In an apartment in Tehran, away from prying eyes, Sean proudly displays the tattoos meticulously created by his students.
It’s been eight months since the 34-year-old Iranian opened his studio to practice and teach the art of “skin inking”, which has been thriving somewhat clandestinely for more than a decade.
“In Iran, tattoo artists generally work at home,” Sean, who uses his artist nickname, told AFP. “We took a risk by opening this place and transforming it into a workshop.”
The practice of tattooing is not explicitly prohibited in the Islamic Republic. But, in the eyes of conservatives, it remains associated with immorality, delinquency and especially Westernization.
This stigma has not prevented Iran from diving into tattoo fashion, even if the number of enthusiasts there remains lower than in other countries.
“A few years ago, clients wanted simple, discreet tattoos that no one could see,” says Sean. “This is no longer the case”.
The 30-year-old, who started drawing skin 17 years ago, rode the emerging craze by opening two other studios in the city of Kerman, in southeastern Iran, and on the tourist island of Kish.
With his thirty students, Sean remains attentive to taking into account the societal context of his country, more conservative than in the West.
Thus, “women do tattoos for women and men for men,” he explains.
Apprentice tattoo artists practice on silicone canvases in Sean’s studio school in the Iranian capital of Tehran, November 7, 2023. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) AFP
Not too flashy
Several Iranian Shiite scholars have clarified in recent years that tattooing is not prohibited by Islamic law.
“It is not ‘haram’ (prohibited), provided that it does not promote non-Islamic culture,” says the website of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
And it’s better that it’s not too conspicuous.
In September 2022, the Iranian volleyball federation called on players who had tattoos to cover their tattoos or risk not being allowed to participate in the national championship.
Several famous football players were also summoned by the sports morality commission for showing off theirs.
In 2019, a Tehran police official warned that the presence of “visible and unconventional tattoos” could result in a “psychological examination” for applicants to obtain or renew a driving license.
A few years earlier, in 2016, authorities arrested a “gang of tattoo artists” accused of painting “satanic and obscene symbols,” according to the Tasnim news agency.
Even though tolerance has since increased, Benyamin, a 27-year-old café owner, admits to being considered by some people as “a criminal” because of his very visible tattoos on his arms and neck.
They “are not seen as a crime in themselves, but you will be stigmatized if something happens,” he testifies.
A young Iranian man proudly shows his armadillos to the AFP photographer in Tehran, the capital of Iran, on November 7, 2023. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) AFP
“Don’t be afraid of anything”
For women, the challenge is even greater as they are required by Islamic law to adhere to a strict dress code, including covering their heads and necks.
In this context, some consider tattooing as an act of defiance. Studios in Tehran agree to attach to the skin the slogan “Woman, life, freedom” of the protest movement which shook the country at the end of 2022 after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd arrested for non-compliance with the code clothing.
For others, tattooing is above all a way of expressing one’s personality or one’s thoughts, like Sahar, a 26-year-old nurse, whose arm bears the message “Don’t be afraid of anything.”
She knows that these marks can “cause problems, especially if you want to work in an administration”.
Despite these difficulties, Kobo, one of Sean’s studio students, is determined to practice her art. “Today, people are generally more open,” she says happily, retouching a carp model engraved on a silicone canvas. “I hope that, as a tattoo artist, I will be able to work without restrictions.”