Tattoo Taboo in Iraq

The definitions art critics and theorists expound as to what makes art are often a contradictory and complex muddle. It is a messy and eclectic family that we house under the umbrella of art. However, whilst you can find arguments both for and against most things being considered art, from knitting to video games, tattooing is an area that remains largely untouched by mainstream art criticism.

There are perhaps a number of reasons for this. To a certain extent, this exclusion has been largely self imposed- tattooing has long accrued a reputation as the mark of an outsider; from sailors of yore to rebellious teenagers.

And yet the very site of tattoo work by no means make it any less art; a fleshy canvas is much more of a commitment than even the most expensive of  traditional art works- a changed mind cannot return it to Christie’s nor can the prudent one wait until the market picks up and then sell it on for a higher price. It is an art work that is with you when you shower, an art work which may bear the brunt of your sunburn in the summer and an art work prickled with involuntary goose bumps as it shares with you your reaction to the winter.

tattooing has long accrued a reputation as the mark of an outsider; from sailors of yore to modern day rebellious teenagers in the West

Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always been a believer in tattooing as art. But it was only recently when I read the findings of the Guardian newspaper’s adventures in search of the tattoo culture in Iraq that I began to see its true potency and potential as political art. I use the term political here to mean both expressing directly political opinions and revealing inadvertently political circumstances.

The history of tattoos in Iraq since the 2003 downfall of Saddam, is an unsurprisingly dark and complex one.

The Guardian newspaper’s Baghdad correspondent Peter Beaumont describes the importance of tattoos to Iraqi citizens,

“Ten years ago, in the aftermath of Saddam’s fall, the tattoos you would see were crude affairs made with pin and ash, often in prison. They were usually no more than a name… At the height of the sectarian war, men would have more sophisticated tattoos to make it easier for their their families to identify their bodies if they were murdered.”

A young man being inked at the Al-Mansour tattoo parlour visited by the Guardian

A young man being inked at the Al-Mansour tattoo parlour visited by the Guardian

The importance of tattoos for such identifying reasons is explained by Qaisar Tariq al-Essawi, who has the message ‘my age is the same as the olive tree’ inscribed upon his body in blue ink. The thirty six year old got the tattoo said of choice, ‘I selected this wording because only my family and close friends know about our olive tree which was planted by my father when I was born’.

 At the height of the sectarian war, men would have more sophisticated tattoos to make it easier for their their families to identify their bodies if they were murdered.

Yet even now a certain level of risk and secrecy persists surrounding tattoos, stemming from its contentious status in the Islamic faith. Some members of the faith believe that the process is haram; prohibited by the religion due to it being a desecration of God’s creation.

However, with the US presence in Iraq, tattoos soon became a familiar feature on the streets as they could be glimpsed on the soldiers’ skin.

Under this new phase of tattooing, some of the designs have been less about identifying bodies so much as the individuals’ identification with certain cultural movements, family members or simple expressions of personality. The arabic equivalent of ‘I love mum’ is an increasingly popular choice.

One eighteen year old who had a map of Iraq inked on his bicep explains that he simply wanted to express his national pride, “it felt modern and I wanted to express how I loved Iraq”, however he adds of its reception, “my father… doesn’t understand it. He thinks it is part of the invasion culture”.

His remarks at once bring to mind the response of parents the world over scolding a rebellious teenager getting a tattoo, however the complex context of tattoos in Iraqi culture make it so much more than that. And yet, it of course has so much more potency than a teenager rebelling with some Chinese script or cartoon doodles on their bodies, it is a complex cultural code which both reveals and conceals much about modern day Iraq.

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