FROM THE PUBLISHER: It’s no secret that tattoos have become a commonly accepted and popular form of self-expression; people young and old wear sleeves of ink. or intimate little designs that peek out from the top of a waistband or the collar of a shirt. Over the past few years, however, a sub-genre of tattoos has emerged, making for elegant designs of ink on skin and compelling cross-cultural markers: Arabic tattoos. Although Islam prohibits tattooing, there has been a surge in recent years of non-Muslims getting Arabic tattoos. From names converted from Latin to Arabic script, to words such as "love" and "peace," the popularity of Arabic tattoos shows the extent of the impact that Arabic-speaking cultures have made on the world at large - from urban hipsters to bona fide celebrities (both Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have Arabic tattoos). Arabic Tattoos documents this trend with color photographs, stories behind the tattoos and essays that examine the cultural ramifications of non-Arabic speaking individuals wearing religiously and culturally rich scripts.
Recalling imprecisely, a friend teaching in Japan once told me the fad in the US for Asian character tattoos has led to some strange results. Characters that individually mean “Strength” or “Loyalty”, when ignorantly combined together, could result in a macho male athlete sporting a phrase proclaiming him a “Good Wife” upon his biceps.
There’s always a danger of misinterpretation when adopting another culture’s calligraphy, no matter how temptingly beautiful. The tattoo examples collected in this book, often very elegant and attractive, were chosen by their owners for a variety of informed reasons, including aesthetic, personal (loyalty to a friend or spouse), or as an insider or outsider’s affirmation of Arab culture. Their display upon the bodies of US military personnel overseas can be problematic, since there are dictates against tattoos in the Koran (as in the Hebrew Torah). Otherwise positive, spiritual words or phrases can also appear insulting when adorning the body of an infidel. Reflecting reality of the times, the book asks: what if US military or diplomatic personnel with such adornment get captured by radical Islamists?
The handsome paperback if full of close-up photography and explications. Kayla Dotson has a line about fragrant roses from a Nizar Qabbani poem snaking across her shoulder and back. Kellie Cole’s decoration simply bears the name of her husband Jemaleddin (no, not that of Middle East expert Juan Cole). “Freedom Soldier” is written on a US serviceman called by his nation to occupy Iraq. Lindsey Berner bears “No Remorse”. Specialist James Stevens, US Army has the word “kafir” or infidel, intended to proclaim his atheism to the world. The phrase “enshallah” (God Willing) encircles a young woman’s navel. And Travis Lee Button had True Tattoo Studio, Saratoga NY, complete a roundel, designed by Palestinian calligrapher Adel Nasser of Palestine, of the long passage from John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth”.
There is a good essay “Tattoos: From the Margins to the Mainstream” by Clayton Patterson on the growing acceptance of tattoos. Considering that tattoo parlors were illegal in New York city (though by no means nonexistent) until 1992, tattoos have moved from the fringe to the mainstream. He discusses tattoo publications--including Outlaw Biker, the influential RE/Search Modern Primitives books, Tattoo Review, his own Tattoo Gazette--but omits Margot Mifflin’s book on tattooed women. Calligrapher Stewart J. Thomas discusses the fluidity of Arab script, and points out that Iranians and Palestinian-Americans now get tattoos. In his essay by that title, Hamdi Attia finds the skin-signs bring him “Back to My New York”, in all its complexity, five years after 9/11/01.
One wonders what archeologists of the future will think when they find a non-Arab corpse in the United States bearing an Arabic inscription on the skin. Perhaps it will be seen as further evidence of the fluidity of culture in the early 21st century, a phenomenon that this little book attractively affirms