The Domestic Abuse Survivors Covering Their Scars with Tattoos
All interviews and photos by Claudia Janke

The Domestic Abuse Survivors Covering Their Scars with Tattoos

In Ufa, Russia, women come to tattoo artist Zhenya Zahar to transform their marks of pain into works of art.
January 15, 2018, 6:43pm

Russian tattoo artist Zhenya Zahar first came across the idea of tattooing over domestic abuse scars in 2016, when she came across the work of Brazilian tattooist Flavia Carvalho and her project A Pele da Flor (Portuguese for "The Skin of the Flower").

"I decided to follow her example," Zahar says. "I didn’t expect that I would have so many clients. I didn’t know so many women are suffering like this." In Russia, domestic violence kills 12,000 women every year. In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin even decriminalized some forms of abuse—first-time offenders who inflict non-life-threatening beatings are now only punished with a fine of up to 30,000 rubles ($500) or a jail term of up to 15 days.

Two years on, Zahar has tattooed around 200 women for free, and is fundraising to cover the costs of helping more survivors. "It’s amazing to see how empowered the women feel once they had their tattoo done. It makes it all worthwhile."

Photographer Claudia Janke traveled to Ufa in the west of Russia, where Zahar and her tattoo salon is based, to photograph and interview some of Zahar's clients.

Maria, 24

"My ex-boyfriend and I met when we were 17 years old. At the beginning everything was fine but then he started drinking at work and his behavior changed.

Maria: "He took the hot hair-straightener out of my hand and put it on my arm."

He couldn't control himself, became aggressive and jealous for no reason. First we were only fighting with each other, it was nothing out of the ordinary. Gradually it turned into physical fighting. He beat me a few times—not severely, thank god. But after a few months things got worse.

One day, we were in the bathroom, we were arguing about his drinking and he just became crazy. He took the hot hair-straightener out of my hand and put it on my arm. This left a scar on my upper arm.

Some time later he used a knife for the first time. We were in the kitchen arguing, he grabbed a knife and started cutting me on my forearm. When I bend the arm I can feel the scar.

Only when he cut me again, this time on my belly, that’s when I left him. All his attempts to change and to stop drinking only ever lasted one or two weeks, one month maximum.

My advice to women suffering domestic violence would be: Do something about it. Don’t be patient and think it’s normal. Don’t close your eyes on [sic] the actions of your partner. You must do something, leave him or whatever.

I was one of the first women Zhenya gave a tattoo for her project. I think her work is important and needed. It lets women cover their scars and forget about what happened in their past—at least partly. I don’t want to see the scars. They remind me of the past, which is now covered by beautiful pictures."

Nastya: "My grandmother always says: ‘You only have one life. So don’t live it in the past.'"

Nastya, 34

“I was 17 years old when I met my ex-boyfriend. He was 23. We were together for two years. We lived in a small village outside Ufa. I was totally in love with this man and he felt the power he had over me. He would say, “I can do whatever I want with you. You will still always love me.”

When he first started to be violent I wanted to escape from him, but he followed me everywhere and controlled my every move. Once when he was drunk and crazy, he hit me so hard that I fell [down] unconscious. When I woke up, he was sitting on top of me, holding me down. I felt this pain and realized that he was cutting me with a knife.

He had cut me a few times before but this time it nearly killed me. The cuts were so deep because I couldn’t fight back or hide from him. He was a clever man—rather than cutting me all over the body, he only ever cut me on my left arm, so it would look like I had been trying to commit suicide.

I never called the police. The village was so small. I didn’t want other people to know about my situation. Here in Russia, many people think, ‘If he beats you, he loves you.’ So I dealt with it by myself.

Eventually I escaped when I managed to persuade him to let me go to see a friend. Instead, I took the train to Ufa and disappeared into the anonymity of the city. I broke all contact with my friends in the village, changed my number and started a new life. He tried to track me down but couldn't find me. I don’t know where he is now, he’s just vanished.

I was quite paranoid at the beginning that he would turn up one day. But now I am fine. I’ve been married for six years and the experience is quite a few years ago. Still, the whole story wears heavy on me. Even when I contacted Zhenya to get a tattoo, I found it hard to write it all down. It took me a while to have my tattoo done, but now I am ready and I want to leave this part of my life behind and forget about this period.

My grandmother always says: ‘You only have one life. So don’t live it in the past. Tomorrow is always another day.’"

