Sicanje, an Ancient Balkan Tattoo Tradition, Draws a New Generation

The old piece of paper. The worn-out item was not appropriate. An art history student noticed it sticking out of a book in the Academy of Fine Arts Zagreb library. OKO is the student who took a closer look at this stray page. Cyrillic text was used to accompany drawings of hands that were decorated with simple motifs and curving line. Radiant suns and crosses that ended in forked branches, crescent moons and crescent moons were hung with boughs tied around the wrists, hands, or fingers. OKO had never seen anything like it—but would soon discover it was part of her heritage. “I had no idea we had this tradition,” she says, years later. “And nobody knew where it had come from.”

Women in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been performing for millennia. sicanje—the word means, literally, “to prick”—on their daughters. The tattooing tradition used needles and a mixture from soot, honey, spit and breast milk to cover the hands, chest and forehead with symbolic patterns. Edith Durham, an Anthropologist, stated that sicanje was passed from one generation to another for over 4,000 years. However, sicanje disappeared in the mid-20th-century. Now, a new generation of Balkan women—and men—is reviving the tradition as part of a larger trend to reclaim and celebrate their heritage.

It’s unclear when or why Bronze Age tribes in the region began tattooing themselves, but it may have been related to religion or social status. “Unfortunately we don’t have any primary sources [about the tradition’s origins]. We only have the Greeks talking about them as their opponents,” says Marija Maracic, coauthor of The Sicanje ProjectThe tradition’s oral and visual history is available at. Maracic was born in Bosnia. As a child, Maracic immigrated to the United States and studied art history in Cleveland State University.

Veronika Crnjac (left) and Zora Mendeš were among dozens of women interviewed in Bosnia in 2019 as part of a project to document traditional sicanje.
Veronika Crnjac (left) and Zora Mendeš were among dozens of women interviewed in Bosnia in 2019 as part of a project to document traditional sicanje. Courtesy Marija Maracic

Ancient Greeks had depicted Balkans with tattoos on their written histories, vases, and other artwork. Archaeologists who have been working in the area for over three hundred years have found bronze tattooing needles in graves that date back to 3,000 years. The kolo circle, which represents family and unity, is one of many ancient designs that appears universal. It shares its name with a traditional dance that is still performed at family reunions and weddings. Some tattoos are specific to a village or tribe, while others use a combination of motifs.

For centuries, sicanje represented identity as well as protection, blessings, and beauty. The pagan tradition of sicanje grew to include Catholicism as the Balkans became Christianized around the ninth century. Take, for example, the krizThe pagan symbol for the four cardinal directions was the equinox, but it became a stylized cross of Christianity. Women had historically marked their adolescent daughters at the vernal Equinox as a right of passage. But they started doing it on the feast of St. Joseph which falls just before the arrival of spring.

Sicanje was transformed into resistance again in the 15th century. Ottoman rule led to the confiscation of Christian Balkan families. devshirmeSometimes called the blood tax. As young as eight-year-old boys were brought to Istanbul by a system that surrounded the emperor with loyal, foreign servants. This limited the power of the Turkish elite. Devshirme had a lot of education and were often high-ranking soldiers or bureaucrats. However, they were far from home.

Catholic Balkan mother tattooed boys and girls with symbols of belonging, during this period. Devshirme would be able to identify themselves if they returned to their village in adulthood, regardless of how many years have passed.

The Ottoman Empire fell, but sicanje survived as a mark for beauty, religious and tribal belonging. While tattoos were most popular among women, some men also had the marks. However, sicanje’s tradition started to disappear under the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the middle of 20th century. Maracic claims that modernization, urbanization and other trends have changed attitudes towards old customs. Women began to hide their marks, and daughters were reluctant to accept them. By the 1960s, sicanje lived on only in fading marks on grandmothers’ hands.

A new generation of artists and historians are rediscovering this tradition in the 21st Century. Maracic sees the growing global acceptance and interest in tattoos as a major factor in sicanje’s revival. People can also celebrate their identity and heritage by popularizing this almost-forgotten art in a post Yugoslavia world.

OKO, a well-known outsider artist, was inspired by a chance encounter in a university library to ink her marks on her skin. The artist’s tattooed fingers and hands have become her trademark, and she has incorporated sicanje into her street art around Zagreb. “I did massive pasteups… around the whole city, exact copies of my tattoos, just blown up,” she says. “So [I claimed the] It’s my home. It’s my home because we have the same marks.”

Croatian artist OKO discovered sicanje as a student and has made the traditional tattoos her trademark style.
OKO, a Croatian artist, discovered sicanje while studying and made traditional tattoos her signature style. Courtesy OKO

Bosnian tattoo artist Luka Tomic also uses sicanje in immersive art shows inspired by both his grandmother’s Catholic sicanje and sicanje’s ancient roots. “I want to honor the heritage,” Tomic says. During the shows, guests enjoy rakija, a traditional brandy, and Bosnian coffee in a space modeled after his grandmother’s living room. Next door, which Tomic calls “the ritual room,” he permanently inks participants with original designs that incorporate traditional motifs, creating living art.

Maracic’s research was also initially inspired by her family. “I grew up around all these older women with marks on their hands, and they just tell you, ‘Well, it was something that was always done,’” she says. She found few sources of information when she started researching the topic. Josipa Karaca, her coauthor, took her back to her home country to interview the last sicanje-speaking women. They traveled to remote parts of Bosnia. Maracic hopes that her work will help preserve sicanje and inspire others to learn more about its unique history.

“People like me grew up with it, with a lot of [tattooed] great-grandmothers, but it’s unusual for most people to see,” says Maracic. “It was a true treasure getting to know each and every woman we interviewed. I hope I gave the opportunity to other people to know these women and learn about our traditions.”

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