Indonesian Prisoners Are Turning to Religion and Removing Their Tattoos

With tattoos considered forbidden in Islam, religious groups are converting Indonesian prisoners through free tattoo removal.

by Muhammad Ishomuddin; translated by Annisa Nurul Aziza
12 July 2019, 2:00am

All photos by Muhammad Ishomuddin.

At first glance, it looks like any other classroom. The blue-walled room contains rows of wooden tables scratched with football club names and tags. But this room isn’t in an ordinary school: it’s in Porong Penitentiary in Sidoarjo, East Java. And the people sitting behind the desks aren’t students, but inmates.

What’s also unique about this class is how serious everyone is about making up for their mistakes. So much so that they’re here to remove tattoos to distance themselves from their pasts. This service is organized by a non-profit religious organization Go Hijrah, which regularly visits Porong Prison to offer free tattoo removal service.

When I stopped by, I found dozens of inmates queued in front of the classroom, all patiently waiting their turn while three volunteers prepared the laser tattoo removal machine. The device uses a laser to break down the ink particles embedded in the skin, so they’re small enough to be removed by the body. Then, once the machine is ready, the volunteers begin calling the prisoners’ names.

Amir was the first to step forward.

A Go Hijrah volunteer prepares to remove prisoners' tattoos. Photo by Muhammad Ishomuddin.

Alhamdulillah (praise be to God), I’m very grateful to the Go Hijrah team for taking the time to visit us,” he told VICE excitedly. Amir is 52 years old, from Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi. He is serving a six-year sentence for his involvement in a ship hijacking and is a regular to the program, having undergone the multi-step tattoo removal process five times. I glance at his arm to see a tattoo that’s been lasered to pale gray.

Inshallah [if God wills], my sentence will be over by the end of 2019. Hopefully, all the tattoos on my body and arms can be removed before I’m reunited with my family,” he said. He’s relaxed during our chat, and while the removal leaves a reddish mark, he doesn’t appear to be in pain.

Unlike Amir, 39-year-old David, who like many Indonesians goes only by one name, winces when the laser hits the tattoo on his shoulder for the first time. When I ask how it feels, he replies, “[The laser light is] so hot.” He’ll need to get used to it soon though, if he plans to get a large centipede removed from his stomach.

David began tattooing his body when he was 18. In the decades since, he’s marked every precious moment in his life with a tattoo. “I’ve never thought about the afterlife before. I was a rebel, so I did anything I pleased,” he said, holding the Quran to calm himself. He was jailed for six years for selling drugs and has served only half his sentence.

“Sometimes, when my family visits me, they will warn me not to get new tattoos. But I never wanted to do it. I want to remove my tattoos instead,” David said while looking at the fading tattoo.

Like many of the men in line, his decision to go through with the process was a result of his recent conversion to Islam. He came to the religion in 2018, to discover tattoos are considered haraam or forbidden. Since then, he’s been determined to remove all the ink from his body.

An inmate's back is covered in large black tattoos. Photo by Muhammad Ishomuddin.

Go Hijrah is only one of a dozen persistent religious movements in Indonesia offering tattoo removal services. The trend has been growing for the past six years. Most of the groups focus on prisoners, musicians, and street kids. The service is free of charge if participants are serious about making positive changes in their lives. For some, they may also add additional requirements like memorizing verses from the Quran.

Support for the service has been enthusiastic. Go Hijrah receives funding from across Indonesia, allowing them to deploy volunteers to different regions, providing mobile tattoo removal services, and holding events in poorer villages that are vulnerable to crimes. A Go Hijrah volunteer tells me a person needs to receive laser treatment somewhere between seven to 10 times for the best results.

This is all part of the broader Hijrah or Hegira movement – words that refer to migration in Arabic—but in Indonesia is interpreted as a process of returning to God’s ways. It’s widely seen as a way to invite people to explore Islam, without prohibiting music or hobbies.

The movement has attracted millions of people throughout Indonesia. Hijrah is so popular that when the second Hijrah Fest was held in Jakarta, roughly 20,000 people paid to attend the event. The monetisation of the practice and event has drawn criticism however, with some Islamic scholars and experts arguing it represents the “the commercialization of hijrah”.

Despite their concerns, it seems that increasing numbers of Indonesia’s Muslim youth are becoming more conservative. Social researcher Abdul Hair claims this cultural shift can be observed in what he calls “the domestic industry,” in which sales of “Muslim” health products, as well as clothing, have been increasing. “Industries have a mutually beneficial relationship with Hijrah movements,” wrote Hair. “The obedience in carrying out Islamic Sharia finds its realization in an industrial-based economy.”

Prisoners sit inside a classroom, either to remove their tattoos or attend a religious course. Photo by Muhammad Ishomuddin.

Despite the criticism, for those in Porong Prison, tattoo removal isn’t at all seen as a business. For volunteers, it’s a way to recruit people to God.

And for those like Ruis, one of Go Hijrah’s converts, tattoo removal is only a small step in a much larger personal quest. “I want to be a good Muslim,” he said smiling, before returning to read the Quran.

A Go Hijrah volunteer uses laser technology to remove a prisoner's tattoos. Photo by Muhammad Ishomuddin.

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.