TEHRAN, Dec 7 — Within a flat in northern Tehran, concealed from the public eye, Sean proudly showcases the tattoo motifs crafted by his students, each meticulously etched onto silicon canvases.
The 34-year-old opened the studio only eight months ago, aspiring to share the art of tattooing that over the years has largely thrived underground in the Islamic republic.
“All tattoo artists in Iran usually work at home,” Sean, using his artistic nickname, told AFP in his studio.
“We risked a lot this year by opening this place and turning it into an academy.”
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.
Seeing the growing trend, Sean opened other studios in the southeastern city of Kerman and 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.
In the past, he said, “people wanted something small, simple, that no one can see.”
“But now they’re saying ‘Ink me up’.”
‘Satanic and obscene symbols’
In recent years, some Shiah 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.
Despite the growing acceptance, there are still some in Iran who frown upon the practice.
In September last year, Iran’s volleyball federation said players must cover any tattoos or risk being barred from taking part in the 2022-2023 season.
Several prominent football players faced summons to Iran’s sports morality committee in recent years for displaying 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 driver’s licence.
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 often 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 stigmatised as a thug, should something happen,” like being arrested, he added.
Sean says he is aware of the conservative societal and cultural perceptions in Iran, aspects he has conscientiously addressed within his studios.
“Women (artists) do tattoos for women, men (artists) do tattoos for men,” he said.
‘Woman, life, freedom’
In Iran, women with tattoos face more intense scrutiny than their male counterparts, compelled to adhere to a stringent dress code that mandates covering their heads and necks.
Some even see it as an act of defiance.
In Tehran, numerous tattoo studios showcased 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 it 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 who has a tattoo on her arm reading “do not be afraid of anything” in Arabic.
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 up a Koi fish design etched on a silicon sheet.
She hopes that “as a woman tattoo artist, I will be able to work without restrictions”. — AFP