The Evolution of South Asian Tattoos

How henna and Sanskrit tattoos became “trendy,” and the South Asian artists reclaiming them.

Sadaf Ahsan

July 27, 2022

The Evolution of South Asian Tattoos
Singer Rihanna with her henna tattoo as she performs onstage during the 2016 MusiCares Person of the Year honoring Lionel Richie at the Los Angeles Convention Center on February 13, 2016 (Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS)

As a style icon, there’s not much Rihanna can’t pull off and get away with — for the most part. In 2013, on a weekend away in the Dominican Republic, the pop star decided to add permanent henna designs to her already extensive ink collection during an 11-hour session. American tattoo artists Bang Bang McCurdy and Cally-Jo said in an interview, “The inspiration was henna art. We wanted something really decorative, feminine, and sexy. We thought that [the henna tattoo] was the closest in style where we could shift and make it look decorative.” The duo had incorporated the traditional South Asian design into a pre-existing Maori tattoo the singer already had, making this not the first time she received backlash for “appropriating” another culture. Instagram users at the time commented “This is not fashion or a trend” and “My religion is not your aesthetic,” while some took to the social platform Reddit to share that they did consider it to be cultural appropriation: “I really love Rihanna…so I’m hoping to make an exception.” 

Rihanna, however, is not the only celeb to sport culturally-inspired tattoos in the name of style. Back in September 17, 1998, Madonna sported Vaishnava Tilak facial markings and henna on her hands during a questionable performance of Hindu Sanskrit prayer-turned-techno pop track “Shanti Ashtangi” at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards. Labeled “the Madonna phenomenon” and “the Hindu invasion,” the singer was credited for making South Asian culture visible globally and inspiring “Indo-chic” in the West. Following suit was Gwen Stefani and her trail of bindis, Tommy Lee’s om, Angelina Jolie’s Pali script, David Beckham’s Hindi ink (misspelling wife Victoria’s name across his forearm) and, later on, Russell Brand and Katy Perry’s matching “Anuugacchati Pravaha” and Adam Levine’s Sanskrit chest scrawl.

A few decades later, while the celebrity bindi is less rampant thanks to a certain degree of cultural wokeness, henna and Sanskrit tattoos continue to be ubiquitous — a permanent reminder of the Western appropriation of spirituality. Today, however, several South Asian tattoo artists — and South Asian clients — are reclaiming these very symbols.