From paintbrush to tattoo needle

Trendsetting Nepali tattoo artist is a self-made woman entrepreneur, and an inspiration to many

Growing up, Sumina Shrestha always wanted to be an artist but it took the devastating Nepal earthquake six years ago for her to realise her true calling in life.

Already proficient with a paintbrush at 19, Shrestha joined a group of artists to help child survivors of the disaster through art therapy.

“Travelling across the country and teaching children to paint gave me such a sense of accomplishment,” says Shrestha, adding how it also helped the artists themselves cope with frequent aftershocks and uncertainty.

It was during this time that she met fellow artists working in a tattoo studio. A novice with no experience in the business, tattoo artwork immediately fascinated her at a time she was trying to find her footing in Kathmandu’s art scene.

“Every artist goes through a journey trying to explore what is most fulfilling to them. I had yet to find something that would be both satisfying and sustainable, and then I found my true passion,” recalls Shrestha, who subsequently taught herself tattoo artwork and its different techniques.

With her savings from freelance painting work, she bought some low-cost tattoo machines and ink. Now all she needed was a human canvas and she had a ready volunteer: her sister.

“It was 2AM when I finished tattooing on her. We were crazy,” laughs Shrestha, now 26.

She then started to practice around the clock and kept at it for a year. This helped her gain more confidence, and soon she was ready to take it up as a profession. A close friend then gave her a chance to work in his tattoo studio in Jochhe.

Shrestha took a risk opening her own business called ‘Sumina’s Tattoo Studio’ in Kaladhara neighbourhood near Thamel.

Backpacking international tourists drawn were her first clients, putting her on a path to become a self-made entrepreneur. But the journey wasn’t without challenges, and customers were not used to female tattoo artists.

“In the beginning when people visited my studio, they used to give me a look when they saw me. I don’t think it was gender bias but then most of the tattoo artists are males, which is still the case,” says Shrestha.

Her limited experience with customer relations and running a business did not help. But she found the perfect medium to project her tattoo business: through social media platforms, mainly Instagram. She posted photos and videos of her work, which eventually helped her connect to her potential customers.

“We artists are not a social bunch but I learned quickly that my business would not grow if I don’t communicate it well,” adds Shrestha.

Over the past five years, Shrestha has done more than 50,000 small and large tattoos. She takes 3-4 clients a day for small designs whereas larger ones take days. Often times, customers come up with their own concept for larger tattoos, and Shrestha is ever happy to comply, adding her own inputs on art and design aspects.

“Making a tattoo on someone’s skin is quite different from drawing on paper. People have different skin types and accordingly, it may take longer on some customers,” explains Shrestha, who makes tattoo hygiene her top priority.

She wraps tables, chairs and even the lamps to avoid dust and dirt before every session. She also has a new set of ink and needles for each client. “It’s like running a health clinic, we are working on someone’s skin and we must be conscious about hygiene.”

Shrestha’s parents are proud of her success, even though they did not know about her tattoo business until recently. Worried it will add to the family’s financial burden, she had kept them in the dark. Shrestha also wanted to start her studio independently, proving that a woman does not need to rely on anyone to empower herself.

“Every parent should let their children choose their own path, each child is creative and with experience will be motivated to do more,” says Shrestha, adding that her parents, who always encouraged her passion for art had a big hand in her success.

Tattoo is no more only a fashion statement. People tell their stories with ink on skin and associate it with their philosophy, beliefs and spirituality. On the other hand, becoming a tattoo artist is no more frowned upon in Nepal.

Says Shrestha: “I’m happy to see more young female artists taking it up, it is a lot of hard work but as long as you are passionate and focused, this is as good a choice as any.”

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