Persian Ink: The Underground Tattooists of The Islamic Republic (Dictatorship) of Iran


Tattooing in Iran INKED Magazine

This is the 1990’s in New York, the capital of the world. And it’s illegal to get a tattoo? I mean, come on.
— Mr. Marco, tattoo enthusiast.
Some people [in New York] protested and after quite awhile tattoos were legal again. I don’t see that ever happening in Iran. If people protest, why would they for tattoos? They’d protest because everything’s expensive, the economy is bad, about other things much more important.
— Sahar, Iranian tattooist.

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In 1961, in response to a perceived link between an outbreak of Hepatises B and tattooing, New York City, self proclaimed as the capital of the world, declared it ‘unlawful for any person to tattoo a human being.’ Incredibly, this ban remained in place for nearly four decades, during which time there was not a single documented case of Hepatitis B transmitted by tattooing in New York City. During the 60s, Fred Grossman, a Coney Island based tattooist, brought suit, charging the city with an illegitimate exercise of power. He was met with state appellate Judge Aron Steuer’s deference to government regulation: ‘what is harmful or injurious is a matter for the Legislature rather than the courts.’ Tellingly, however, the Judge also added that, ‘the decoration, so-called, of the human body by tattoo design is, in our culture, a barbaric survival, often associated with a morbid or abnormal personality.’  These comments gave credence to what many believed to be a moral law enacted on the pretext of public health concerns. 

It was a common bias of the day that tattoos belonged to the realm of demimondes, shrouding the bodies of deviants such as sailors, criminals, outlaws and thugs. Grossman’s appeal to the state’s highest court was similarly dismissed, until in 1997 then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani conceded that although ‘operation of a tattoo establishment in New York City is illegal, …such establishments do currently operate in the City without regulations.’ This observation lubricated the passing of a bill that allowed licensed tattoo artists to operate within a regulated industry. 

Prohibition effectively turned tattoo artists into criminals. Many abandoned the city to pursue their profession elsewhere, while some remained and, instead of closing up shop they began to operate underground, essentially effacing the city’s shop fronts of tattoo facades and filling back rooms, lofts and basements with the buzz of outlawed tattoo machines for 36 years.

And it’s this illegal buzzing, demonised under pretences not unlike those assumed by New York’s legislature, that’s currently reaching crescendo in one of the world’s least free societies: The Islamic Republic of Iran.

The underground studio of Esmaeil, an Iranian tattoo artist.

The underground studio of Esmaeil, an Iranian tattoo artist.

I draw parallels between the two societies because they’re often viewed as polar opposites, with respective leaders at perpetual loggerheads on issues ranging from uranium enrichment to personal freedoms. I do this to demonstrate the power that a select few have, in both a free and closed society, to cast aspersions on a particular portion of society. Using pseudoscience to justify their aversion and criminalisation of tattooing, their quest to demonise the inked and inkers as a morally corrupt and villainous group then gains traction with other facets of society, until any iota of truth gasps for breath to be heard under the weight of ignorant politics. 

What is truly keeping the art underground is its affiliation with ‘western’ culture. To understand why Iran embodies this hostility toward western affectations, we need first to explore the two countries’ tumultuous relationship.

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Iran has had a long and colourful history.  Unfortunately, all too often our only view of Iranian society is through the lens of western media sources, of whom tend to focus on the actions of maniacal and draconian Islamic leaders, ignoring the mostly sane population that are made to suffer under dictatorship. 

In 330 BC, Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid dynasty, the first rulers of the Persian Empire. The 636 AD Arab invasion that brought an end to the Sassanid dynasty and start of Islamic rule was also a noteworthy occasion, as was the 1921 seizing of power from the Persian Monarchy by Military commander Reza Khan. 

