Iranian Tattoo Artists Challenge Stereotypes Tattoos are not a crime


While Iran has not explicitly banned tattooing, conservatives still view the practice as linked with immorality, delinquency, and Westernisation. Yet tattoos have gained popularity in recent years in the country, with many young people proudly displaying their ink in public.
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Sean owns a tattoo studio in Iran’s capital, Tehran, where he teaches aspiring tattooists and inking clients. Photo: AFP

Seeing the growing trend, Sean opened other studios in the southeastern city of Kerman and on the resort island of Kish.

Now, he has more than 30 students eager to learn the craft, which he describes as a “bottomless art.”

“All sorts of people now are doing tattoos,” said Sean, who has been a tattoo artist for 17 years.

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In the past, he said, “People wanted something small, simple, that no one can see, but now they’re saying, ‘Ink me up.'”

In recent years, some Shiite scholars in Iran have declared that tattoos are not forbidden under Islamic law.

“Tattooing is not forbidden, provided that it does not promote non-Islamic culture,” according to the website of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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A tattoo artist works on a customer at a tattoo studio in Tehran. Photo: AFP

Despite the growing acceptance, some in Iran still frown upon the practice.

In September last year, Iran’s volleyball federation said players must cover any tattoos or risk being barred from participating in the 2022-2023 season.

Iran’s sports morality committee has recently summoned several prominent football players to display their tattoos.

In 2019, a Tehran police official said having “visible and unconventional tattoos” may require individuals to undergo a “psychological examination” before obtaining a driving license.

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A customer looks through designs at a tattoo studio in Tehran. In Iran, women with tattoos face more intense scrutiny than their male counterparts. Photo: AFP

Others faced arrest, including in 2016 when authorities rounded up a “tattoo gang” for allegedly tattooing “satanic and obscene symbols” on people, as reported by the Tasnim news agency.

Benyamin, a 27-year-old cafe owner, says some people perceive him as a criminal because of the tattoos covering his torso and back.

“Tattoos are not a crime on their own, but you will be stigmatized as a thug should something happen,” like being arrested, he added.

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Sean says he is aware of Iran’s conservative societal and cultural perceptions, aspects he has conscientiously addressed within his studios.

“Women [artists] do tattoos for women, men [artists] do tattoos for men,” he said.

In Iran, women with tattoos face more intense scrutiny than their male counterparts, forced to adhere to a stringent dress code that mandates covering their heads and necks.

Some see having tattoos as an act of defiance.

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A display at a tattoo studio in Tehran. Photo: AFP
In Tehran, numerous tattoo studios offer designs featuring the slogan “Woman, life, freedom” – a rallying cry during nationwide protests sparked by the death in custody last year of Mahsa Amini.

A 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, Amini, had been arrested in September 2022 for allegedly violating the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women.

Others only see tattoos as a form of self-expression.

“I like tattoos a lot, and I wanted to express my thoughts that way,” says Sahar, a 26-year-old nurse with a tattoo on her arm reading “Do not be afraid of anything” in Arabic.

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A tattoo artist traces a design on a customer at a tattoo studio. Photo: AFP

But she acknowledges that having tattoos “is likely [to cause problems], especially if you want to work in the public sector.”

Undeterred by the challenges, Kuro, a 24-year-old student at the studio, remains steadfast in her determination to practice her craft.

“Now people are generally more supportive,” she said after touching a Koi fish design etched on a silicon sheet.

She hopes that “as a woman tattoo artist, I can work without restrictions.”

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