Otzi the Iceman, discovered in 1991, is Europe’s oldest human mummy – his body is adorned with sixty-one tattoos. Tattoos, originating from the Samoan word ‘tatau’ meaning ‘to strike’, have a rich history which originates from forty-nine countries with the oldest evidence dating as far back as 3370 and 3100 BC.
Ink holds power, whether it marks scriptures, paper or skin; the words and patterns it makes tell stories, hold secrets and commemorate history. But what a tattoo means remains subjective; it can be a rite of passage or a taboo depending on cultural norms and traditions.
The country to India’s West – which drew the shorter end of the stick in 1947 – is still teetering on the edge of an invisible yet tangible line, marked by a brief but rich history steeped either in years of liberalism or decades of conservatism.
Pakistan is a mishmash of millennials who have grown up with a globalised view of the world; boomers who have been influenced by a period of hate mongering force fed to them by a dictator who divided rather than united in the name of religion; and a wave of Gen Z hell bent on carving their own path. In a country so polarised, where the grey areas are slimmer than the width of a horse’s hair, what you look like is what you are: a communist wears red, a man with a beard is a molvi (religious scholar), and someone with a tattoo is on the brink of social acceptability.
That isn’t a blanket rule though, in certain pockets of society, acceptance is found more easily; sleeves are folded up and buttons are loosened, showcasing inked collarbones and wrists.
Emen A Rehman, a working mom, got her first tattoo a year a half ago, preferring to get it higher on her leg so it wouldn’t be openly visible. Emboldened by how it made her feel, she got her second tattoo on her forearm – which she doesn’t care to hide any longer.
For Emen, getting a tattoo was an adventure in self-exploration, and a journey she took with her husband.
“My husband and I got tattoos together. It’s wonderful to have someone in your life, a significant other or a best friend who you can talk to about these things.”
Unlike a haircut or a piercing that may be temporary, a tattoo stays with you and the bond you form with it symbolises that longevity. “It’s life altering in its own way, because for me, inking meant putting a part of my self out there,” shares Emen.
Emen’s husband Ata, a lawyer, recalls what it was like getting his first tattoo, “It was a hard one, as all first tattoos are; a stupendous amount of research took place. I always had a flare for ancient Nordic and Celtic cultures because their symbology held meaning, something that I admire and respect. The only deterrent for my first session was the pain. But in the end, my mind was made up.”
Emen is a Creative Services Director at The Conglomerate – a Lahore based agency – and while one can expect such circles to be more accepting, her husband Ata, who’s work is steeped in bureaucracy, also has no qualms about being judged based on his chosen form of self-expression.
“I am not concerned what society thinks of them. It is my body and I like it. I got some derogatory remarks sometimes but I just laugh them away. All of my tattoos are very close to me; they are me. Whoever says otherwise doesn’t understand me at all. And that’s fine,” shares Ata.
The couple believes that acceptance around tattoos is changing; Emen says that while it may take a while to get there, the perception is shifting as more people wear their tattoos openly.
Expanding on acceptability, Ata shares, “As far as I know and from what I have been told, the stigma is slowly withering away. Let alone women, there are families coming in for tattoos: mothers and daughters are getting matching tattoos.”
Emen has two tattoos, her husband has seven till date including the Celtic dragons Fenrir and Yggdrasil, the Sigil of Wyrd; he plans to get a Lovecraft related or Valkyr as his next one.
While Emen’s journey started with her husband’s own passion for ink, many take the leap alone. One such person is Hussain Saeed, a social media specialist at one of Lahore’s leading schools who has four tattoos.
“A friend wanted to get a piecing, so I went along. They did tattoos too, and I just kind of decided I wanted one, so I started to look at designs for a few days and found this equal sign made with two axes. I wanted to get something that was small and when I was thinking of getting a tattoo, the whole “equal sign tattoo” phase was going on. So it kind of just seemed to fit.”
“The session itself was fine mostly. I was so nervous though. Especially as they got the tattoo gun ready. But the minute they started, the nerves went away. The tattoo didn’t hurt as much as I expected it to. And it took 15 minutes.”
Hussain, who is twenty-seven now, recalls how his family found out about his tattoos, “My family knows now. I told my sisters when I got them, they’re pretty chill but I didn’t tell my parents. When I got sick and I was in the hospital, they saw them while I was wearing the scrubs.”
