BAGHDAD — To get to Dante’s lair, you have to walk down an alley, up the stairs and along a corridor of a dilapidated shopping center in Baghdad’s central Karrada district.
Inside a dimly lit room there on a recent, sweltering night, I found a group of tough-looking young men and teenagers gathered around a comrade who was struggling to remain stoic despite the pain.
Dante, 24, our protagonist, was hard at work, drilling a tattoo of the Shiite saint Ali into the young man’s arm.
Photographer Max Becherer and I had come to meet Dante — with the help of our young driver, Osama — to see a different side of Iraq than its grinding political violence.
Of course, almost no place in Iraq is immune from the horrendous suffering that has plagued the nation for decades — first under the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein, then with the violence that exploded after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Every family has witnessed destruction. Every household has a tale of heartbreak.
But Dante’s shadowy tattoo parlor contained an unusual mix of men and teens, Sunnis and Shiites, militants and civilians, who were brought together by their unusual hobbies: grunge, rap music and ink — lots of it.
Mohamed al-Najab — Dante’s real name — opened his first Baghdad tattoo parlor in 2008.
For two years, Dante had worked as a translator for U.S. troops based at Baghdad airport. They nicknamed him Dante, for the main character in a dark animated film, “Dante’s Inferno.”And the name stuck.
An American soldier who had a tattoo parlor in Los Angeles taught Dante the craft of inking figures on people’s bodies. Before that, he was just a kid who liked to draw.
Dante said he left the military job after a firefight that left his back and arm riddled with bullet wounds.
In the shop, he doesn’t like to talk about those days, or the gun battle.
When I asked who shot him, Dante pulled me outside. “The Mahdi Army,” he whispered, pronouncing the name of a prominent Shiite militia, which killed hundreds of U.S. troops and Sunnis during the Iraq war.
Dante’s space plunges into total darkness when the power cuts out every 30 minutes. It was crowded with young people whose tattoos reflected a mix of Western pop clichés and the religious and political symbols of Iraq.
Barek Basil, a 21-year-old Iraqi Kurd, had devoted a full arm to his passion for music: tattoos of a microphone, a skull wearing headphones, musical notes and a guitar.
Even the English term “MP3” was there, along with his rap name: “Hell Mix aka Millionaire.” His Arabic-language songs — mostly about love — are available on YouTube.
Beside him, another man had a tattoo of a Shiite saint, Hussein, who was killed in the 7th century by a rival Muslim army, in a battle that became a defining moment for the Sunni-Shiite divide. The words “Revenge for Hussein” arched above the picture on his shoulder.
Then there was Omar, Basil’s 18-year-old friend, who had his explicitly Sunni name tattooed across his knuckles and on his upper arm.
Omar was an adolescent during the years that death squads executed civilians simply for having names like Omar or keeping pictures of Shiite saints on their cell phones.
In the shadowy gloom of the shop, the symbols of Iraq’s sectarian divide were out in the open for all to see.
And yet, in a country where religious affiliation was linked to so many deaths, they kept their political views — or animosities — quiet that night.
The scene underscored a fact that Iraqis feel the foreign press often misses: that Iraq is still a religiously and ethnically diverse country, full of mixed families and neighborhoods. Despite years of conflict, plenty of Iraqis still feel united by family, nationhood or simply a shared interest such as tattoos.
“We’re not that interested in politics,” declared an older man in the group, who friends later identified as a member of an Iranian-funded Shiite militia known as the Hezbollah Brigades.
The nation’s sectarian rhetoric has amplified in recent weeks.. The Sunni extremist Islamic State conquered a vast section of Iraqi territory and executed hundreds of Shiites. Shiite militias hustled to the front lines to fight back.
Asked about the Islamic State, the group grew quiet. A few mumbled that things seemed to be going badly for Iraq.
The men and boys shuffled uncomfortably.
Then Dante pointed to Thahed Amar, a lanky 17-year-old with an arm full of animals and wings, a skull and a symbol for the British boy band One Direction.
“His dad is a major general in the army,” Dante said. “They’ll kill him when he goes home today” for talking about politics.
The guys all laughed. They went outside and smoked cigarettes.
And then they went back into the shop to huddle around Dante’s newest customer: a man who wanted a tattoo removed. It was a cheesy poem about his mother.