The real estate on her body is up for debate – perhaps somewhere along the upper back, or near the collarbone – but the young Egyptian woman who visits Laurice Matta’s shop knows what she wants: a profile illustration of the pharaonic Queen Nefertiti, wearing a gas mask.
In the back of her small beauty salon in the Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek, Ms. Matta provides a rare service in this mostly conservative country. As the owner of one of Egypt’s very few tattoo parlours, she has seen the steady evolution of what was once a nearly non-existent subculture in the Middle East.
Even as their country faces a constitutional crisis that could enshrine sharia law, the rebellious spirit of the revolution is thriving in its tattoo parlours.
More and more young Egyptians are commemorating their country’s transformation on their bodies. “A lot of people are asking for Arabic font, a lot of people are asking for calligraphy, and a lot of people are asking for horeya,” says Ms. Matta, referring to the Arabic word for freedom.
Ms. Matta, who opened her beauty salon following the 2011 uprising in an affluent district just a block away from the Nile, herself bears the marks of Egypt’s burgeoning tattoo culture on her own skin. Across her forearm is a heavily stylized illustration of the word “Muslim.” When she flips her arm, the illustration instead appears to spell the word “Christian.”
According to many interpretations of Islam, permanently marking the skin is forbidden. Yet, tattoos have a long, quiet history here. For generations, female members of the country’s Bedouin tribes traditionally inked beauty spots on their faces. Today, some Egyptian women opt to remove their eyebrows completely and tattoo artificial ones in their place.
Tattoos also have a long history within the country’s Coptic Christian minority. Many Christians have small, discreet crosses on their palms or wrists. During a spate of violence against them following the 2011 revolution, some churches refused entry to anyone who didn’t have those markings. Today, the election of a President with deep ties to the Muslim Brotherhood has sparked a kind of oppositional rebelliousness in some segments of Egypt’s Christian community which is readily seen in the country’s parlours.
“After the Brotherhood took over, the crosses got bigger,” says Noora, who helps run an underground parlour in downtown Cairo called Deviant Subkulture. Like the other artists at the parlour, she asked that her last name not be used, and the precise location of the studio not be revealed, for fear of attracting attention from more conservative elements of Egyptian society.
On a Sunday night at the Deviant Subkulture studio – a dimly lit apartment building drowning in cigarette smoke, where pictures of everything from classic cars to old Egyptian-movie artwork hang on the walls – a reporter finds Venezuelan and Jordanian tattoo artists, and the studio’s half-Egyptian, half-Scottish founder.
In addition to societal difficulties, Egypt’s tattoo parlours face a host of region-specific challenges, such as trying to get supplies past the country’s customs officials. Some prospective customers are also apprehensive about getting the procedure done in a country with relatively high hepatitis rates. Many within the Egyptian tattoo community are also wary of less expensive, fly-by-night operations.
“There’s a guy named Sou’ Sou’ in Shobra,” Ms. Matta says, referring to one of Cairo’s most run-down neighbourhoods. “But don’t get any work done from him – he’s really a barber.”
But if the country’s tattoo community must struggle to operate within the confines of traditional Egyptian society, it also represents a fairly diverse segment of that society. Local customers include Muslims and Christians. Foreigners have come in asking for the pre-1953 Egyptian flag, which features a crescent and three stars. And, of course, a deluge of locals and foreigners want whatever it is David Beckham has on his back.
With massive street protests against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi looming, nobody in the Deviant Subkulture studio can predict exactly where Egypt will be in a few months’ time. But they can agree that the spirit of revolution has been very good for the Egyptian tattoo business.
“There’s no sense of censorship right now – in art, cinema, parties, you name it,” says Tim, the founder.
“People are emboldened. It’s a good time for creativity in Egypt.”