When Orne Gil arrived to Egypt, in 2012, the country was going through a period of great change.
A year before, after 40 years of dictatorship, the so called “Egyptian Revolution” overthrew president Hosny Mubarak, bringing a wind of hope for social and political justice. The change was led by the young, the crowds of Tahrir Square; beautiful graffiti, forbidden so far, started to be seen in the streets of downtown Cairo. They became real art pieces that, like in a dance, were removed by the government, then repainted, then removed, then repainted again.
The atmosphere was of cultural freedom: music, politics, art of any kind, bloggers. Everybody could speak out, everything was possible. The year after the Revolution, after a turbulent winter marked by bloody clashes, Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherood was elected president but since then, Egypt hasn’t seen peace or stability.
Tattoo art was almost unknown.
The traditional tattoos of the desert tribes were by now a faded sign on the old Beduin women’s wrinkled faces. The ancient Egyptians were among the first people to tattoo their bodies, though the practice was reserved for prominent religious figures, and to this day the Coptic Christians are still maintaining the tradition, tattooing small crosses, and other sacred images on their wrists. In Islam this is forbidden.
The Prophet Mohammed stated “May Allah curse those who tattoo and those for whom tattoos are made”. Therefore, effectively having a tattoo and tattooing itself is haram – an absolute sin. There is no elaboration or further explanation to this, but the point seems to be that one should not and cannot modify the creation of God. That said, an Imam of a mosque in Downtown Cairo once expressed that women may have a small tattoo if they only reveal it to their husbands and otherwise keep it hidden so as not to attract the attention of other men, for that would be a sin. This is however, an exception to the rule, it does not express the opinion of most within Egyptian society, especially the conservative and extremely religious for whom tattoos are socially unacceptable without exception. According to the stereotypes and generalizations that seem to prevail, tattoos are a Western import, or they are associated with homosexuality, which is another enormous taboo in Egypt; or that it is somehow a mark of a criminal.
A young girl revealed recently that you can still be mobbed in the street for having piercings and tattoos – this can happen only in specific areas of the city, especially to girls with short hair. She also told the story of a friend, a young man whose Salafi father saw the small tattoo his son had on his wrist and in repraisal, threw corrosive acid on it in disgust. The evolution of tattoo art in Egypt is evident from the designs the clients ask for: from small quotes, sometimes requested to emulate famous Occidental singers or actors, or very simple designs, to a diverse awareness of what the styles are. The social acceptance of this art is still growing.
When she started to look for another place to work, to move out of the living room of her house, she found a small room, hidden at the back of a beauty parlour. To be done in silent, in case the neighborhood talk too much, spread rumors and call the police.
One of the most memorable moments of her first months of work was when she found herself on the first page of a religious/gossip newspaper, with a big title that claimed that there were no more rules in Cairo, as young people were drinking alcohol while getting tattooed. When lately she was looking for a proper space to have her own studio, she could be refused by the owner of the place because “it’s not ethically appropriate”. Now that Nowereland Tattoo Studio has become an institution in the city, the work is done openly.
The clientele grows day by day and they come from all backgrounds: a Coptic mother who brought her three daughters, and herself, to have their crosses done, husbands that accept their wives to be tattooed only because the artist is a woman, a butcher who suddenly decided to have his arms and chest covered by traditional symbols, a veiled young girl who takes off her t-shirt and reveals a huge dragon on her back, and lastly, the style kids and “in” crews of the Cairo scene.
At this stage of its history, Egypt is a country where two completely different modes of living co-exist: on one hand, a close religious society full of rules, prejudices and taboos. On the other, a process of emancipation that needs to find its own way, on that thin dangerous line of separating being a copy of the much aspired to Occident, and remembering and continuing Egypt’s rich, incredible culture.
The story of Nowhereland Tattoo Project as it is written is the conclusion of two years of work covering the post-Revolution period and studying the changes of the Egyptian society regarding art, society and form of expressions.