In 1935, the Iranian government wished to be known as Iran, which is the name of the country in Persian.  The Iranian ambassador to Germany, who came under the influence of the Nazis, is said to have recommended the change. As Professor Ehsan Yarshater states in his article Persia or Iran, not only did this ‘signal a new beginning and bring home to the world the new era in Iranian history’ freed from the influence of Russia and Britain, ‘but would also signify the Aryan race of its population, as "Iran" is a cognate of "Aryan" and derived from it.’

Although Persia was neutral during World War I, The Shah sided with the Axis powers (Nazi scum) for World War II, which led to the Anglo-Russian occupation of Iran and the deposition of the Shah in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. On 29 April 1951, the Shah of Iran submitted to popular pressure and appointed Mohammad Mossadegh as Iran’s new Prime Minister.  Mossadegh was a liberal democrat known for his ardent nationalism.  He intended to transfer the royal court’s overwhelming power into the hands of the parliament, as well as nationalise Iran’s oil industry.  This brought Mossadegh into direct conflict with the British, who owned 51 percent of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and relied heavily on Iranian oil. 

In response, Britain imposes an embargo and blockade, halting oil exports. This hits the economy, hard. A power struggle between the Shah and Mossadegh ensues and the Shah flees the country in August 1953. Not long after, however, a coup engineered by the British and American intelligence services deposes Mossadegh. General Fazlollah Zahedi is proclaimed as prime minister and the Shah returns to power. 

During the 60s the Shah embarked on a grand campaign to modernise and ‘westernize’ Iran. As with any reform, it had its opponents. The Shah, however, has his secret police, of which he became increasingly dependent upon. His totalitarian style of governing alienated the country’s population and clergy, leading to riots, strikes and mass demonstrations. In 1978 Martial law was imposed but the situation continued to deteriorate, forcing the Shah into exile. Islamic militants take 52 Americans hostage inside the US embassy in Tehran (dramatized in the Hollywood production, Argo). They demand the extradition of the Shah to face trial in Iran. 

This paved the way for the Islamic fundamentalist, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to return to Iran following 14 years of exile. Several months later, the Islamic Republic of Iran is proclaimed following a referendum.

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3.62 Tattoos are becoming increasingly common in Iran – particularly among youth. However, DFAT [Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] judges it highly unlikely that any business could openly offer legal tattooing services in Iran at present. DFAT is aware of ‘underground’ tattoo artists operating in Iran, though has no information about penalties imposed on such operators.
— Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Report: Iran.
Let’s get one thing straight: in order to live in Tehran you have to lie.
— Ramita Navai, City Of Lies: love, sex, death, and the search for truth in Tehran.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 ended 2500 years of monarchy, dissolved the Shah’s campaign to modernise and westernize Iran into a distant memory, and cemented the Ayatollahs words into dictatorial law. Ramita Navai, author of City Of Lies: love, sex, death, and the search for truth in Tehran, summed up the new schizo-civic atmosphere when she said that for the average Iranian, ‘the burden of religious obligations and honest human desires’ were now at continuous loggerheads.

“Tiny children are instructed to deny that daddy has any booze at home; teenagers passionately vow their virginity; shopkeepers allow customers to surreptitiously eat, drink and smoke in their back rooms during the fasting months and young men self-flagellate at the religious festival of Ashura, purporting that each lash is for Imam Hossein, when really it is a macho show to entice pretty girls, who in turn claim they are there only for God.”

Anything, no matter how vague its association with a modern or western society, is considered a vestige of the Shah’s campaign to westernize Iran and therefore a Trojan horse sent by the west to once again, like the American and British sponsored coup, meddle with Iranian affairs or influence Iranian culture.  

The Iranian Cultural Ministry, responsible for maintaining the purity of the land, is known for issuing lists of approved hairstyles, banning tight-jeans, body piercing, and long nails. Males have been banned from dying their hair, plucking their eyebrows, wearing tight clothes or shirts with ‘very short sleeves’, and jewellery.  Dancing in public is also sacrilegious; hence the recent sentencing to 91 lashes of the Pharrell ‘Happy’ dancers.