Nadezda: "I was embarrassed to go to the beach. I never wore short sleeves, even in the summer."

Nadezda, 34

"We met when I was 17; Ilshat was seven years older. We were together for three years, on and off. He wasn’t an attractive man—in fact, he was quite ugly, actually. All my friends thought I was crazy to go out with him. But I loved him and moved in with him. Towards the end of our relationship, I fell pregnant with my daughter Camilla.

We were so in love; I had butterflies in my belly. But quickly things started to happen. Ilshat was an addict and when he needed drugs, he became aggressive. He started beating me. One day I hid the money when he tried to get drugs. He became so angry, he took a knife and stabbed me in the stomach. I have a deep scar on my belly.

That’s the first time I left him. Then he spent a brief time in prison for dealing drugs. When he came out all calm and nice, we got back together. But soon after he burned my leg with a cigarette. I was crying, asking him to stop taking drugs. He became angry and wanted me to shut up.

I don’t know why he did it. He didn’t understand it either. He always begged me for forgiveness. He just went crazy and did things for no reason. After he burnt my leg I left him again, this time for good as I was six months pregnant. I knew it would be difficult alone, but I had to leave.

I came across Zhenya’s project by chance. Before I took part in this project, I thought I was alone with my problems and that other people didn’t really care. Zhenya was like a psychiatrist for me. I could tell my story, open my soul, and express my emotions. I was never able to do this with any of my friends. People are very judgmental and see you as a fool or brainless if you have suffered domestic violence.

I don’t usually have many insecurities but my self-esteem really suffered after what had happened. I have many scars: a deep scar on my belly, a burn on my leg, and the scars on my arms are from self harm. I wanted to kill myself because of the beatings.

I was embarrassed to go to the beach. I never wore short sleeves, even in the summer. I didn’t really feel proud of myself, but now I feel so confident. I am not afraid to show myself and I feel mentally and physically so much better right now."

Vika: "He would climb up the building to get into the window at night, turning the flat upside down, threatening me, hitting me."

Vika, 29

“My first tattoo covers the stab wound on my chest. It’s a butterfly, because butterflies stand for reincarnation and change of the soul. The second tattoo is on my arm. I chose a wolf for this one. In [Native American] tradition, a wolf means protection. He is my protector; he keeps me safe.

I first met Denis when I was 12 years old. He cornered me after school and said, ‘If you don’t kiss me, I won’t let you go.’ So I kissed him and we started dating. A few years later, he had to go to prison for eight years. When he came out, I had only just divorced my first husband, so I wanted to just be friends. But Denis could be very persuasive.

Soon after I fell pregnant with our son. [At] first, we were really happy but Denis’s family started to put doubts in his head. They were convinced that the baby wasn’t his. So one day Denis turned up at my work with his friend forced me into his car and brought me to the woods close by.

They were drinking vodka and tied me to a tree next to a hole in the ground. I could hear them discussing what they would do with me, and that they wanted to dump my body in the hole. Denis approached me with a knife in his hand and started playing with it around my belly. He tried to force me to admit that the baby wasn’t his.

The stress made me feel sick, and I persuaded him to untie me to vomit. This is when I tried to escape. But when I turned around, Denis had passed the knife to his friend who stabbed me in the chest, and then under the arm as I tried to fight him off.

Denis panicked when he saw the blood, put me in the car and drove me to the hospital. I nearly lost the baby. Denis’s mother begged me not to tell [police] that Denis asked his friend to stab me. I agreed under the condition that he signed an official document promising he would never approach me again.

He started getting into drugs—that’s when things got really bad. He would climb up the building to get into the window at night, turning the flat upside down, threatening me, hitting me. I tried once more to reason with him. I asked him: “Why did you want this baby? Why did you ask me to get pregnant?”

He told me that he wasn’t interested in the boy but wanted the child so I could never leave him. I got so angry that I hit him with a frying pan—he had to go to hospital. From then on things changed. I put bars on my windows, had a reinforced three centimeter steel door fitted, got a big dog, and blocked his number.

The following Christmas, he asked my permission to come to see Makar in a nursery play. He was very calm, hugged me, told me how much he loved me and apologized for everything he had put us through. The same night, he was [admitted] to hospital with head injuries. He died a few days later. I still feel that it was fair that he died—six years of torture are over.

I am not the only woman who suffers this. There are so many women like me. They are afraid to talk about their story. I want to share mine, so they know they are not alone.”