Camels, Pyramids, and Tattoos?!

Maadi’s Tipsy Teapot was literally buzzing for two days in November as it hosted the second annual Cairo Tattoo Convention. Over 15 tattoo and body-modification artists journeyed to Cairo to partake in the convention. To an outsider, Egypt is usually known for pyramids and camels, not for its ink – especially considering religious and cultural taboos about permanent body markings. But the inked faithful journeyed to Maadi and drew hundreds of curious Egyptians and ex-pats.

A few years ago Venezuelan Orne Gil dared to start something in Egypt that would put her in with Egyptian sensibilities – she opened a tattoo studio. At a time when Egyptians were screaming for their voices to be heard, Orne had a gift to share, the gift of expression through body-art. Her dream was to offer the community another way to express themselves by educating them in the depth of beauty and meaning found in permanent body art. She founded Nowhereland Tattoo Studio in Cairo and is spearheading the Nowhereland Tattoo Project that seeks to spread the art of tattoo into the Middle East.

This two-day convention hosting tattoo and body artists from around the world. What started as only handful of Egyptian tattoo artists last year has grown to over 15 artists  who participated this year. Some are friends of Orne and friends of friends, others responded to the call for artists in a prominent magazine of the tattoo industry.

Others share Orne’s dream of offering people an artistic mode of expression. Artist Fadi Michael takes a break from his work to discuss the personal aspect of a tattoo. “It’s not a fast food hamburger,” he says. “There must be an understanding between the client and the tattoo artist. Each artist has his or her own style and a client must see the work and decide if that is the style they are looking for. Each drawing should be unique and specific and the client must understand and respect the artist’s style and work. If it is not a good fit, I will refuse to do the work.”

Tattooing has a rich history that dates back to the beginnings of the human race. Egyptian mummies have been found with markings on their bodies. Only females seem to have been tattooed in ancient Egypt. The most famous was the discovery of the well-preserved mummy of Amunet, a priestess of Hathor, in Thebes in 1891. Her body was tattooed with patterns of lines and dots across her abdomen, parts of her arms and on her thighs. Today in Egypt, tattooing is still practiced among the Coptic Christians with crosses on their wrists.

Tattoo artist Fadi Michael left Egypt as a young child and was raised in Switzerland where he now lives and runs a private studio with his wife. After receiving his first tattoo 15 years ago, he was inspired to begin drawing and learning the trade.

“My family didn’t like it at first,” said Fadi, “but when they saw my studio and how I kept it sterile like a doctor’s office and wore gloves, they were more accepting of my work.” Fadi proved himself through his work, by producing quality tattoo art and building a network of happy clients.

The Middle East is not alone in its reservations against body art. A strictly religious Polish postal lady once waved Fadi’s mail in his face and told him he and his tattoos would burn in hell. She told him that the body is God’s temple, to which he replied, “the church building is decorated with paintings and such.”
“God made birds with beautifully colored feathers because they couldn’t do it themselves,” said Fadi. “We can.”

Local Maadi tattoo artist Mohammed started tattooing after becoming dissatisfied with his henna art disappearing from the body after a few weeks. Now that he works with permanent ink he enjoys seeing his work on people throughout the world. “I see my art, and though I might not remember the person or the face, I remember that’s my art.”

Mohammed’s art graces the bodies of people the world over, from Moscow where he works with Russian artists, to his Star Ink Art Studio in Maadi. A woman from Slovakia was next in line, adding to the list of countries that his art will have touched.

Mohammed’s business partner Pavel was also busy at the event designing tattoos for his clients. A Muscovite, Pavel is a self taught artist who gave himself his first tattoo at the age of 16. He was happy to be in Egypt to promote an art form that lends itself to freedom of expression and individuality. “Tattooing in Egypt might now just be an underground subculture,” says Pavel, “but in the future it will develop and be a good thing for the people.”

As Cairo timidly steps into the world of body inking, it was introduced to other forms of body art expression at the convention. Eugenia Delphine, a Spanish artist, was performing scarification – an extreme body modification technique. Using a scapel or other tool, the artist carves the design into the skin that, when healed, leaves a permanent scar marking. Scarification has a long history normally associated with tribal markings, but is being modernized by today’s artists.

Amanda is a tattoo enthusiast and the graphic designer and photographer for Maadi Messenger . 

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