The former President, Akbar Hashemi, even encouraged Iranians to avoid being ‘promiscuous like the Westerners’. However, as a way of balancing religious obligations and carnal lust in classic Iranian style, the Islamic Republic could issue a Sigheh, which Ramita Navai explains in her book, City of Lies, as: ‘a temporary marriage approved by both God and the state, between a man (who can already be married) and a woman (who cannot), and can be as short as a few minutes or as long as ninety-nine years… ensuring that even a quickie can be given an Islamic seal of approval.’

It is within this climate that, not surprisingly, tattooing or receiving tattoos is illegal. However, as stated by the Australian country information report on Iran, the popularity of tattoos among Iranian youth is on the rise.

After several months of emails, Facebook messages and Whatsapp texts, I managed to locate, gain the trust of, and interview four tattooists currently based in Tehran, the country’s capital. 

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Iranian secret police publicly exposing the tattoos of a criminal. They do this to encourage the perception that crime and tattoos are inextricably linked. 

Iranian secret police publicly exposing the tattoos of a criminal. They do this to encourage the perception that crime and tattoos are inextricably linked. 

If there is one thing in the entire world that I could say is mine, that would be my body
— “Ali” (Iranian Tattooist).

All of the tattooists I interviewed remarked on the absence of a tattoo community. As it is an illegal trade, it would be extremely dangerous for them to congregate together. They also commented on the difficulty acquiring equipment, most of what is available is shoddy and imported from China. All of them work incognito from home studios.

There were also conflicting statements regarding legislation on tattooing and having tattoos and to what extent certain scenarios warranted punitive measures, an ambiguity also recognised by DFAT:

3.63 … DFAT is not aware of specific penalties that could be imposed for having a tattoo. However, it is likely that it would be similar to that imposed for dress or hair deemed improper. In these circumstances, the usual penalty is a warning or fine, but a sentence of lashing is also possible.

The lack of clear legislation leaves space for arbitrary policing and corruption, a reality that tends to be the case for most aspects of Iranian life. 

While corrupt religious charlatans hamper the development of Iranian politics and society these artists continue to persevere under the totalitarian regime. The risks they take on a daily basis just to inscribe art on the willing bodies of their countrymen and women are acts of political rebellion worthy of recognition and admiration. I hope this article encourages tattoo artists and suppliers around the world to reach out and offer any assistance their oppressed peers may need so that they may continue practicing their art. 

Ali (Male, 29).

How did you get into tattooing?

Almost ten years ago, I saw a tattoo machine that my aunt used in her beauty salon for doing eyebrows. Ever since then I started tattooing. As there were no mentors around, I put his trust in e-books and Youtube videos. At first it was a hobby and another form of drawing that I could indulge in, but, over the last few years as tattooing slowly became a sensation in Iran it turned out to be a good job opportunity so I left my job as a English instructor and became a full-time tattooist.

How do you acquire clients?

They trace me back from people I inked before or introduced by a friend; totally underground.

What kinds of tattoos do your clients ask for?

English text; angels; fairies; and zodiac symbols. For guys it’s hard to say, a lot of them get nationalist and ancient figure tattoos like the Farvahar.

How much do you charge?

It can vary depending on the size and the detail of a design, the place you live and the client. This raises another issue for tattoo artists in Iran. Tattoos used to be worn by punks and criminals and were mostly done in prison or at military sites during the obligatory military service, so they were all usually done for free. Now that tattooing is becoming an industry, albeit an underground one, everything is changing except the prices! In comparison with other countries it’s not only illegal but it’s cheap, too. For examples, a small tattoo could cost around $30.

* Since the publication of this piece the Iranian secret police raided Ali's studio in his absence, seizing his computer and various other items. His computer contained movies and documentaries that could be used to implicate him as an atheist. Ali has since fled the country and is currently in Athens heading toward Amsterdam where he hopes to seek asylum. 

Rasaa (Male).

How did you get involved with tattooing? 

