There are some tattooists who create work that vibrates with joy, peace, and love. Swasthik Iyengar, also known as Gunga Ma, is one of these artists. Growing up in India, she gleaned the deep cultural roots of artistry that took many forms around her. Following the visual and written narratives of her heritage, Swasthik has developed an aesthetic that holds dear the sacred iconography that has supported the revolutionary growth, happiness, and hearts of many generations before us. In this cycle of samsara, artwork like that of Swasthik Iyengar anchors our hopes for a better world within our skin and soul.
When do you first remember getting interested in creating art? Are there any childhood memories that hint at the artist you would become?
I grew up in India; my grandma was a painter and also tattooed. I grew up watching women and men paint folk art and Hindu imagery using acrylic paints on wooden doors. I saw local Indian men paint temples; I was surrounded by people who did wood carving and stone carving. I was always interested in art and specifically Hindu mythology, as well as creating pattern work. I knew I was always going to embark on a creative journey, I just wasn’t sure it would have been tattooing, and I am extremely happy it is and I hope it will be for the rest of my existence.
How did you get into tattooing and why was it the art form you were most drawn to?
I began an apprenticeship four and a half years ago at a shop in Brisbane. What I did was on the counter; it wasn’t the place I learnt how to tattoo however: that I adopted from various mentors and by watching, learning, and listing to what ever golden advice was given to me. As for why it was the art form that was most drawn to me – it was drawn to me because not only was I heavily tattooed, loved getting tattooed, but tattooing is a very special and sacred part of Indian culture and I am of Indian heritage.
How has your style evolved over time? How does your background or personal preferences influence your work?
My style has evolved over time because I am constantly pushing myself to explore different aspects within the context of art and tattooing such as body composition. I am always trying to create a story behind my paintings or to showcase the vastness and depth that is Hinduism, specifically around topics associated with meditation, birth and death. My style has also evolved over time through my constant endeavor (pre Covid) to visit my homeland and see more things there, I suppose, such as visit more temples which have their own unique art forms, and or reading more Hindu stories, listening to stories from my elders. My background influences my work because I create imagery and pattern work specific to India and Nepal, which is my culture, it is where I was born.
I’d love it if you could talk about certain types of iconography or patterns that have sacred foundations. Do you think it’s important for artists working with certain cultural motifs to know their history and roots? Is it possible to visually show appreciation without appropriation?
I find answering question four requires a novel. I can go in depth about it but…it is a tricky topic and deserves lots of thought and respect, and I also don’t wish to offend anyone, not that I will but I am not sure how to answer this question in full, so I will answer the first part of this question if that is ok. Particular patterns and iconography that have sacred foundations, there are plenty in India, for example sacred geometry, mandalas, are all linked to planetary alignment, etc., which helps us to see what changes are occurring in the world or in ones daily life. There are also the Hindu gods which are sacred in our culture and thus hold a sacred foundation.
How do you feel about the future of the tattoo industry? What needs to change and what should stay the same?
I am not sure. I live like a hermit most days, go home, focus on my own drawings, what clients are after, how I can better my art and my technique in tattooing. I think it's amazing that the industry is full of wonderful talented people creating work in their styles and doing it well. Tattooing is very hard work but I wouldn’t change it for the world and it is wonderful nowadays to be surrounded by people who love, live and breathe tattooing. It is such a sacred craft. I think that will and should stay the same hopefully.
What else should stay the same: respect; the respect you hold to people who have been tattooing longer than you. I think trust is important, trust with your clients and with your work colleagues. For example, gaining the trust and right to know the knowledge, technique, and equipment within tattooing. What should change: misogyny, racism, sexism does exist in the industry, I myself have experienced it, and this needs to change, it really just needs to stop. We need to move towards setting higher standards, respecting each other and clients, so things are easier to navigate within the industry.
What have been your greatest accomplishments and struggles over the years? How do you define success and do you think artists have a responsibility to the world?
Accomplishments: finishing flash sheets and big paintings. It takes so much concentration and sometimes they never turn out how you expected them to in your head, but that fact that I finished it anyway, is a positive thing. Struggles: learning tattooing, everyday I still stress and it’s not a bad thing at all. But its not an easy gig and with every struggle though, I have learnt how to tackle problems and change things for next time.
Surreal eye, heart, and mouth tattoo by Swasthik Iyengar aka Gunga Ma #SwasthikIyengar #GungaMa #color #traditional #Hindu #sacredsymbols #sacrediconography #eyes #thirdeye #flower #heart #mouth #tongue #pattern #surreal
You’re stranded on a desert island and can only have one book, one toy, one movie, and one record. What do you choose?
Book: Bhagavit Gita, toy: bike, record: lauryn hill, movie: Shawshank Redemption.
Any upcoming projects, events, life advice, future plans, or special insights you’d like to share?
Hopefully travel, hopefully collaborate with more artists, do bigger commissions, tattoo abroad and be happy.