Tattoo You

Art is alive in Baghdad. And just in case you aren't . . .

Amid the sweltering heat, bomb blasts, curfews, fleeing aid workers, and lack of electricity in Baghdad, artistic expression flourishes. But it's for a practical reason: People are getting tattooed so that if they get killed their families will at least be able to identify their corpses.

The news service IRIN puts it another way: "Grim Tattoo Subculture Emerges Amid Daily Violence":

"My age is the same as the olive tree," reads the blue tattoo on Qaisar Tariq al-Essawi's left shoulder.

Al-Essawi, 36, got the tattoo so his family and close friends could recognise his remains if he ended up in a morgue.

"I selected this wording because only my family and close friends know about our olive tree which was planted by my father when I was born," al-Essawi, a father of two boys, told IRIN in Baghdad.

One response to sudden and violent death which has become commonplace in Iraq's turmoil is the emergence of a new subculture — the etching of tattoo identities on people who fear becoming an unclaimed body in a packed morgue.

tattoo-iraq-200.jpgThe designs are nice, as you can see from a right shoulder captured by IRIN photographer Abu Malik. But this isn't just your normal hipster fad:

One Baghdad tattoo artist said he had marked nearly 100 men aged 20-50 over the past three months.

"There are about 10 of us in Baghdad and about a dozen in other provinces," said a Fine Arts graduate who refused to be named for security reasons.

"We are working in our houses and people learn about us through word of mouth," he added.

Even mourners are prone to attack. Suicide bombers have targeted the funeral tents traditionally used by families to receive relatives, friends and neighbours.

That same fear keeps relatives from going to cemeteries to bury their dead or, in some cases, even publicising the victim's name.

People may have to get their etchings done while on the run. Tattoos aren't likely to stave off persecution not only during religious pilgrimages but by the fanatics roaming Baghdad's streets. Another IRIN report notes that Baghdad residents are fleeing not only from bombs and U.S. troops but also because gunmen are swooping into their neighborhoods to impose strict Islamic laws:

Residents of Dora District in Baghdad have been fleeing after gunmen imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic Shariah law there.

"We have reports of more than 300 families fleeing the area over the past two weeks and this number is increasing daily," Fatah Ahmed, vice-president of the Iraq Aid Association (IAA), said.

The gunmen are particularly stringent when it comes to Christian families, who are forced to convert to Islam or pay huge taxes.

"We have left the area because we were being forced to live under strict Islamic laws. Men have to wear long beards and women veils, and the latter are not allowed to leave their homes without their husbands. Girls have been told they are forbidden to go to school after the summer vacation," said Haki Salam, 54, a resident of Dora who is now living as a displaced person on the outskirts of the capital.

Tattoos may help you, but only after you're dead. And if Baghdad residents avoid getting blown up, they may just die a slower death. The story about crazed religious gunmen notes:

As no action has been taken against the gunmen, people are fleeing, selling their homes and cars and trying to find safer places in other parts of Baghdad or outside the capital city.

"Some residents have reported shortages of food supplies as most shops are closed, and they are scared to leave their houses. If no action is taken we will see people starving inside their own homes," the IAA’s Ahmed said.


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