Arabic tattos and tattooing in the middle east, in places such as Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Palestine, went back as far as the 19th century. It was a way for arabic prostitutes to catch the eye of a man. However, erotic tattoos such as breast tattoos are not quite as popular as they were once in the middle east. Gypsies and nomadic people seem to influence most designs in tattoos in the middle east. The nomadic women were by far the most heavily tattooed, and were most likely tattoed by the gypsies. The gypsies tended to tattoo people from Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq and Egypt up until the 20th century.
In Iran, it was common for upper class women to have patterns tattoed on their chins. The designs were sometimes very elaborate, and resembled that of a beared. Along side the chin tattoos, it was common for women to tattoo their lips blue, as it iwas considered to embody beauty. Beliefs attached to tattoos in the middle east often corresponded with thinking the wearer was imbued with magical power, these tattoos often times were dots or small crosses. They usually adorned the hands, and feet, they believed that they either provided strength or protection.
Tattooing is nevertheless common among the Berbers of North Africa, where small designs with symbolic meaning are used (mainly by women). Egyptian Christians ofthen have a cross tattooed on their hand or wrist. These designs are very simple – often crudely done – and we are not aware of any Arab equivalent tot he elaborate tattos used, for example by the Maoris and Pacif islanders.
However, in this day and age, the demand for tattoos among Iranian, and other middle eastern women has exploded Iranian who are tattooed, however must keep them under wraps due to the authorities.
The art of tattoo in the middle east is forbidden by religious scriptures. In despite of this restriction there are those who have a need or desire to get tattooed. Some see it as a way to allow themselves to get closer to God while others use it as a way to remember some great event in their life. Tattooing was also used as a rite of passage.
For a non-permanent skin decoration in the Arab world is practised mostly by women and takes the form of designs on hands and feet using henna, which fades away after a few weeks. The complex patterns seen throughout the Middle East are normally achieved using stencils which can be bought cheaply in the souqs (markets).
Religious sects use tattooing as a means to identify themselves to each other. These specific tattoos hold some meaning within the religion itself. The tattoos will generally consist of one or more symbols intertwined into one graphic pictorial.
References about tattoos for women in the middle east can be looked up in the following books:
Mendhi by Carine Fabius and Michele M. Garcia; Arabic Tattoos by Jon Udelson.