How a poetry studio became home for tattooist’s body of work

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Anirban Roy Choudhury (left) and his tattoo studio and performance venue Forever Poetry (right) in Kolkata, West Bengal. Chandni Doulatramani

Origami birds in a plethora of pastels, green fairy lights gift-wrapped around the branch of a tree, and a splatter of water color on pages of poems: these are only part of the ensemble at Forever Poetry, a tattoo studio and performance venue in Kolkata, West Bengal.

As one room leads to another, the art here just keeps multiplying.

Forever Poetry started in March 2016 as a shared space between tattoo artist Anirban Roy Choudhury and graphic designer Sayantan Biswas. Biswas moved out 18 months ago and the space is now solely managed by 27 year-old Choudhury, who is originally from Chandannagar, a former French colony in West Bengal.

Choudhury became fascinated with tattoos when he saw a college friend, Palzor Lepcha, use the needle to create body tapestries. Lepcha suggested that he apprentice at a professional studio and afterwards Choudhury moved into a venue run by his mentor.

Having no real inclination toward art as a child, Choudhury had seen tattooing only as something to accompany his studies. But after five years of practising he developed the skills of the trade and decided to  take it up professionally. Choudhury worked with Lepcha for about two years, and then left to do some tattooing as he traveled.

“The place I used to work at was in a shopping mall and I had tattooed the same butterfly nine times. When I complained to Lepcha, he said, ‘Buckle up and do it because I’ve done it nineteen times’,” said Choudhury. “Although the money was good, I had to leave after a point because it was frustrating,” he added.

After traveling for a year and a half, he moved back to Kolkata with the intention of maintaining discipline, both in his life and in his art.

Forever Poetry represents Choudhury’s connection with poetry and it gives him the discipline he was seeking. He thinks of tattoos as “a unity of ethics and aesthetics”, and believes that their permanency establishes a case for viewing them as art.

An English Literature student, Choudhury became interested in poetry after a professor’s lecture in college, and began writing his own poems. While he works mostly with the trash genre of tattooing, which is realism mixed with graphic elements such as inkblots and splatter (similar to the effect that water colors have on paper), geometric patterns and abstract designs, his poetry follows no genre.

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One room of artistry leads to another at Forever Poetry. Photo: Chandni Doulatramani

With no artistic lineage or any rigorous training in art, Choudhury says he is motivated by his environment. “A friend once called me a sponge. I gather things from around me and that might not be a tangible inspiration; but I think I take bits of it subconsciously and then it all adds up,” he said.

However, there was one defining moment in his life when he watched Heima, a documentary film that catalogues performances by the Icelandic band Sigur Ros. On his left hand is etched the inscription “Takk”, which means “thank you” in Icelandic and is also the name of one of Sigur Ros’ albums. 

Choudhury’s art evolved further after he met a host of tattoo artists at the Nepal Tattoo Convention in Kathmandu in 2013. He watched artists at work for days, not taking notice of their techniques and skills, but the way they approached their designs.

But for Choudhury, art is not limited to his personal evolution as a tattoo artist or as a poet: his socialist approach makes for an unusual experience. Forever Poetry is primarily a tattoo studio because that’s where the revenue comes from, but it also doubles up as a space for the artist community in Kolkata to come together. 

Poetry reading sessions, music gigs and theatre performances are part of Forever Poetry’s purpose and charm. Initially there was no entrance fee, but in the past 18 months Choudhury has been charging Rs100 (US$1.45), and it all goes to the performers. Popular local musicians likes Deep Phoenix and The High Crook have appeared there.

Forever Poetry started out as a tattoo studio and a space for poetry readings; if musicians wanted to be involved, they were bunched with poets. Now there is one poetry reading session and one music event every month. Theatre performances are hosted too, but not regularly.

“This was an integral part of setting up such a big studio. I didn’t want it to be just a tattoo studio to make money, which is why I needed a bigger space,” Choudhury said.

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Forever Poetry is primarily a tattoo studio, but also doubles up as a space for the artist community in Kolkata to come together. Photo: Chandni Doulatramani

“I wanted to host events, and the music circuit in Kolkata is not good enough in the sense that there are amazing musicians but most of them don’t get paid. And even if they get paid it’s at pubs and restaurants, where people are not really there for the music, but where the music is just an add-on,” he said.

Forever Poetry enables its audiences to directly watch performances without distractions. “We (Biswas and Choudhury) wanted to use the space not just for ourselves but for artists in general. I don’t think it’s like going out of our way to help the community, I think it’s natural. This is how it should be,” he said.

The space, which can accommodate about 55 people, has geometric and abstract wall art all over. Past issues of Rolling Stone magazine and a collection of Murakami books occupy wooden shelves. An old radiogram that is beyond repair is now used by Choudhury as his workstation. Unused jars, bottles, and cans that have been recycled build on the beauty of kerosene lamps everywhere. His cats, Reiki and Amaya, add the final touch of mystery at Forever Poetry.

Choudhury hardly ever steps out of his house and claims to have no hobbies. He is either spending time working on his designs or thinking up ideas to reinvent Forever Poetry. His next plan is to take advantage of the walls so they can be used by artists to display their work. “An alternative art gallery would be exciting,” he said.

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