Tehran, Iran – A haunting face through a mirror surrounded by black. A woman with a skeletal hand protruding from her mouth. A skull with a colorful knife was lodged there.
These are not images you would normally find on display in galleries in Tehran or elsewhere in Iran.
But a group of artists organized an exhibition of these works, alongside others, as part of a private gallery dedicated to paintings by tattoo artists.
“We wanted this art exhibition to be first and foremost a wake-up call for local tattoo artists to focus more on their art, and to remind them that a good tattoo artist must have a solid background in art,” said Farshad Mirzaei, the event’s chief organizer.
The 28-year-old, himself a tattoo artist for nearly 10 years, told Al Jazeera that the event was also aimed at addressing the lingering perception in parts of society that people with tattoos Are not normal and tattoo artists can be even worse.
“We wanted to show that tattoo artists are not criminals. They are artists, philanthropists and they want to advance this industry in Iran, just like other countries, ”he said, noting that the gallery’s profits will be donated to charity.
There are no specific laws on tattoos in Iran, so they are not officially considered criminal activity.
A number of prominent Shia marjas – sources of Islamic emulation – have stated that tattoos are not “haram” or prohibited by Islamic law, unless they depict “obscene” images.
“The tattoo is not haram and the mark it leaves under the skin does not block the flow of water, so wuzu and ghusl with it are okay,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah said. Ali Khamenei, in reference to the Islamic practices of washing the body before prayers.
However, tattoos are generally frowned upon by officials who view them as a Western phenomenon, and images of tattooed offenders have been shown on numerous occasions by public broadcasters.
Getting a tattoo could also prevent people from getting or renewing their driver’s license, as body markings could be interpreted as signs of mental health issues.
But despite all the limitations and stigma, tattoos are becoming more and more popular in Iran, especially among its tens of millions of people under the age of 30, and more and more artists are also taking the ink. in response to growing demand.
‘An act of faith’
Mirzaei operates FLESH, a studio in downtown Tehran where he accepts clients and also sells – online and in person – tattoo equipment and clothing that features personalized artwork, including artwork. calligraphic art.
He said tattoo art supplies, including a variety of guns and tattoo inks, are imported into the country as health and beauty products.
But a battered national currency that has been drastically devalued over the past three years due to global US sanctions and local mismanagement, means artists are effectively spending money on dollar equipment, but making their salaries in rials. .
Partly for this reason, Mirzaei said he still does not receive full support, even from his family, despite having devoted years of his life to the profession passionately.
“My dad still asks me sometimes, ‘Don’t you want to find a job?’ They still don’t think tattoo art can be a job, something you can dedicate your life to,” he said. .
“So those who do are taking a leap of faith. But, fortunately, we have had successful artists and we have seen that it is possible to have good achievements.
Mirzaei said that many talented Iranian tattoo artists should be supported locally and have the opportunity to participate in international tattoo conventions and make a name for themselves.
This, he said, can be done within the framework and the red lines of an Islamic society.
“Why should all of this talent go to waste? Why shouldn’t they be seen as they deserve to be seen? ” he said.
‘It could be dangerous’
In the absence of formal recognition and because of the risks associated with an activity that could be considered illegal by the authorities, some artists choose to settle in other countries.
Some travel to neighboring countries like Turkey which offer a more hospitable working environment and also traditionally attract large numbers of tourists who could boost business.
Twenty-year-old Ava Azad wants a career in tattoo art. It started two years ago, first with the help of a friend, then with self-study.
She told Al Jazeera that she plans to move to Germany soon to advance her tattoo work and artistic studies after first studying theater and set design.
“There are a lot of restrictions here. Especially for me as a girl it could also be dangerous, ”she said.
Azad said she was lucky not to have anything bad to happen to her, but her friends have been in dangerous situations before, so she is scared even though her family supports her work and accepts clients at the House.
“I don’t even take a lot of clients because of it. The stress really hit me, ”said Azad.
“For example, some of the clients come to my house and I go downstairs to look at them from a distance first to make sure it’s not the police or someone just pretending to be a client.”
This fear extends to social media and all the promotion of her work, as she also worries that being too seen could attract unwarranted attention.
Nonetheless, she supports the gallery – where she has also exhibited some of her artwork – and similar efforts that artists hope they can legitimize their crafts as a valid industry in Iran.
“I think this is a really positive thing and I hope there will be more because we haven’t really had exhibitions like this in Iran specifically dedicated to the art of tattooing,” she declared.