By Renate van der Zee
February 5, 2019
Mohammed’s tattoo studio is hidden in a back room behind a clothes shop in the poorer, southern part of Tehran. Photos of Al Pacino, Che Guevara and the Eiffel Tower adorn the walls. His customers often ask for classic tattoo motifs – a rose, for example, or a predatory animal – but Maori-style tribal patterns are also popular. “Tattooing is my passion,” he says. “I take the risk simply because it’s so beautiful.”
He certainly does take a risk. Tattoo artists are regularly arrested in Iran and sentenced to fines, lashes or even imprisonment. While there is no specific law against tattoos and they are not strictly forbidden in Shia Islam, the authorities strongly reject them as a western phenomenon harmful to Iranian values.
In some public places, like swimming pools, there are signs warning that tattooed people are not welcome. When criminals are arrested, newspapers invariably publish photos of their body art to convey the message that tattoos and crime go hand in hand. Football players with tattooed arms have been forced to wear long sleeves.
Yet body art is immensely popular among young people in Tehran. Among the clientele of the trendy cafes in the city centre are many people with visible tattoos. And everywhere in town you’ll find underground studios like Mohammed’s. Some are located in back rooms behind shops or in beauty parlours where women go for permanent makeup such as eyeliner – the only form of tattooing the authorities allow. Others receive their clients at home. They often have difficulty finding good equipment.
Mohammed, who is 27, started 10 years ago with the machine his mother used for permanent makeup. He saw tattoos becoming a craze among young, urban Iranians about seven years ago. “The internet was an important factor. People saw it on social media and decided they wanted it, too,” he says.
“My clients say that tattoos make them feel more themselves. They feel more beautiful and stronger. A man feels more powerful when he’s got a dragon tattooed on his back.”
Reza Arjmand, a sociologist at the University of Lund in Sweden, has done extensive research into the new tattoo culture in Iran and collected more than 5,000 photos. His book The Subversive Skin: Tattoo in Post-Revolutionary Iran will be published this year.
“Tattoos are not new in Iran,” he says. “But it used to be something for the lower classes – men who had been to prison and women in prostitution. The new trend is for hip, young people. It’s cool to have one. It’s a fashion thing and a status symbol. Between the photos I collected are images of women who have exactly the same tattoo as Beyoncé or some other celebrity on exactly the same spot.”
But it is certainly not simply a fashion choice for everybody, he adds. “For some Iranians it’s a way to show that their body belongs to them, apart from the theocratic state and institutionalised religion. It’s a silent act of resistance. You can censor books, you can ban films, but you cannot erase a tattoo very easily.”
According to Arjmand, the new trend shows that the dynamic of Iranian society is changing. “For these young people the points of reference are no longer the mosque and the mullahs, but Hollywood and social media. Rihanna sets the trend.”
Tattoos are popular among young women and there are many female tattoo artists in Tehran, such as Atefeh, 36-year-old visual artist. She became interested when she saw a Chinese tattoo of a flower online. “I thought it was gorgeous. I had never seen anything like it,” she says. “As a kind of test I tattooed it on my leg. It wasn’t perfect, but I knew I wanted to continue.”
She is aware of the risk of being a tattooist, but the current economic problems in Iran make it very difficult for her to sell her paintings. “With tattooing, I can earn more money. And the money I earn, I invest in my art projects.”
She receives her clients, mainly young women, in her living room. “Some want a tattoo because they think it’s sexy, or because their husband thinks it’s sexy,” she says. “They want me to tattoo his name, for example. Lines of poetry or philosophical sayings are also very popular. And Persian calligraphy. But not everybody does it because they think it’s sexy or cool. I also have clients who want Qur’anic verses on their bodies.”
Mahsa, 24, sits in a cafe in the city centre. She has piercings in her nose and ears and several tattoos on her arms, some of which she has done herself. Most conspicuous is the image of a big eye on her neck. “It was always my dream to have tattoos, from when I was nine,” she says. “I don’t like jewellery. This is forever and I think that’s beautiful.”
It’s not easy to look like her in Iran. This year’s Berlin film festival will show an Iranian short about a young woman who goes to renew her driving licence but is sent to a police station for her body art.
“I get many negative reactions,” Mahsa says. “I hide my tattoos when I walk through the city, because it can be dangerous. People can associate the one on my neck with the evil eye and see it as a satanic thing. But it has nothing to do with that. I just think it’s beautiful.”
Asked why she is prepared to run such risks, she says: “This is just who I am and it’s nobody’s business but mine.”
Tattoo artist Soheil Aflaki, 28, sees tattoos as a way to stand out in a society that allows people little space for self-expression. His living room in a suburb of Tehran also serves as his tattoo studio. “I consider tattooing as a medical treatment for my generation,” he says. “It’s a way to heal the psychological wounds you sustain while living in a culture in crisis.”
Aflaki started out as a self-taught painter. His interest in tattooing was sparked when a friend gave him a tattoo machine for his 19th birthday. “I learned to do it by trial and error,” he says, and laughs. “I was lucky to have friends who let me practise on their bodies.”
He is now one of the best-known tattoo artists in Tehran, with more than 55,000 followers on Instagram. Among his clients are famous Iranian musicians and actors. They don’t come for roses or tribal patterns, but for Aflaki’s unique designs, which are often inspired by the character of his clients.
“It’s my art that’s important to me and nothing else,” he says. “There are many other things that are not allowed in Iran, like graffiti, rock music and hip-hop. But in spite of that, many Iranians dedicate their lives to them. We all knew the situation when we started and we have come to terms with it. I don’t complain about it.”
He adds: “A tattoo functions as an ‘identity maker’. It’s a way to create a unique personality. I think that’s important for young people in a country like Iran.”