About 10 years ago I became interested in tattoos, but unfortunately due to it being banned in Iran I could only work for a few years in the field. Despite the possibility of big fines and punishments, tattoos have gained a lot of interest throughout Iran. But, despite the difficulties I decided, 3 years ago, not to hide my interest so I began to work as a tattoo artist. My study area is art and painting, which provided me with a good base to do well in my tattoo work, which I perused with a lot of perseverance.

I can make a living from my work and because of the dangers associated with tattooing I only work with those whom I know well, or have been introduced to me by close friends. I do about 3 to 4 customers each week. Fortunately, the number of people interested in this art is continuously increasing.

How did you learn to tattoo?

Youtube has been a great source of information and encouragement for me.

How do you acquire equipment?

Finding tattoo machines and needles in Tehran is not an easy job. Unfortunately, most reputable companies don’t provide equipment to Iranian tattoo professionals, so having good equipment has become a big wish of mine! I hope those professionals out of Iran who have unfettered access to everything they need appreciate their luck and opportunity. Also, those who have the opportunity to learn from professionals should value that as well.

I hope that one day soon tattooing becomes a free art in Iran.

Instagram @Rassa

* Several months after interviewing Rasaa the security police raided his place of work and confiscated all of his equipment, most of which he’d spent the past several years collecting. He has a court date set and is facing either prison or a fine and whipping.

Upon stumbling across Rasaa’s Instagram page and reading about his unfortunate situation, Vester Manufacturing sent Rasaa a tattoo machine as a gift. Rasaa described his overwhelming joy at this benevolent show of support:

“Oh! My breath stopped and my heart started beating. I felt all those unbelievably hard days were fading. He encouraged me. God showed himself through this man’s heart from the other side of the earth.”

Esmaeil (Male).

What is everyday life like in Iran for you?

Underground. You can say I’m not here spiritually anymore, because tattooing isn’t legal and I’m considered a criminal.

Do you know anyone who has ever been in trouble with the authorities for anything tattoo related?

Yes. They have captured some tattoo artists that I know. They have been sent to prison as well as fined.

Why is it illegal to tattoo in Iran?

Because it’s from Western culture and they categorise it as a criminal act, relating it to devil worshipping and so on.

Tell me about your equipment.

The market in Iran has been filled with low quality products bootlegged from China. This is one of the main obstacles for tattooists in Iran.

Instagram: @esitattoodigaran

* Since the publication of this article Esmaeil has migrated to Turkey and is now tattooing at his own studio... above ground. 

Sahar (Female).

What is every day life like in Iran for you?

I have it much different than anyone else living here because I work in a field that is related to embassies. The only thing I do illegally is tattooing, and I love it so much that I’m willing to sacrifice all.

Most people believe what they hear or see on television about Iran, it’s not like that at all in my experience. We have underground casinos, clubs, and everything else you can imagine, but you have to have the money.

How did you get into tattooing?

I got my first tattoo when I was 16 from a girl that did permanent make-up tattoos, with a permanent make-up tattoo machine! (Some people still tattoo with those machines). It was love at first sight. I used to design for her so that was my first step into the tattoo world.

Where do you get your equipment from?

I order from American or Europe. It’s very expensive in Tomans to dollars but I’m Okay with it. I always thought it’s not about what your equipment is as long as you’re good, but even in drawing with a Faber Castell pencil makes much more of a difference than an Iranian made pencil. I value my work, I want it to be the best there is so of course my equipment has to be the best! The tattoo shops we have here are a lot, but everything is fake.

Have you ever been to prison for tattooing?

I was sent to jail for pictures, but they were Okay with me having tattoos and they said it wasn’t illegal. I haven’t heard of anyone getting into trouble with the authorities for having a tattoo but I have heard that you get sent to jail and might get lashed if you’re a tattooist, but money talks. Anyway, most people cover their tattoos.

Anything and everything could be illegal or legal. I have acquaintances that are revolutionary guards, basically, if they catch you and don’t like you they can say, ‘I don’t like your haircut, you’re going to jail.’