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Americans' lasting mark on Iraq: colorful, complex tattoos

Popular designs include tigers, dragons, and swords, although overt displays of the body art remain somewhat taboo.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 2009

Drawing attention: More Iraqis now sport Western tattoos but still avoid public displays.

Tom a. Peter

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Baghdad

Before US troops rolled into Iraq, Robert Eagle, an Iraqi, had seen his fair share of tattoos. There were lots of traditional Bedouin designs – simple patterns of lines and dots – and prisoners who scrawled loved ones' names using ink and a sewing needle, but nothing more complicated than this.

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"These were terrible tattoos," says Mr. Eagle, who goes by the English translation of his name.

It wasn't until US forces arrived and Eagle began working alongside American and British security contractors inked with dragons, Chinese characters, and a host of other designs that he realized there existed a world of unexplored potential. Within months, he'd gotten a colorful eagle with flaming wings on his arm, the first of several tattoos.

Nearly six years into the Iraq war, the American presence has literally left its mark on the Iraqi people. Tattoos are among a number of Western trends that have crept into society here. Although US and British soldiers are largely responsible for introducing them to Iraqis, a number of refugees who spent time in more open Arab countries are helping to spread their popularity, despite legal and religious issues surrounding them.

"Before the war, no one knew about the cultures from outside, but now so many people know about Western culture," says Kawakeb Salah Hamed, a sociology professor at Baghdad University. "Now, young people like to do almost anything they see in Western culture."

Among US service members, tattoos are extremely popular, and as soldiers patrolled the streets or worked with Iraqi security forces, many locals took notice of their elaborate and colorful body art. At the same time, Iraqis who'd been exiled during the Saddam era and learned the business in Lebanon and Jordan began returning to open shops that offer Western-style designs.

While the industry is still in early phases of development, the more advanced tattoos have attracted a wider spectrum of people than the handmade prison and Bedouin tattoos did. One Baghdad tattoo artist says he's inked everyone from doctors and businessmen to Army officers and unemployed youths.

"In Saddam's time, people could not make tattoos," says Ali Naser Mohamed, a security contractor, who has both biceps covered in ink. He says he knew of at least one person jailed for six months for his Western-style tattoo.

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