Meet the Homegirl: Tattoo Artist and Taboo-breaker
By Aishwarya Babuji
At age 21, Heleena Mistry is at the forefront of an artistic revolution in the UK. She is one of the very few South Asian female tattoo artists in the UK who is distinguished by the fact that she specializes in traditional Indian tattoos.
Through tattoos, Heleena has been breaking taboos for as long as she can remember. The first taboo that Heleena broke was suspending her higher education in order to follow her dreams and venture into the world of art. Like many in her generation, she knew that her true calling wasn’t going to be found in an everyday 9-5 desk job, but unlike most, she took the leap to find it in artistic expression.
Heleena feels fortunate to have had the blessing of her mother throughout the whole process. Asian diaspora children worldwide have parents who would never encourage their sons or daughters to quit schooling in order pursue their dreams. But her mother, like herself, has always been a little bit of a wild card, pushing the boundaries and making a stand for herself.
Heleena did not have immediate success when becoming a tattoo artist. Tattooing, like many other industries, is dominated by white male artists, and she had difficulty getting her foot in the door. After three hard years of steadfast determination, she finally became an apprentice in a tattoo studio, but even then, Heleena was met with obstacles. Critics regarded her work as too culture oriented, expecting her to conform to Eurocentric artistic norms. Fortunately, Heleena brushed off these remarks and stayed true to herself and her ideas.
Though Heleena faced disapproval and obstacles, she did not quit on her dream. She overcame those barriers that stood in her way of realizing her aspirations and today, she is on the other side of all the negativity she endured.
Today, she stands before the world as a successful and accomplished Gujurati tattoo artist from Leicester; a rare but fitting title.
Heleena encourages all Homegirls to remember that they, too, can break their own “taboos with tattoos.” They can stand strong and courageous when they feel that the world is against them, and they too can remember to always follow their dreams, no matter how unconventional society deems them to be.
The Homegirl Project's Aishwarya Babuji interviewed Heleena Mistry on her journey becoming a successful tattoo artist in the face of ignorance and obstacles.
AB: What inspired you to delve into the tattoo industry? Moreover, what inspired you to use tattooing as a tool for spreading your culture and breaking taboos?
HM: I left college at 18 feeling incredibly lost, and I knew I wanted to pursue art. Being 18, I was legally allowed to be tattooed, so I then started designing potential tattoos for myself, (none of which I actually got). My mum was the one [who] suggested going into tattooing. [She said,] “You can be a tattoo artist, but you’re not allowed to get tattoos.” I did some research to find South Asian females in the tattooing industry, and I couldn’t find anything. That’s why I took it upon myself to represent my culture in this industry.
AB: Being a member of the Asian community, did you face any obstacles whilst pursuing your dream? If so, how did you overcome them?
HM: I faced countless obstacles pursuing tattooing. Most tattoo studios are run by white male artists, and it took me three years to finally find a secure apprenticeship at a shop. I was told countless times to alter my style of work as it was too culture focused. [However,] when I want something, I can’t think of anything else apart from the thing I want. Tattooing was the only career I wanted to pursue, and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else, so I kept trying and I kept ignoring the ignorance towards my dreams.
AB: What is a piece of advice that you would like to offer to women who are met with societal or cultural constraints when trying to be who they want to be, or do what they want to do?
HM: My advice is simple, you have a limited amount of time in this life. You could live for 20 years or 100 years; why use that time following someone else’s standards of what’s acceptable and what isn’t? Be yourself.
AB: Is there any women in your life who inspire you?
HM: There’s a huge list of women that inspire me, whether it be their confidence, their talent, their vulnerability or their style of artwork. I couldn’t list a few.