Last week, in our first Tattoo Culture Abroad Series post, we took you on a tour of the rich history of tattooing in Europe. This week we explore the tattoo culture of the Middle East, talk about the history of tattooing there, discuss the benefits and drawbacks of getting tattooed in the Middle East today, and more.
A Brief History of Tattoos in the Middle East
Although the oldest mummy discovered to have tattoos was found in Europe, it's believed that the ancient Egyptians are largely responsible for spreading the art of tattooing throughout the world. Before tattooing was en vogue among all Egyptians, only high priestesses were tattooed. One of the oldest Egyptian mummies with tattoos was that of Amunet, the ancient Egyptian priestess of the goddess Hathor who lived between 2160 and 1994 B.C. Her tattoos were comprised of dots and dashes in abstract geometrical patterns. It was common for women like Amunet to get tattooed only for ritualistic purposes early on, but by the 3rd and 4th Egyptian dynasties, tattoos were common among other Egyptians, too.
At the time the pyramids were built, Egypt was heavily engaged in trade with Greece, Persia, Arabia, and other surrounding areas. Those the Egyptians traded with admired their tattoos, and the art form quickly spread to other cultures. However, in the Middle East, it was mostly only nomadic tribes like the Bedouins who engaged in tattooing. Many Middle Eastern people are Muslim, and strict Muslims view tattooing or carving the body in any way as unholy, much like devout Christians who adhere to the Bible's instructions to honor one's body like a temple. However, even during the Prophet Mohammed's time (570-632 A.D.), a sect of Moroccan women and people in parts of North Africa engaged in tattooing. Some of the Middle Eastern people of that time who got tattooed did so for decorative purposes, but it was much more common for people to get tattoos to protect themselves from evil spirits, as symbols of their bravery, or to mark major life milestones.
In the years after the Prophet Mohammed lived, tattooing in the Middle East was typically only seen among nomadic people like the Bedouins and Amazigh for many centuries. They wore tattoos as protective amulets, marks of beauty, tribal signifiers, and even to deter unwanted attention from men. Within a tribal community, women with facial tattoos were deemed beautiful, but those same tattoos often made them undesirable to men outside their tribes, thus protecting them from lustful outsiders.
Recent studies of ancient Iranian remains also show that the practice of tattooing was popular in Iran historically, although the timeline is a bit hazy. Iranian women would get beautiful tattoos of birds, flowers and other natural elements to enhance their beauty. Tattoos under the breast and on the lower abdomen in particular were believed to enhance a woman's sex appeal. Iranian men would get tattoos that illustrated their strength and masculinity; sometimes their tattoos were images, but verses from poems were also popular.
Modern Day Middle Eastern Tattoo Art
Tattooing in the Middle East today is a spotty trade, due in large part to the highly-Muslim populations throughout the Middle East and strict government regulations. You're more likely to find proper tattoo shops in bigger, more modern cities, but even then, the conditions aren't guaranteed to be safe. In Iran, cosmetic tattoos became popular among women about 20 years ago and more people have adopted the art of tattooing in the years since. However, tattooing is presently illegal in Iran and some other Middle Eastern countries, so it remains an underground trade in many areas in that part of the world to this day. Some tattoo artists practice out of their homes, and others use the guise of beauty parlors to tattoo. Those artists who do own formal tattoo shops don't always have the same high standards you'll commonly find in the US, across Europe, and in other developed countries like Australia.
There are surely plenty of talented tattoo artists with Middle Eastern roots, but it's hard to find a great tattoo artist operating in the Middle East when you search online. You're more likely to find horror stories of the unsanitary conditions of tattoo shops in places like Istanbul than you are to find a highly-recommended Middle Eastern tattoo shop. Only time will tell, but as that part of the world becomes more industrialized and modernized, the tattoo culture will surely continue grow in tandem.
Getting a Tattoo in the Middle East
Since the tattoo culture is largely underground in the Middle East, finding a sanitary tattoo shop can be a challenge. You may be better off choosing a symbol from Middle Eastern culture or another reminder of your trip to the Middle East and having it tattooed on you once you get home. If you do decide to hunt for a reputable tattoo shop while traveling, don't settle until you find a shop that answers "yes" to these key questions:
- Does the shop have an autoclave steam sterilizer or use another thorough sterilization method, like chemical baths? Don't settle for a shop that only hand-washes or boils its tools.
- Are the tattoo artists covering equipment that can't be sterilized with protective gear, like cable and tattoo machine bags? Are they wearing disposable gloves?
- Are all disposable tools like tattoo needles being pulled from sterile packaging in front of you? If not, leave!
One last word of caution: If you choose a foreign symbol, word or phrase to have tattooed on you, make sure it's right before you have it permanently emblazoned on your body. It's sadly all-too-common for people who don't speak a foreign language to assume they're being told the correct meaning of a symbol or word, only to find out later that something was lost in translation. Take time to review your artists' work, make sure you like their style, and do your research so you fully understand the meaning of any foreign text or symbols you're considering having tattooed on your body.
Traveling With Tattoos in the Middle East
Some travelers who are heavily tattooed have reservations about traveling to the Middle East with exposed tattoos. Unless you're Muslim, it likely won't be an issue for you as a tattooed tourist to visit the Middle East. Islamic Shariah Law prohibits Muslims from having tattoos, but the rules don't apply to non-Muslim tourists. If you make it through immigration without a problem, you should be fine while traveling around the area. If you're terribly concerned, consider wearing long-sleeve shirts or pants to cover your tattoos. There's also great cover-up makeup for tattoos available now that you can try if you have reservations about your tattoos being exposed while traveling in the Middle East.
History of Tattoos PainfulPleasures.com Article
Quora.com Post, Why do some North African / Middle Eastern women have facial tattoos?
Al-Monitor.com Article Tattooed in Tehran
A Do and Don't Guide to Getting a Tattoo Article on Travelettes.net
Highly Visible Tattoos and Travelling in the Middle East Thread on LonelyPlanet.com