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.

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

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.

"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.

Tigers, dragons, and swords are popular. One artist even offers Metallica designs.

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.

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