studio - a place where you are comfortable and create personally - into the Art Market space and display yourself as truly and wholly as you could."

Shreya Josh

Art Market: Installations
Art Market: Installations

She further elaborates,

"They were set up in the basements and multiple rooms of our houses and we had several creators around Delhi be a part of the event. With time, we started including workshops into the event as well, along with these live drawing sketch sessions where people could be the subject and pose or be the viewer and sketch them out. We had an entire 12-hour session where people could come and go and live sketch."

Shreya Josh

Art Market: Stalls
Art Market: Stalls

Inspired by the initial live sketch sessions from her Art Market, Josh started a new series of live sketch workshops that she holds online. For a minimal fee, people can join a video link of the artist (and sometimes her boyfriend) posing live for viewers to explore their creative side and sketch at their leisure.

"I've always been very comfortable with my body in that sense and that's why I felt at ease doing these figure drawing sessions as well. Even though it's with strangers and I might not be fully clothed at times, it's all about the art in the end."

Shreya Josh

Art is a controversial entity in itself - and in a conservative country like India, more so, when it comes to concepts like nude sketches. With initiatives like these live sketches, Josh is paving the way for the creative sphere in the country to be more open to the ideas of not only body positivity but to change the narrative of overly sexualising bodies in general.

"It can be daunting for people who have never done figure drawing before and can make some people uncomfortable. But the idea and intention are to stop sexualising the form and look at it for what it is in the moment - just art. That is also the reason why I chose to make some of these sessions into fundraisers. We usually see fundraisers held for low wage labourers or underprivileged children, but I wanted to focus on raising awareness and funds for sex workers - the concept also went together with the idea of body empowerment."

Shreya Josh

With the current Pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, the tattoo artist reveals that for now, all plans of resuming regular activity have been put on hold.

"I miss tattooing, and I have been slowly trying to get back to it taking the necessary precautions. I even scheduled two appointments for this week, but the anxiety and paranoia from the current situation lead me to cancel them - it's not worth taking a chance right now."

Shreya Josh

Every artist or creator has their unique understanding of the current "culture" and what it means concerning their crafts and artforms. Josh elaborates,

"Culture to me grows when you're dead. Your input to it and what you have to offer only truly shows up when you have passed and it is what you have left behind that gets contributed to it. I want to be associated with all things silly and playful. For me, it's about promoting the idea of doing things even if you're not good at them, it's about the process rather than the final product."

Shreya Josh

With her one of a kind designs, Josh's playful nature transcends into her work. The idea of not taking things too seriously, living in the moment and expressing yourself to the fullest ability are pillars that her hand poke venture stands on as well. Head on over to artists, Instagram page to get a closer look at some of her work.

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