“But because I was sick, no one really reacted. It’s been a joke in the house ever since. They did tell me no more though,” Hussain shares laughingly.
Contrary to Emen and her husband Ata’s experience, Hussain still thinks society widely considers it a taboo topic:
“I do think the stigma is still pretty significant. I still wouldn’t want my employers to know, or some family members and so on. When I ask people why they won’t get a tattoo, so many people say things like ‘Oh it’s against Islam’ or like ‘I won’t able to be buried in a Muslim graveyard’. But I do think globalisation and social media has eased this perception a bit. Or made it less hostile I guess.”
In Pakistan, the cultural implications of getting a tattoo, a form of body modification which is perceived by many if not most Islamic religious scholars as unacceptable remains the leading reason people stay away. But there are a few who still believe there is room for self-expression through the age old art of tattooing.
Emen and Hussain’s tattoos are an expression of self, or as some would say, even an extension of their persona: what they felt inside, they chose to display on the outside. But for Ayesha*, her tattoo signifies the opposite, it’s a constant reminder and affirmation of who she strives to be.
Societal perceptions can be dealt with, but a very real possibility why many don’t opt for tattoos could be due to the concern of getting a tattoo in Pakistan; the tattoo parlours which operate in cities do so under the guise of piercing salons and that significantly raises concerns about hygiene, quality of materials used and risk of infection.
“I knew a lot of people who had tattoos because I went to an arts school, but I didn’t know many people who had gotten it done from here,” shares Ayesha.
She recalls going through a difficult period during her teens, as she discusses the design and meaning of her tattoo. “I felt like patience was a very big quality or a trait that I had to develop, I wasn’t very patient as a person, I would react to things very easily.”
“Over the years I decided I wanted to be someone who is patient and I was also reminded to be patient constantly by my mother.”
“My mother has been through a lot herself, she has seen a lot of loss and a lot of pain and if there was anything that got her through all that, it was her patience. So, I really wanted to get the word ‘sabar’ tattooed because I had to consciously remind myself, and having that reminder on my body would hold a lot more meaning.”
“Now that it’s there, tattooed on my body, I feel like I have to be patient and I have to do the tattoo justice.”
One thing that Ayesha remarks on really stands out, she says she didn’t get inked out of rebellion or to prove a point – an assumption that is made quite often.
“The tattoo that I have is in my mother’s handwriting. I talked to her about the tattoo, I explained it and we discussed it for a few hours before I booked my appointment. She wrote it down for me on a piece of paper and the word in her handwriting is what I have tattooed and I feel that adds another layer to how meaningful it is to me.”
While Ayesha shares that she’s comfortable sharing her tattoo with members of her family, she often feels conscious of it showing during bigger and more public gatherings, where she finds herself adjusting the collar of her shirt, making sure the tattoo doesn’t peak out from where it rests under her collarbone.
While Ayesha took three years to decide what she wanted to get, Marium shares it was a spur of the moment decision for her. “So my first and only tattoo till now is in urdu, it’s ‘دیر نا کرنا’ and it comes from a poem by Muneer Niazi, ‘hamesha dair kardeta hun’”
“I knew as soon as I said it the first time that I wanted this tattoo, it had been set in stone and I wanted to get it because it resonated with me on such a personal level. Getting the tattoo was a spur of the moment decision and I decided to do it because I had wanted it for more than a year and we were sitting in a tattoo studio getting a friends tattoo and I realised that there was no better time, because what was I waiting for?”
Addressing concerns of getting a tattoo at such a young age, Marium shares, “I don’t think there will ever be a tattoo I regret, mainly because tattoos – like memories – are permanent, just like the experiences that make up your life are permanent, whether they are painful memories or great ones.”
Emen, Hussain, Marium and the rest are just a few cherry picked stories. But there are many around us who feel the need to express themselves, in whatever art or form, but shy away because of what society will say. An act as small as getting a tattoo can have financial, emotional and mental repercussions because of the backlash it receives.
Otzi’s sixty-one tattoos became a part of his history and his legacy – just like him, many others chose to define themselves with the ink they carry on their skin; an external mark representing what lies within. While the social perception and acceptability of tattoos may not change any time soon, more and more youngsters are starting to see them as a form of personal expression rather than a taboo art form.
*The names of Ayesha and Marium have been changed to maintain their anonymity.
The author tweets at @samah_akhtar and can be reached here.
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