Kurdish Tattoos, the art of “Deq”

Decorative tattooing is fundamentally rare within the Islamic world. Permanent tattoos are forbidden in Sunni Islam, but are permissible in Shia Islam. According to the book of Sunni traditions, Sahih Bukhari, “The Prophet forbade the mutilation (or maiming) of bodies.” The Kurd’s however, at over 30 million total population worldwide yet predominately spread throughout Northern Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran are culturally based within Kurdish culture itself versus mainline Islamic tradition. The Kurd’s predate Islam by a considerable swath of time of nearly 1,000 years.Thus, despite traditional hand tattooing, the “Deq” itself is in a long decline, ink to skin not only remains a practice tattooing has also enjoyed a massive resurgence. Modern tattooing, its techniques, modern electric instruments, modern ink, and modern Kurdish artists have dawned within all of Kurdistan.

Traditionally, until approximately 40 years ago, many rural Kurdish women were tattooed by a “nomad” or a “gypsy woman.” Many tattoos were NOT Islamic in tradition yet are elemental by nature, Earth, wildlife, water, and symbolism extracted from various smaller non Islamic religious sects. Ink for the tattoos are made from wood fire soot and breast milk, gallbladder liquid from a sheep or goat or various ducts of reptiles, mostly snakes or lizards.

In the traditional Deq method, the tattoo design was hand drawn on the skin and then a series of small punctures were made with a sewing needle. The ink was applied within the wound, which scabbed over the wound and the ink was captured within the skin forming the formal tattoo. Historically, meaning within the last 600 years, both boys and girls began their first tattoos between the ages of eight and twelve. Some women tattooed beneath their lips upon their upper chin so sweetness my exit the woman’s mouth when she speaks. A tattoo between the eyes offers protection against “nazar”, the evil eye. Celestial symbols such as the moon, stars, or our sun were prominent on both men and women.

“One of the women happily shared stories of her husband’s fascination with her tattoos, recounting how he would kiss her tattooed places, including her neck and inner arm. In another case, a woman clearly enjoyed hearing her husband recall how at first glance, he fell in love with his future wife. He found her and her tattoos to be beautiful. Fifty years later, as they share a cramped tent in a refugee camp, he still does.”
-Jodi Hilton.

During my residency in Kurdistan, I was not the only one covered in ink. In Iraqi Kurdistan tattoos were common. Men often decorated their arms and backs with powerful animals, snakes, lions, hawks, and oxen. Young women often had small floral and decorative designs. While male Kurdish youth are far more bold with open display to include hand and I even encountered a neck tattoo or two, the women were far more reserved in adherence with cultural atmospherics. While Kurdish Women are in my humble opinion the most equal among Men within the entire Islamic world, there remains tolerable limits of display which are seldom exceeded. Modern tattooing in Kurdistan, and also in Turkey are permanent cultural fixtures with youth serving as kinetic groundswell gently eroding the high razor wired walls of strict cultural confinement.




Eric graduated with honors in 2004 from the The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, Charleston, SC, USA. He was then commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps the same year, completed multiple combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as a Counterintelligence / Human Source Intelligence Officer and later as a Case Officer and Active Duty Special Agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Eric honorably discharged as a Captain after 8 years’ service in 2012.

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