I feel like this is how I’m supposed to look, this is me and my truest form.
Heleena Mistry is a 23-year-old tattoo artist who grew up in Leicester. As a child she had doodled with her mother in the garden. Her interest in tattoos was piqued when she used to visit her grandmother in a nearby care home. Heleena recalls some of the elderly Indian residents having tattoos that marked their birth village and caste as a form of ceremony.
She decided she wanted to tattoo full-time at the age of 18, and in April 2018 she opened her first tattoo studio. Heelena’s tattoos are distinctive and eye-catching, echoing her Gujrati heritage and paying homage to classical Indian silhouettes, including Mughal profiles and mehndi illustrations.
Heleena is now part of a line-up of British-Asian creatives who have delved into their ancestral heritage in collaboration with Massive Cinema, to promote Bassam Tariq’s debut directorial film Mogul Mowgli, starring Riz Ahmed, Anjana Vasan and Alyy Khan. The film touches on themes like the fracturing of diasporic identities, grappling with intergenerational trauma and how over 70 years later, South Asian people are still struggling to come to terms with the distressing history of Partition.
As part of the project, Heleena explored growing up in a South Asian household and it was essentially a collage of written and audio accounts that informed her adolescence, her identity and her tattoo work.
We caught up with Heleena to chat about navigating the tattoo industry as a South Asian woman, why she’s finally comfortable in her own skin, and how she’s been coping over lockdown.
The pandemic has brought on different challenges for everyone. What has been bringing you joy during this time?
Probably my dog. I got him a year and a half ago and his name is Channa. He’s a Maltipoo, so he’s a Maltese and a Poodle and a really bougie dog. My entire upbringing, we weren’t allowed pets. Then I moved out and decided to get a dog. If I didn’t have him during lockdown, I don’t think I would have got out of bed or fed myself or anything. He’s literally the only thing that has kept me going.
When did you start tattooing full time, and what was your journey into the industry like?
I talked to so many tattoo artists and got tattooed so I could make friends in the industry. I did everything that I could to get in and then I managed to do it, but it took ages.
I think I’m very impulsive and once I get an idea in my head, I can’t let it go. As soon as I decided that I wanted to be a tattoo artist, I went to the shop and bought a portfolio book. I researched everything that there was to do about tattooing, watching videos and tutorials. I went to loads of studios to ask for a job. I talked to so many tattoo artists and got tattooed so I could make friends in the industry. I did everything that I could to get in and then I managed to do it, but it took ages. It’s not an easy industry to get into, especially if you’re not white; it’s as simple as that. There were loads of occasions where I was trying to get into the industry, and I’d found that there were people that had got an apprenticeship just because their mate was a tattoo artist and these people didn’t even know how to draw, so it was really frustrating. It’s very tough, so I’m grateful that I’m here.
How do you think your tattoo work has changed over time?
I’m hoping that it’s got better. I’m really comfortable in the style of work that I’ve chosen. I love doing South Asian miniature-inspired work. I think the journey from then on was to refine it, improve it, and make sure it works better as time goes on. I think people forget that when you do a tattoo, you have to make sure that it ages really well, that it will last you the amount of time that you’re going to be on this planet. I’m honing my skills, practicing more, painting more, drawing more.
What kind of atmosphere do you like to create in your studio for customers?
I love learning about who I’m tattooing. I love knowing everything about them. The first thing I’ll say to them is, “Tell me about yourself, tell me your life story. I want to know everything.” Then, for however long it is, we’ll just talk.
The studio is full of plants and it’s very bright. There’s lots of artwork everywhere and we burn incense every morning and every afternoon. Music-wise, it’s whatever we’re feeling in the day, just to give us a vibe. I just talk to my client; I talk their ear off. I love learning about who I’m tattooing. I love knowing everything about them. The first thing I’ll say to them is, “Tell me about yourself, tell me your life story. I want to know everything.” Then, for however long it is, we’ll just talk. I want customers to feel relaxed and happy and excited about the outcome. Most of the time people are. Getting a tattoo is a very nerve-wracking experience, so I’m hoping that the vibe in the studio helps.
What’s the process of tattooing like for you, the artist, and for the customer?
I think it’s cathartic for the customer. It is kind of like a therapy session. There’s a lot of times where clients have told me their entire life stories, lots of things that have bothered them, traumas, and heartache. I’ve heard it all. I think there’s a big release. When you get a tattoo, you don’t usually see what’s happening. You have to experience the feeling of it. Then when it’s done and you see what you’ve actually gotten out of it, I think there’s a release of whatever else is going on in your head. I had this client that used to self-harm a lot, so instead of self-harming, he’d come in and get a tattoo; it would be their way of handling it.
What kind of bond do you form with people after you’ve tattooed them?
I feel like I made a friend afterwards, which is very nice. I’ve met so amazing people from so many different countries, like Canada and the US. It’s immense, I can’t even explain to you how much of an honour it is. It’s a beautiful process to trust a stranger with your body and have them treat it well. I think that’s really cool.
What was it like working on the project with Massive Cinema to promote Mogul Mowgli?
I got an email and all I saw was Riz Ahmed. I was like, “Oh my God.” When I saw it come to fruition it was amazing. It was really nice to speak to my dad on the phone and be like, “Hey, can you take some pictures of us from when we were little?” and then seeing all the little pictures, there was one of me as a baby and my mum giving me a bath, ones that I don’t even remember seeing. It was just nice to connect. I wrote a letter to my mum, which I’m never going to show her, because Indian children never show affection to their parents. That was really nice to write.
How did you feel when you saw your contribution to the Mogul Mowgli project on the website?
I was so proud! I’m so grateful I was able to be part of something so important and something that a lot of people could resonate and relate to. Representation is so important, and it feels really good to be seen. Not to mention that the way everything was shown on the website made it look so cool and official.
Something like a tattoo is such a visual, public signifier. How much are your piercings and tattoos connected to your inner identity?
I think I look more like myself than I ever have in my entire life. I remember when I wasn’t really allowed to get tattoos. I would look in the mirror and I’d be really sad that I didn’t have any. I’d have dreams where I’d be covered in tattoos and I wake up and realise that they weren’t there, and it’d actually really bother me. I think it was a huge player of my insecurities growing up. I don’t think I’ve ever loved myself as much as I do in this form. For me they’re really important because I feel like this is how I’m supposed to look, this is me and my truest form.
Why, in your body, is it a good place to be?
I’m really proud of my little house that I have within myself. I’m able to tattoo and I’m able to do things that a lot of people aren’t able to do. I think tattooing is a real skill in itself and I’m so grateful that I can comfortably do that for someone. It’s not something that scares me, it’s ingrained in me now. I can draw, I can walk, talk, and do anything that I want to do. There’s no limits to my body, so I’m really grateful for it.
Heleena can be found here: www.instagram.com/heleenatattoos
More about the film here: www.mogulmowgli.co.uk