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.
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Tigers, dragons, and swords are popular. One artist even offers Metallica designs.Skip to next paragraph
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Tariq al-Hemdani first saw Western tattoos when he sought refuge in Lebanon in 2005. He'd spent several years as a prisoner during Saddam's regime and "saw tattoos made with needles in prison, and I didn't want one," he says. "But when I saw how it was done with a machine in Lebanon, that made me want a tattoo."
First he got a flower on his heart in honor of his girlfriend, still in Iraq. When he returned to Iraq in 2007, he got another tattoo of a snake wrapped around a sword at one of Baghdad's new tattoo parlors.
Tattoos were never technically illegal in Iraq, but under Saddam they floated in legal limbo. "Nobody has been sent to prison because of a tattoo," says Tareq Hareb, head of the cultural law assembly.
Still, while people with traditional designs were left alone, those with tattoos of people's names say they were harassed and even beaten by authorities who discovered their inked arms. Tattoo shops were not allowed. The treatment, whether official policy or not, led to a widespread consensus that tattoos were illegal.
Today, much of that same uncertainty remains. Government employees and soldiers are the only groups that the law forbids from getting tattooed, but Mr. Hareb says this law is loosely enforced.
Tattoos are technically forbidden by Islam, considered an unnecessary alteration of God's creation. However, given their place in traditional Arab culture, many Muslims overlook the rule.
Given these concerns, tattoo artists operate largely in shadows, fearing unwanted attention from the government or Muslim fundamentalists.
"Business is good here, but ... I'm afraid the police or Islamic extremists will try to shut me down," says one artist, speaking anonymously due to legal concerns. "I'd like to find another job, but I'm too old to change careers. This isn't like doing artwork for me anymore because of the stress. Now I'm just trying to make a living."
Despite the confusion over the legality of tattoos, their cultural currency is strengthening. Tattooed Iraqis tend to conceal their designs in public, but when someone spots a cheetah on their bicep, now they say that the only harassment they receive is someone pestering them about where they can get one, too.
"Everybody who sees my tattoos says they're beautiful. Nobody bothers me about it," Eagle says.
After seeing his tattoo, Eagle says his wife wants a butterfly drawn on her shoulder. The only thing stopping her is that Baghdad's tattoo artists are men, and Eagle says it wouldn't be appropriate for another man to tattoo his wife.
"Many men think it's appealing for women to have tattoos," says Mrs. Hamed, who adds that many of her female students with traditional tattoos are now embarrassed by their outmoded designs.