Currently, one of the most popular Iraqi artists is a former American translator, Mohammed Akram Taher. Recruited by U.S. troops as a teenager, the Baghdad native was only an amateur artist when an Army sergeant saw his macabre drawings of skulls and demons. A tattoo artist himself, the sergeant encouraged Taher to try body art. Within months, the translator, nicknamed “Dante” by the soldiers, was creating tattoos for both the Americans and Iraqi troops they were training.
Now 25, Dante has seen his culture’s perception of tattoos evolve quickly in recent years. While Iraqi villages have used tattoos for decoration and magical protection against conjuring and bad luck for centuries, most of the country saw tattoos as criminal or unsophisticated. After American forces arrived, however, Iraqi soldiers began mimicking the Western troops’ tattoos, inking traditional Arabic images and phrases on their bodies. Civilians, meanwhile, often tattooed their names and phone numbers on their thighs so that they might be identified if they were killed.
After a mortar shell struck the airport where he worked as an interpreter in 2008, Dante left the service and opened one of Baghdad’s first tattoo parlors. Opening a shop in the city’s cosmopolitan Jadriya neighborhood, he saw firsthand how the wars had inspired many Iraqis to embrace Western culture: everything from fast food to rock music was spreading beyond the American Green Zone, causing many of his customers to request patriotic symbols, including Iraqi and U.S. flags, and images inspired by foreign music. One of Dante’s clients, also an interpreter, asked for a skull on his bicep to match those of the U.S. contractors he worked with, as well as a more traditional tribal tattoo on his back.
By 2012, this trend had drawn the ire of religious conservatives, who would reportedly attack tattooed Iraqis. Many customers began getting tattoos in places that could be easily concealed. Today, having the body modification can still be risky, but tattoos are also growing more popular among religious groups. Dante says that he has been receiving more requests for praying hands and rosaries for Christians, images of the prophet Muhammad’s son Ali for Sunni Muslims, and depictions of swords and the martyred Imam Hussein for Shiites. An increasing number of these customers, he says, are from the militias.
However, tattoos have also become more popular among Iraqi women. While one of Dante’s female clients noted that tattoos used to be solely for women who had a “bad reputation,” attitudes have now changed. She had originally come to the shop for a tattoo to commemorate her son, who had been killed by militants in 2005, but she and her daughter also had their eyebrows tattooed, a request that is becoming increasingly common.
Because of his first shop’s success, Dante recently opened up a new, larger shop in Karada, one of the safest neighborhoods in the city. While Baghdad’s regular power outages often knock out his electricity, Dante has grown used to the sudden distractions. So far, he reports that the loss of power has never caused him to make a mistake, and it seems to have little impact on his success: customers of all faiths and backgrounds are often willing to wait hours to get inked.
Dante’s story is an unusual one for a former American translator. While many Iraqis who worked with U.S. forces have attempted to apply for asylum in the United States, he says he would only consider moving to a more tropical location, like Malaysia. Like many of his countrymen, his perception of the United States is complicated: while he learned his craft from an American, an unfinished tattoo on his right leg depicts the Grim Reaper draped in an American flag, conveying a sense of irony that some would say pervades much of Baghdad’s modern, Westernized culture.