Art or skin sin?
| December 28th 2014
Exposure to Western culture since 2001 has transformed Afghanistan’s previously isolated society, and a love of tattoos has taken hold — despite inking parlours being illegal.
Under the Taliban’s tough 1996-2001 regime, personal fashion statements were outlawed and police squads patrolled the streets looking for men who had beards that were too short or hair that was too long.
Now, 13 years after the Taliban were ousted, young men in Kabul, Herat and other cities wear skinny jeans and embroidered jackets, and take pride in elaborate hairstyles sculpted with thick gel.
Tattoos have also become popular, influenced by international music stars, sports heroes — and US soldiers — who often display elaborate body art.
The practice is one unexpected legacy of the US-led NATO intervention in Afghanistan, which ends its fighting role against the Taliban on December 31.
Many Muslims consider tattoos to be forbidden under Islamic law, and some mullahs in Afghanistan are fiercely critical, describing it as a mutilation of the human body.
Faced with such opposition, getting a tattoo requires determination, ingenuity and inside knowledge.
“It is illegal to have a tattoo shop. I do it in secret and if the government finds out about me they might come and arrest me,” Reza Yousifi, 19, an underground tattoo artist in Kabul said.
“My friends who are tattoo artists previously had shops, but they were arrested and their shops closed.”
Yousifi, who has a tattoo from the X-Men movies on his arm, first developed his passion while living in Iran as a refugee and then became a skilled artist himself.
He uses his friend’s male beauty salon in a shopping mall as cover to avoid the attentions of the authorities, keeping his tools hidden at home and only taking them to the salon when he has a client.
After 2001, a number of tattoo parlours set up in Kabul, openly advertising their business as Afghans hungrily adopted outside fashions and customs.
But religious leaders complained, and the government shut them down.
“It is considered a sin in Islam to have a tattoo,” said Yousifi.
“People who have tattoos on their arms hide them under their sleeves, but despite that, it is rapidly growing in popularity.”
He says his clients are young men, and sometimes women, who believe that tattoos add a sense of adventure and attitude to their restricted lives.
The designs often reflect deep emotions: broken hearts, images of lost friends, or the pain of growing up surrounded by conflict.
“Many of my clients like angry, aggressive designs related to the war. But there are some who want romantic ones like pictures of girls,” Yousifi said, pulling off his surgical gloves.
“We always tell them that our tattoos are permanent, and they should be careful about what they choose.”
Mehdi, 17, one of his clients, wears low-cut jeans, spiky hair and has a newly inked anchor design on his right arm, which is red raw after having ink drilled into the skin.
“I first saw tattoos in India,” Mehdi said. “I was very impressed. I then decided to find a good artist in Kabul. I am now in love with my tattoo.
“The younger generation knows why we want them... This is what I care about, I don’t care about what other people say.”
Tattoos, or “tacs” as they are known, are also popular among Kabul’s body-builders — another new activity that has boomed since the US-led invasion that ousted the hardline Taliban.
At a claustrophobic basement gym echoing with the noise of clanking weights, one in every three men has a tattoo.
The designs range from tribal patterns, star signs and names to dragons, swords and eagles.
“My tattoo shows barbed wire with a bird flying out of it. For me, it means freedom,” said Basir.
In the gym, they proudly show their decorated muscles, but they know that outside a tattoo could bring trouble.
“When I go outside, I wear long sleeves,” Basir said. “The insurgents cut off people’s fingers for voting, so I am afraid they might cut my arm for a tattoo.”
With the international presence in Afghanistan falling fast, the future direction of Afghan society is uncertain after the tumultuous experience of recent years.
For some mullahs, the end of NATO’s war is a chance to re-establish traditional values and end the baleful influence of the West.
“Tattooing is un-Islamic and most people hate it and make fun of those who do it,” said Mullah Abdul Latif, leader of a mosque in west Kabul.
“It is a Western culture. There is no room for it here.”
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