Not far from Goa’s famously beautiful and perennially popular Arambol beach, Naga tattoo artist Moranngam Khaling is at a friend’s studio, bent over a client’s forearm as he hand-pokes a design into her skin. The tattoo is simple yet striking—with each stroke, thick lines and geometric shapes begin to emerge. Soon the client’s forearm is encircled by lines while multiple rhomboids—both filled-in and unfilled—run down the length of her arm.
“Among Naga tribes, there were tattoos long before clothes,” says the mild-mannered Khaling, who prefers to go by the name “Mo Naga” to reflect his ethnic identity. (Editor’s note: He will be referred to as “Mo” throughout this article.) Naga is the collective term used to describe the approximately 50 to 60 distinct ethnic groups that live in northeast India and in neighboring Myanmar.
Tattooing, one of the oldest artforms in the world, dates back to over 5,000 years ago. “India has the most diverse tattoo traditions in the world,” says Mo. “But there is very little documentation of it.” He has every intention of changing that.
Mo hails from the Uipo community, a Naga tribe from the state of Manipur, one of eight states in the northeastern corner of India. His work received international attention when he was featured in The World Atlas of Tattoo (Yale University Press, 2015). Mo is one of only three India-based tattoo artists to be included in this book, which profiles 100 of the world’s best in the field.
For nearly a decade now, this acclaimed artist has had only one mission—that of reviving the dying tradition of Naga tattooing.
The history of Naga tattooing
Prior to British military expeditions into northeast India in the early 1800s and the arrival of American Baptist missionaries in the mid-19th century, tattooing was a sacred art form in Naga communities. “The Nagas didn’t have a written script,” says Mo. “The symbols and lines used in our tattoos were our language. Every line, every dot, has a specific meaning.”
In some Naga communities, tattooing was closely linked to headhunting. Only a man who had taken a head could receive a tattoo, like the warriors of the Konyak tribe. The chieftain’s wife or only certain women from the community were entrusted with executing the tattoo. In other Naga communities, though, tattoos were simply a mark of tribal identity, or symbolized rites of passage in both men and women. “A tattoo is an eternal mark of identity, recognized even in the afterlife,” says Mo.
Traditional Naga tattoos often reflected their environment and told stories about the close relationship the Naga people shared with the natural world. They also symbolized their beliefs and way of life. In the absence of a written language, these tattoos held great significance. “Tattoos are the most important cultural symbol for the Nagas,” he says. “It represents their entire life cycle.”
Traditionally, Naga tattoos are done by hand-tapping, which involves a needle and a small hammering tool. One or two people stretch a recipient’s skin while the artist delicately hammers the ink in.
In 1960, the Indian government made headhunting illegal and in due course, both headhunting and tattooing faded away. Nowadays, most Naga elders have not touched their tattooing tools in over 60 years.
But, on a research trip in 2015, Mo received a small chest tattoo from a Konyak anghya (which means “queen” in Konyak), Ngon-Am. It was the first time the octogenarian anghya had picked up her implements in nearly six decades—all so she could pass on her knowledge to Mo.
Born amid the thickly forested hills of Tengnoupal, a remote village in Manipur, Mo was surrounded by nature in his early years. His love for the outdoors stayed with him even after he was sent to New Delhi for schooling at a very young age.
In 2004, during the first year of his fashion design program at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Hyderabad, Mo was introduced to tattooing by a friend. Soon, he began tattooing friends and classmates as a hobby, with no knowledge of the cultural significance of the artform. He chanced upon Naga tattoo traditions in 2007 while researching indigenous textiles online.
“I was fascinated about the possibility of doing such incredible art on skin,” says Mo. He then spent the next four years reading ancient manuscripts, researching archives, and gathering information firsthand from elders in the villages of northeast India. It was only after this period of intense research and documentation that he began to create tattoos inspired by the Naga way of life.
With his newfound understanding of Naga aesthetics, Mo began to ink Nagas and non-Nagas alike in 2013. He reserves the traditional tattoo designs for his Naga clients, like Anungla Zoe Longkumer, a musician, writer, and filmmaker, from the Ao community. Mo has, so far, tattooed four traditional designs on Anungla using symbols unique to her tribe. “Traditional tattoos are very significant to a specific community,” he says. “It would be wrong to give them to those who haven’t earned them.”
For non-Nagas, Mo creates designs drawn from different forms of Naga material culture, like paintings, textiles, and wood carvings. Some Naga symbols are universal in meaning, like an eye for protection, which he is comfortable sharing with non-Nagas. Mo develops the design after a lengthy, in-person consultation with his clients, to understand the motivation behind the tattoo. “The art is not mine, it does not belong to me,” he says. “The designs I create are my interpretation of Naga symbols and motifs.”
Many of the non-Naga clients request the traditional Indian method of tattooing, the handpoke method called godna, instead of machine tattooing. “More and more people from India’s metros are appreciating Naga tribal tattoos,” says Mo. Nowadays, Indians of non-Naga background, and non-Indians, make up more than 95 percent of his clients.
In a departure from the “tattooing is evil” narrative that was preached to the Nagas for decades, cultural leaders and religious institutions are now reaching out to Mo, asking him to share his experiences with tattooing in public forums. “My work has always been about decolonization,” he says. “But now the initiative is coming from people, institutions, and the community. The change is happening and it’s happening quite fast.”
Preserving an ancient art
In September 2020, in the middle of a pandemic lockdown in India, Mo closed his studio in Delhi and headed back to his village, Tengnoupal, in Manipur. There, he’s in the process of actualizing his dream of a “Tattoo Village,” a place that will become a repository for Indian tribal art and culture.
The Tattoo Village is located in a serene, forested area on Mo’s ancestral land, on the outskirts of the village. “The wood for the construction is ready, the nursery is ready,” he says. After gathering the required plants (used to make the traditional tattoo tools and pigments, which he does himself) from all across the region, Mo planted the saplings in the nursery of the Tattoo Village. In traditional tattooing, wild thorns or thorns from the rattan plant are tied together to create the multi-pronged tool while the ink is made from soot particles mixed with carriers like rice beer or tea.
In fall 2022, Mo plans to open the doors of the Tattoo Village to anyone who wants to experience traditional tattooing. “It will not just be about getting a tattoo but also about learning about the art, the culture, the plants, and the implements behind the tattoo,” he says. “People coming to get tattooed will be involved in making the tools and the pigments. It will be a complete experience.”
Through his extensive research and documentation of the disappearing Naga tattoo traditions, Mo has become much more than just an artist—he’s also helping his culture thrive in the modern age. He takes his role very seriously. “I want to keep the stories of our ancestors alive,” he says. “By bringing back the knowledge from the past, I’m taking the story forward.”
Mo Naga is based out of the Tattoo Village in Manipur, India, and travels once a year across India to meet clients. He can be found on Instagram at Headhunters’ Ink and can be reached via email at email@example.com.