Operating Quietly, Tattoo Artists Make Their Mark in Iraq

(Naseer Nouri - Ftwp)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

BAGHDAD -- If you found the artist, someone must have told you about him, and this was precisely what scared him, because it could have gotten him killed.

He neither advertised his services nor hung a sign on his door. But he could be found: through a small art gallery on the first floor of an anonymous two-story building in downtown Baghdad, up a narrow, twisting flight of stairs, and into the cramped, dank studio with only one low window obscured by a purple curtain.

"You shouldn't have come here," he said the other day, after pulling back the curtain to reveal a machine gun propped on the sill. "If they find me, they will cut off my head."

The artist drew tattoos.

In Iraq's current climate of intimidation by religious extremists -- accused of murdering those who immodestly wear shorts, or drink alcohol, or happen to be born with a particular name -- body art cannot be practiced openly. Some Islamic scholars consider tattoos haram , or prohibited by the religion: a desecration of God's creation and the chosen emblem of thugs and convicts. Worse, some consider the practice an imitation of the "occupiers" from America.

But in market stalls and private homes and small rooms tucked out of sight, tattoo artists are plying an increasingly popular trade, and their young Iraqi customers say they take inspiration from foreign soldiers, American athletes and the traditional Islamic body decorations common among elder generations before Saddam Hussein cracked down on the practice.

"Saddam did not allow it, and people who had tattoos would be imprisoned because it is an imitation of the West," said Ibrahim Samat, 19, sitting with his shirt off inside the Baghdad tattoo shop as the artist inscribed the head of a tiger onto his left shoulder. "I want one because it is a beautiful thing and because lots of young people are doing it."

When U.S.-led troops knocked down Hussein's government, they also took out the Baath Party's influence over television stations and the Internet, opening the door to a burst of Western culture. Many Iraqis despise the United States and its military, but it does not prevent them from spending hours on the couch watching Oprah or Dr. Phil.

Such cultural exchanges are common in wartime. The British left behind cricket when they departed the Greek Island of Corfu in the 19th century. After World War II, Italian singer Renato Carosone famously crooned to his countrymen: "You want to play the American."

What invading militaries unwittingly bring with them "really has a kind of secondary impact that is in some ways more lasting," said Benjamin Barber, the author of "Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World."

"We're much better at selling [our culture] unintentionally than we are at selling democracy," he said.

Khaman Aziz Qasab Oghlo, 18, a Turkmen student living in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, paid $75 to have an eagle tattooed on his back after admiring the body art of U.S. troops patrolling the city.

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